How To Write a Thematic Statement

What is a Thematic Statement?

Robert McKee (STORY) calls it the Controlling Idea.  John Truby (THE ANATOMY OF STORY) calls it the Theme Line.  I call it a Thematic Statement. It is a sentence that takes a broad theme and condenses it to give a particular story a particular meaning.

Theme is the big concept of your story: love, honor, justice, betrayal, loyalty, family, courage, duty.  A Thematic Statement refines the broad idea to address   your Story Question. In doing so,  the Thematic Statement guides your characters in every choice they make and helps you, the writer, by providing a moral framework.

A Thematic Statement explains WHY characters act as they do.


~In the Harry Potter series, a theme is destiny. Harry is given two gifts: the gift of great talent and the gift of life. He’s the boy who lived. But these gifts are also burdens because he is destined to use his talents to save the lives of other people. So a thematic statement might be, “When your life and talents are a gift, it’s both a burden and a duty to use your life and talents for the good of others .”

~John Grisham’s THE CLIENT examines people in positions of trust, some by choice and some not. A thematic statement for THE CLIENT might be, “A person unfairly put in a position of trust might have to discard that position for his own survival.”

~For my pretend story BAD SALE, the thematic statement is, “An honorable person acts within his definition of honor.” The farmer’s sense of honor will be tested when  his desire to help his friend clashes with his desire to be a good citizen.

A Thematic Statement is the writer’s compass to what the characters consider right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust. Once this is established, the characters act accordingly.

In other words, a Thematic Statement is the conceptual soul of your story.

What thematic statement can be applied to your work in progress?


Tomorrow’s topic: How To Not Get Published

6 thoughts on “How To Write a Thematic Statement

  1. I have to plead guilty in some part to the “Better Idea” syndrome in the last 2-3 years. After spending nearly ten years working on the first and second novels in my historical series, I’ve gotten restless to explore some other ideas. So now I have one polished, ready-to-go book, three completed first drafts of other historical books where I began to bog down during the revisions, and one WIP which is a real departure, but one which I plan on seeing through this time. Completing and then polishing a novel is such a long slog that the temptation to find greener pastures is always there. Sometimes I envy folks in other fields, where a created work may take days or weeks to complete rather than months or even years.

    And fact-checking always scares me. I do my best, but with the historical novels in particular, I find that I am chronically insecure–one of the things, in fact, that led me to decide on a contemporary setting that I am very familiar with for my current WIP.

    Thanks as always, Ramona, for your words of wisdom. I’m so grateful to have you as my editor–you keep me honest and on my toes!


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