How To Write a Themed Story

RamonaGravitarWhat is a Themed Story?

A themed story is one written specifically to reflect a particular idea or concept.


You, the author, see a Call for Submissions for a magazine, contest, or short story anthology. The parameters of the Submissions Call lists word count, author eligibility, deadline—and a theme.

~ “This collection will include stories about Grand Canyon National Park.”

~ Or, “The June, 2019 of Write It Right will focus on fathers and sons.”

~ Or, “Send us your true tales of humorous holiday disasters.”

Editors of a publication, organizers of a conference, or judges in a writing contest limit entries or submissions by selecting a central idea for stories. A regional chapter of a national organization may want to publish a themed anthology that highlights their area. A journal may want to shine a spotlight on some particular social issue or historical event. A publisher may want to collect stories about a particular idea to make the finished product easier to market.

There are numerous reasons for calling for themed submissions. Here are some tips on writing for one.

  1. Understand the reason for the theme. When I edited Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology, the theme was “water where there might be fish.” The choice made sense because the sponsoring organization was the “Great Unpublished” chapter of Sisters in Crime, nicknamed the Guppies. The group name itself is a metaphor, so it was only right their first anthology follow their organizational bond. “Water where there might be fish” is a broad theme, so the stories ranged from ones that included characters slipping on goldfish, to ones set by a lake or pond.

Regional publications, such as literary magazines or anthologies from group chapters, will often seek submissions set in their region—a logical choice that not only highlights their home base but hones in on a market. A smart writer might seek a little-known or underserved event, or write in a specific or personal way about a unique spot in the area.

  1. Respect the theme. That means, it may not be a great idea to take any old story you’ve got moldering in a drawer, and revive it for a submission by plugging in the theme. If you’ve written a story set in the Florida Everglades, can you rewrite it in the Grand Canyon National Park? Is your Mother’s Day tribute to your mom going to work if you revise it as your best memories of Dad?  If you’ve written a story about clouds, does that mean it will work for a theme of storm clouds?

The theme was selected for a reason. Incorporating it in a meaningful way, rather than attempting a plug-in, will make a better story.

  1. Consider the parameters. Take a look at “humorous holiday disasters” as a story theme. If you see this and immediately think of the time you dropped the Thanksgiving turkey on the floor and your dog ran off with it, and your entire extended family chased him out of the yard, and you all ended up at your vegan neighbor’s house eating tofurkey barbeque—that’s matching the theme.

But if you write about the time you dropped the Thanksgiving turkey on the floor because Grandma had a heart attack and/or this gave Uncle Joe an excuse to get drunk and throw Aunt Betty’s cranberry jelly mold through the plate glass window—that’s a holiday disaster all right, but is it humorous?

In short, be sure you read all the words in the theme, and match them with your story.

  1. Consider the big idea. A theme like “humorous holiday disasters” is limiting; a theme like “oceans” or “fish” is expansive. Take the theme “stars,” for example. You can take a literal approach and write about a big ball of incandescent light in the sky. Or, you can take a metaphorical approach and write about a person who is in the limelight. Or, you can begin the story with a character listening to the song “Stars” from the musical Les Miserables and is somehow inspired by it.

A theme is a box. You can think inside the box, outside the box, or you can open the box and crawl out of it carrying a thread.

  1. Write a good story. You can stick to the letter of a theme, but if your story isn’t well written, with an engaging idea and entertaining presentation, it’s not going to fly–even if the theme is “wings.”

In addition to editing Fish Tales, I’ve successfully written to theme a few times. My story “Trust” received the Fiction Writing Award for the Writers at the Beach: Seaglass 2008 conference and was published in Delaware Beach Life magazine. The theme was “oceans.”

Have you written or are trying to write to a theme? Any thoughts or advice to share? I’m listening.

8 thoughts on “How To Write a Themed Story

  1. I write to themes a lot, Ramona. It is frustrating at times because the tone of the piece has to match what the editors are looking for. Are the stories supposed to be humourous?Sometimes the only clues are in how they have written the theme’s description, and sometimes the editors want a cross section of from humor to dark–which is very confusing–because the description won’t give you any clues. I’d rather that they specify because writing a good story only to find out that it doesn’t match the demeanor they were looking for is disappointing and only proves that they haven’t express themselves clearly. Overtness is greatly appreciated by me.


    1. E.B. you bring up good points, the gist of which I can sum up this way: As with any other submission, there is only so much the writer–and the editors–can control, because you are competing with other writers. You, and the editors, cannot predict how many humorous Thanksgiving stories you’ll get as opposed to Christmas ones. The collection will need to provide a range, but how could you control that? The theme can’t include, “please provide a wide range of holidays” because no one knows what another writer will choose. Using my own advice of writing about a specific locale–what if two other authors have the same idea about the same locale?

      Having been on both sides of the aisle, as both writer and editor, I can tell you that a great part of any selection process is a crapshoot. There’s no way to predict what will be sent in for consideration, so to say “we are looking for a cross section” won’t solve that problem.

      So while you have to write a good story, which you can control, you are still competing against other writers writing good stories, which you can’t control. This is publishing, but yes, indeed frustrating.


  2. I like to write to themes because it gives me a starting point, a table to plop the shapeless clay onto and then start shaping it.

    We thought we were making the theme pretty narrow when we asked for stories for our anthology about women getting even with men. Never realized how many women we know who are gleefully homicidal!


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