When Choosing Themes, Write What You Don’t Know

by Emily Wenstrom | 33 comments

We all know the adage “write what you know.” It’s good advice. It’s a solid approach to relatable characters and descriptions that feel real.

But when it comes to themes, this is not good advice. When it comes to themes, write what you don’t know. In fact, it’s one of the best paths to a key element of great fiction: complexity.

Choosing Themes: Write What You Don't Know

Photo by Ethan Lofton

But how do you identify what you don’t know? Here’s three questions to help identify powerful themes:

What bothers you?

Joss Whedon cites his dissatisfaction with how women were portrayed in the media as the inspiration for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  He was unhappy with women’s victimization, and their portrayal as weak, emotionally and physically.

We all have things like this that we see in our everyday lives that just get under our skin. What triggers this in you? What gets you ranting?

Got it? Good. Now… go ahead and rant. What story could you tell that would show others what you see?

What ethical dilemmas do you struggle with?

Some things in life are simple black and white. Others are caught deep in the grays.

For example, what should be done about a man who steals a loaf of bread to keep his family from starving? What about a woman who becomes a prostitute to keep her daughter safe? I think Victor Hugo would agree, there’s no end to the potential commentary on these moral dilemmas.

So what ethical issues do your wrestle with? Consider the different sides and get writing.

What scares you?

And I don’t mean just heights (then again—Vertigo). What really gets under your skin about our world? What keeps you awake at night and makes you fear for the next generation?

Perhaps, for example, Edward Snowden scandal triggered something in you. The fear of government monitoring is a classic, just ask Big Brother.

Whether it’s government security or something entirely different, once you identify it, ask yourself—Why does this thing scare you? What’s the worst that could happen? Let your imagination run wild and watch the consequences unfold. That’s the beginnings of a story right there.

The best literary works prompt questions and discussions rather than give the answer. When you start with a question instead of a thesis, you’re off to a strong start.

So now you’ve identified your thematic hot spots, so let your imagination run wild as you examine it from every angle you can think of. Feed it on “what ifs,” and turn back to your core questions when you get stuck.

Don’t, however, let it constrict your story—who knows where you might end up.  But with a solid thematic foundation, it’s sure to bloom into rich complexity.

How do you get started to identify themes for your writing?


Choose one of the three questions above and answer it. For fifteen minutes, explore your answer and write about how you could turn it into a story. Then, share it in the comments!

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By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.


  1. Juan

    I believe writing about something you fear is an extremely useful technique. If correctly written, your story should transfer that feeling of dread you feel towards something to the reader, and that’s exactly what you aim for as a writer. You’d also be able to create believable situations around said issue because if it’s believable enough for you to fear, then in most cases it should also be believable enough to whoever reads it. Note that irrational fears do sometimes happen, and in those cases maybe it’s not as easy. You could, however, write a story about how that “irrational” fear just happens to be true after all, and what consequences would that bring to the protagonist, either psychological or physical.

    • Emily Wenstrom

      Fun idea, thanks Juan. Sounds like you’ve got some interesting horror stories in you.

    • Sandra

      well put.

  2. Coach Brown

    What scares me flows into the story I am writing. How can my curiosity be received by others? When do questions step upon the toes of others? When is it right to proceed in the pursuit of what is right? Is a burning thirst to find truth permission to push yourself into relationships? What risks can arise from persisting to quench the thirst that drives you?

    I wrestle with these fears and questions in this story. There is conflict that arises between those who encourage the main character to find the answers he is seeking because they have been afraid to ask themselves. And then there are those who fear sends up roadblocks and restricts the search through detours. But the passion of the pursuit always finds a way through the conflict.

    So I wonder, how many of us ponder in their own life, is the pursuit of truth and doing right for the good of others worth conflict along the journey? How many around us root for someone else to carry the banner into the battle but we want to follow close enough to see what is revealed, but far enough away from the risk of harm that causes us from leading the charge ourselves.

    Is this a drama that draws us into stories where conflict is the price for doing what is right for the good of others at the risk of personal assault?

    The call to follow me has been echoed for centuries, but how many are merely observers in the rear ranks versus fellow participants sharing the risk of battle?

    Just a few thoughts that stem from personal experience.


    • Sandra

      I have had very similar issues and so I can relate to what you are saying.

  3. High Wire Girl

    I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading about children raised in alcoholic households. It’s fascinating stuff. Not every piece of information I’ve come across on my fact-finding mission mirrors my upbringing, but lots of the material is familiar.

    Self-help books are tricky. They contain case studies that outline developmental patterns among individuals exposed to certain environmental conditions. They lay it all out there, and the reader can decide whether the data is useful or bullshit. Sure, it sounds really scientific, and I kinda dig that angle. I’m impressed with myself that I actually know what any of these words mean when they’re grouped together like this. Plus, I’m in a pretty good place emotionally. I think that’s a big bonus.

    I appreciate learning more about what went on behind the scenes in our alcoholic home and the subsequent ripple effect of behavior. I’m just careful not to get too wrapped up in all the details. My familial dysfunction doesn’t keep me warm at night. I do not regret the past, nor do I wish to shut the door on it.* I live in the present, and I am a work in progress. I recognize my good fortune. With God’s grace, I got sober and every day, I manage to stay that way. I look toward the future with hopeful confidence. I just prefer to do it in 24-hour increments so I don’t get too ahead of myself.

    When I write, I try to be careful to not turn the privilege of sharing very intimate details into a shit-slinging contest. If Big Mare were still alive, I’d probably not be at liberty to retell these accounts with such freedom. I do feel as though I am respectful with the sensitive material. I try to present my version of the truth in an honest and loving way. I cherish my mother’s memory. I also know that she’d bust my ass in half if she ever thought I was making things up.

    My past is full of moments that have already happened. Nothing I do or say can change that reality. Sure, not everything was awesome. Big deal. Thinking about some of these experiences still blows my mind. I want to write down as many memories as I can. I’m not ashamed that they occurred. It’s what I do with what I’m learning that’s important. I want to share these things. I think it helps.

    No matter what went on in our family – good, bad or off-the-charts insane, I can appreciate that my parents did the very best they could. When I recognize this simple concept and approach my memories with forgiveness in my heart, it can open doors to great emotional progress.

    I tell you what… Sometimes when I read what I’ve written, I think I sound really smart. I need to be careful about that. I’m no expert. Last time I checked, I’m just a girl with a bunch of stories.

    * The Promises of Recovery

    My blog is here at: http://www.highwiregirl.blogspot.com.

    • Emily Wenstrom

      Sounds like you have a lot to share, and are very aware of the risks of writing about such personal things. So important–but don’t underestimate the power of your experiences, either.

    • High Wire Girl

      Thank you, Emily for your kind comments. When I started writing some of these stories down last year, I had no idea my conscience would feel so conflicted. I try to remember to just write what’s mine to share. That seems to work out as far as not stepping on anybody’s else’s toes. It has forced me to examine myself more honestly, as well. Who knew? 🙂

    • Adelaide Shaw

      You seem to have found the courage to write about difficult things in your life. For now, so as not to antagonize anyone, perhaps the most painful memories should be kept in a journal just for you.
      If you want to put these events into a story, I would suggest changing the settings, the genders of the characters, the location.
      I have used memories about family members in my stories.I changed the situation such that the kernel of the incident is there and the theme, but not actual details that family would recognize.
      I hope this helps.

    • High Wire Girl

      Wow, Adelaide. You are so right, and your words do help. I have only been writing with myself as both the hero and villain. There are lots of stories within myself, but other characters are involved to certain degrees. That’s when it gets tricky. I am not looking for confrontation. I rather enjoy that my writing is a peaceful thing. Fictionalizing some of these episodes is a way to protect everyone. I will try it.

    • Sandra

      sounds like you have been working through this a lot. I have similar family problem and it very hard to write about it. Everytime I do I just get a flare up of strong emotions, need to do purge writing and some point just to clear it out. And also I feel similar as far as once you’re grown up and it has happened to you, it is sort of an uncomfortable feeling that there is really nothing I can legitimately do, I mean the past, the childhood didn’t go well, and now there is nothing really to be done, but be an adult now, and that doesn’t always feel right.

    • High Wire Girl

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me, Sandra. Childhood memories are really challenging, but I’m finding they open up great opportunities to understand myself and others from a more mature perspective. I do appreciate the grit of the truth, though. It sheds dramatic light on the whole story.

  4. R.w. Foster

    I frequently hear, and see, folks talk about the importance of theme in writing. From a personal perspective, I’d say it’s not important at all. My reason is this: I wouldn’t know a theme if one slapped me. Mathematically speaking, I can’t be the only one like this, so why do so many swear it is a big deal? It it the latest fad, like ripping on -ly adverbs?

    • Sandra

      Also I think if I were to sit down and try to put a theme down, if I weren’t careful about it, it could be preachy. But then again, Aesop Fables in my opinion work out marvelously and are very enjoyable.

  5. TheCody

    My biggest struggle over the past couple years has been faith. Admittedly, I’m in the middle of a huge faith crisis, and am trying to figure out exactly what works for me.

    Consequently, many of my recent story ideas have been about characters in the midst of faith crises.

    My most recent short story (that I’ve just begun) is about a priest who decides he’s atheist. The idea actually came to me during an exercise here. I thought it might be interesting to throw a person of faith into a situation like that. However, he’s still a good person who tries to do what is right. On top of that, he loves being a priest, which creates more inner conflict.

    I’m not sure exactly which direction I’m going to take it at that point. Part of me wants to put him in a confessional (which is what I did for the exercise) while part of me wants to put him through a grueling Sunday.

    When it’s all said and done, I’m not entirely sure what the stories will do for me. If anything, it’s therapeutic writing about people in potentially worse situations than mine. And writing about the things that worry me relieves pressure.

    • Emily Wenstrom

      I’m the same way, I tend to gravitate toward themes and characters whose struggles are similar to my own, even if in other ways they are very different from me. The manuscript I’m working on righ tnow has some faith/religion elements to it, too.

    • Sandra

      I really like this idea for a story. I mean the church through the ages was a place for people to come, to drop down their worries and to be a part of something. It gave tremendous purpose to people I think. But in a sense that part of church is over. There is still a church, but I think it is not the same as before. If you look at fast food chains, many are actually in the shape of a temple or church, tugging on peoples desires to fulfill this need, no longer really being fulfilled in society. That and in general I think that many people have became more confused about their beliefs. For one there is a choice. And so some people are looking at what they see and are taught and something feels like a disconnect or contradiction. I have felt that way at least. I have been in many different church societies in my life. But at some point felt they were all wrong for me and so I left. But I think this is a topic that has many interesting avenues to be worked through that would be of benefit to many. Even people who don’t consider themselves religious, because it is in our roots, and our ancestry to have this religious group for ourselves.

  6. Guest

    What Scares Me?

    What scares me? Lots of
    things, but one of the most fearsome things I have ever dealt with is
    the fear of being homeless. I don’t mean just not having a roof over
    my head and living out of my car, but being out on the street with
    nothing but the clothes on my back – no money, no job, and no one
    willing to give me a hand up, or a chance.

    I have lived out of my car
    before. It was scary enough. I lived out of a 2004 Chevy Malibu for
    about 2 weeks. It was in 2005, my wife at the time and my daughter
    had moved from Colorado back to Phoenix and I followed them a few
    days later. She lived with her parents. They didn’t think much of
    me, so I was left to my own devices.

    I lived out of the car in
    some of the hottest parts of summer. It took everything I had just
    to keep gas in the car until I got a job working as a temp. At night
    I slept with the windows up and the doors locked. I never felt safe.
    Every night I would drive to the parking lot of a different store
    and sleep until I was run off. I used to joke my street address was
    Wal-Mart. I tried to hide my fear with humor. It didn’t work.

    My wife and daughter would
    come visit me, occasionally bringing me money for gas and a few
    meals. I hated my family seeing me like this. I especially hated my
    daughter seeing me like this. I felt like a failure in her eyes.
    Slowly, I pulled myself up again. It wasn’t easy, but I did it.

    Eventually, my wife and
    daughter moved into an apartment and though my wife didn’t really
    want me to stay there at first, she eventually relented and let me
    move back in with them. I lost the car because we couldn’t afford
    it, but I had a home again. I don’t like feeling like there is no
    where I belong, I hope I never feel that way again.

    The fear of being homeless
    is omnipresent with me. It colors much of what I do. I often skimp
    of things just so can be sure of keeping my rent paid. I would love
    to get a car again, but not if it costs me my shelter. I can handle
    walking, I don’t think I could handle being truly homeless. I
    understand the homeless people who come into my store. I empathize
    with them, because I am close enough to the edge that I can see the
    drop-off and the long fall to the bottom.

    It is a shame in this
    country that anyone has to be homeless or even face the fear of
    possibly being homeless. In this land of plenty, how is it that many
    still don’t have enough for even the simplest of things, like a home?
    All of these empty buildings just collect dust and instead of using
    them to help people get back on their feet, we just allow them to
    collect dust in pursuit of the possibility of profit.

    That is just wrong.

    • James Alfred

      I understand where you are coming from. Thanks for sharing. I have been there a little different but I have been there.

  7. Sandra

    Someone today asked me what really irks me about the world and to write a little about it. And so I am thinking about it and there is absolutely nothing wrong. Everything is so perfect. People are running around holding harps and dancing through a meadow, singing with the birds about the beauty in the earth and everywhere. We don’t have a conflict that is splitting us to our very center.

    But if I were to picture a place that wasn’t quite so nice as ours, maybe a world that had developed technologically in amazing ways but psychologically full of half developed people hiding, rather than the lions of their understandings in the sciences. They would be wounded people and yet moving on in very busy lives as if there was no scars. Never resting, or stopping, questioning. There would never be time to stop and ask why either. And there would be entertainment for when people weren’t busy, so that they wouldn’t have to stop even for a moment and think about the wound.

    Except when a person through events around them is in a situation where they have to. To stop and take take stock of the damage that has been manifested in everything.

    It would be a society, schizophrenic in a sense, where in the defense of their emotional pain they would take out their hatred, sorrow, and other feelings too intense to take, on the environment around them. The earth, the plants the animals, and other people. The animal life would plummet, and the animals useful to these people would be kept in small confines and forced to live the same tortured existence that they did.

    People would no longer turn to nature, go to the meadows, groves, and sacred forests we have where the whole universe is there for us. No they would turn away from everything that made them feel more pain, and many would prescribed medicine for numbing. The doctors of these medicines would be extremely respected, even though they are just the opposite of the medicine men and women of our world.

    But fortunately that is not the case for us. Because everything is just great.

    • Emily Wenstrom

      Love this. I like how you turned the premise on its head.

    • Sandra

      thank you 🙂

  8. James Alfred

    What scares me?
    I am going to say my son. Not so much that he can hurt me, he is only four years old. But the world he will have to grow up in. There are things out there that will destroy him. The freaks that love to look at the little ones like they are a toy.

    You know where I am coming from. They are not safe. My son loves to play outside but I am standing not far from him. I don’t go to far from him. If i step in the house I am only in there for no more than 5 mins. I just really don’t understand how this world turned so bad so fast.

    I also don’t want my son to have to grow up being broke. I have been there, hell i am there now. I haven’t work in over three months. Living off my mother until I can find something. I don’t like that all. I want to get back out on my own and live free. Not saying that it is all bad here. But some days it can. I have started a nice little nets egg for him, that he will get when he turns 21. That’s if I am still here by then. But I am sure someone in the goverment will try to take it from him.

    This is just the way I feel. You know what happen to good old fashion hard working people and business that would take a chance on a person because they needed a job. Not because they wanted a job. I go to school every day work my a– off and carry a 4.0 GPA. I do it because I want to able to show my son, stay in school get a great grade it will pay off someday.

    For only being four he knows a lot already. He knows how to save his money and to work for it. Doing small things around the house of course. LOL I hope that I can make things happen soon for him.

    Thank you

    • Emily Wenstrom

      Thanks for sharing, James. I imagine that this is a fear that would resound with so, so many people.

  9. Adelaide Shaw

    I don’t think you need to have a theme chosen before you begin to write.I have never written a story in which I had chosen a theme first. I don’t know the theme until after the story is written.One story recently published began because I had seen a small, shabby restaurant and wondered what it was like when new. When finished the theme that had developed was about commitment to family. This is a theme which seems to develop in many of my stories, although the characters, setting, plots are all different.
    Loyalty is another theme which developed after I began a story about two old friends quarreling.

    • Emily Wenstrom

      That is definitely another way to do it! I’ve heard of writers who work both ways. Personally, I tend find a spark of a character first, but then as I plot, knowing the themes I want to explore helps me give the story’s progression focus and momentum.

  10. Dawn Atkin

    Ethical Dilemma

    ‘Boat People’ the media calls them. ‘Queue Jumpers’ the naysayers shout. ‘Illegals’ the concerned righties label them. Yet to me they are ‘refugees’. The fear mongering to the masses finds firm footings and political punch by screeching about the potential of disease, terrorism, loss of jobs, cultural invasion.

    These people arrive cramped and barely fed on rusty old boats not fit for crossing seas and international borders. To undertake such risky journeys in the hope for a better life must require good reason. To me this is a humanitarian issue. These people are running from political and religious persecution, war, famine, and more. Yet we greet their arrival as if they are the enemy. We use armed services to police them and deliver them to camps to process them. Camps with high walls, barbed wired and high security. Prisons.

    We are a lucky, rich, developed nation. Yet with greed and fear rooted in racism, we treat the needy and frightened from other countries as criminals.

    I see them as people. Humans with basic needs of shelter and food, desires for better lives and education and the opportunity to work and live without fear of death, war or persecution.

    These people are ‘humanitarian refugees’. And the way my country is treating this presents me with an ethical dilemma.

    My possible story
    I met Fatima at work at the Migrant Resource Centre. She is a shy woman and sits quietly at the weekly group as we discuss child health and pre-schooling options. One day she stayed after the group had finished and shyly asked if we could talk for a little while. As we sat in the small meeting room that day I had no idea my life was about to be turned upside down. As Fatima began to share her story the walls of my do-good world began to crumble.

    As we move week by week in to the future of an increasingly angry anti boat people society, Fatimas story weaves back through time. Until the day that both of the timelines collide and the bitter and shocking outcomes of a contemporary riot mirror the historic events of Fatimas homeland. I am forced to make a decision. As history repeats itself I am forced to ask which society is more or less civil, and for which ‘peoples’ will I stand.

  11. Patience

    what bothers me is the assumption by other women that I have the same opinions and experience as them simply because I am a woman.
    I have challenged myself to walk as closely in other women’s shoes as I could in particular situations that others would consider stupid or just plain dangerous. What I have achieved is a kind of equal distance from both the safe women I previously knew, and those who are struggling with their particular restrictive relationships.
    I would like to find a way to bridge the understanding for each to allow greater change for each and all.
    Do I have an audience for my issues? undoubtedly if I continue the stereotypes.
    Are their consequences for others around me if I write about my experience? This is probably what scares me.
    Is my own belief that things could be better strong enough to convince others to reconsider their own prejudices and follow the journey?
    For that I feel I need a couple of mentors to guide me through different ways of writing, strategizing, and protecting privacy so the issue is not the total life, but just a viable one for review and change. The writing strands are fiction formats for wide dissemination, with research and academic thoroughness to guide policy and professional support. No small task, no small issue, and perhaps not as gender-based as many would like to make it either. But we all have to start somewhere.

    • 709writer

      I agree with you completely on the point you made about other women thinking you have the same opinions because you’re a woman. It can be irritating.

    • M

      I am right there with you when you talk about the consequences for others (as well as myself) when writing about personal experiences. How do we do it?

  12. 709writer

    Though I am very careful, I’m afraid of being raped. One of my characters is almost raped, so I guess that situation came out of my own fear.

  13. Stella

    Thanks for the post. Stumbled upon it quite some time after you wrote it, I know. I have been trying to write stories based on themes and it’s a delicate balance not coming across as too preachy. It’s true, I realise that most of my stories sprang from something I didn’t like about the world or about existing stories. Eg I recently finished a story about terrorism because I felt I had something to say about it that no one else was saying.

    One problem I face in writing themes I don’t know is sensitivity. Eg I wanted to write about racism, but as the majority in my society, I don’t have an authentic experience of that. Only snippets of experience from what friends tell me. Any tips on this problem? (I guess the answer would be ‘research’, but then the next problem is how to ask people to share about sensitive issues.)

  14. Nicoli Redmayne

    Stumbled upon your site while researching themes , good stuff here, thank you! Best of luck to you.



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