Finding your Theme in the story of You

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Whether it’s in real life, or in a dream
You can’t hide from your recurring Theme!

Finding your theme in the story of you

I know your type. After reading The Story Grid, you have become a loyal listener of the podcasts and are now devouring the weekly editor blog posts. You come here eagerly awaiting the solid storytelling perspective that makes you rush back and re-think everything you’ve written in order to improve your story. Or maybe, this is your first time here because you’ve heard such great things. Well, don’t think I’m going to take it easy on you. We’re not going to allow you to stay in the comfort of analysis forever.

A few weeks ago Anne and Leslie invited you through a secret side door into the Story Grid vault so you could discover your story’s emotional core.

This week I’m going to help you uncover your story’s THEME.

I imagine right about now your chest is tightening, your palms are sweating, and your heart rate is increasing. So, this is your final warning. It’s not going to be sunshine and cupcakes, though that sounds delicious. You can leave right now if you prefer to keep hoping that the lovely muse will swoop down and do the work for you, just know you will stay forever unchanged while you wait. But if you stick around, despite your growing anxiety, you will see that I am right beside you as we descend into the dark, cold, long neglected basement.

And I’m not talking about the Story Grid basement, I’m talking about YOURS.

I have experienced the daunting task of finding my story’s theme. My bookshelves overflowed with hand-written spirals full of my novel. No matter how many times I read or re-wrote it, explaining what my story was about felt impossible. I mean…I just wrote the movies I saw inside my head. I had no idea what they meant or where they came from. Any attempt to state a theme felt like I was wrestling my story into a headlock and forcing a bogus statement on it. It had my head spinning.

And then I realized I had been going about it backwards. I was trying to slap a theme on my stories before I understood anything about myself.

Why is Theme so confusing?

In The Story Grid, Shawn uses the words “Theme” and “Controlling Idea” interchangeably. Getting to the message of your story takes courage and patience, “But once the controlling idea of the Story becomes concrete for the writer…the Story will come to life. Problems will resolve themselves. Decisions will become much easier to make and the work becomes far more pleasurable.” The Story Grid.

Theme is like a warm glowing beacon of light radiating the message of YOUR ENTIRE STORY from the inside out. You can’t see it, can’t touch it, can’t smell it and it’s never stated, but to deeply affect your reader you must have it.

“You may have imagined the most charismatic protagonist, the most detailed and inviting setting and the perfect foil, but without a clear understanding of what it is you are trying to get across to the reader, you’ll never hear the magic words…’your book changed my life.’ And trust me. Every writer I’ve ever worked with would die happy to hear someone tell him that. Even just once.” – Shawn Coyne, The Big Takeaway

People read books and watch movies because they want to feel an experience. The magic of storytelling is that the reader gets to live vicariously through your characters to feel love, loss, heartbreak, adrenaline, and excitement all from the safety and comfort of their homes.

But it’s not always just entertainment people are looking for. Shawn wrote an entire post talking about how stories change lives.

“We need stories to temper our anxieties, either as supporting messages to stay as we are or inspiring road maps to get us to take a chance. Experiencing stories that tell the tale of protagonists for whom we can empathize gives us the courage to examine our own lives and change them.” – Shawn Coyne, How Stories Save Lives

As writers we have a tremendous responsibility to tell stories that not only entertain, but might also profoundly inspire the lives of others. No pressure!

For many of us, the reason we write is that we have something to say about life and we want others to see the world the way we do.

That something we want to say is the controlling idea/theme—it says something about life and how life changes—and it needs to resonate throughout the story.

But if you don’t know what you want to say, then no one will know what you’re saying.

Right about now some of you will want to argue that you don’t need to have a theme because your story is art and is meant to be interpreted by the reader. And that’s totally fine! But maybe, just maybe that’s fear talking. Fear that you might not know yet what you want to say.

I totally understand! It’s hard stuff. We’ve all heard it before…write out your theme in one single clear, concise sentence and paste it above your desk as a reminder of what your story is about. But how do you find your theme?

My Journey

In order for our stories to resonate with others, they have to get personal. It’s only fair that I go first.

I reluctantly came out to my family when I was 22 years old and it’s mild to say it didn’t go over well. Anytime I tried to talk about my feelings, the distance between us increased. Eventually I realized I could go home but not be myself or I could stay away. And honestly, for a very long time, I did a lot of both.

And denying to be my truest self rippled in every direction of my life. I had very little contact with a family, whom I missed. I was in a career that didn’t make me happy. I was in a relationship that was full of conflict. And with my second novel, I felt in my bones my epic fantasy story was a series and yet I shoved that thought away and forced it all into one novel. Needless to say I had spent more than two years re-writing a story that didn’t entirely work.

My novel is a Middle Grade Action Epic Savior/Worldview Maturation story with a 9 year-old gender fluid protagonist. Early in the story, she is told it is her responsibility to save her people from destruction and death. She fulfills her duty in a way that doesn’t feel right for her, and (Spoiler alert!) dies in the process. Because she goes along with someone else’s plan, a chain reaction of more destruction is unleashed. She finds herself reincarnating over and over through different time periods, different bodies, and different genders in order to right the wrong that never should have been. Through her experiences her worldview changes and she comes to realize that although she couldn’t before, she must now be true to herself.

It wasn’t until last summer when I was once again trying to “figure out” what this story was about that I realized through my fictional stories I had been writing about my own life. I had been completely clueless. I wrote Action fantasy stories not memoirs. But it was loud and clear that the theme of my story paralleled my own life.

My character’s struggle and the Theme of my story = Be true to yourself

My biggest struggle = Being true to myself

That discovery shocked the hell out of me, but it also meant I had to make a decision.

I could stay where I was and be untrue to myself or I could move forward being only my truest self.

It was hard, but I chose the latter. A few months ago, my family and I reconnected, and I found myself being only my truest self around them, and we had a wonderful time. I have shifted careers by becoming a certified Story Grid editor, and I love it. I am now in an amazing relationship with a very supportive partner. And, trusting my original intuition, I am expanding my fantasy novel into a six-book series.

How the Stages of Grief and Story Relate

“Consciously or not, we are all on a quest for answers, trying to learn the lessons of life.” Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Realizing my stories were reflecting my life, I thought, why don’t I reflect on my life to write my stories!

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a psychiatrist who spent a lot of time with people who were nearing the end of their lives. She wrote the book On Death and Dying where she proposed the Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. She later expanded her model to include any form of personal loss such as the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, your political candidate losing an election, living with addiction and more. Even sports fans process grief when their favorite team loses “the big game.”

We go through these stages every time we are faced with any kind of conflict, change, or loss in our own lives and in our stories. I know now that I was stuck in many of these stages for long periods of time before I became aware that “Be True to Myself” was the theme in my story and my life.

Stories are about change and the characters in our stories experience the same ups and downs as we do. While Kübler-Ross proposed the Five Stages of Grief, Joseph Campbell wrote about the hero’s journey. Shawn saw the correlation between their work and expanded the five stages of grief into eight stages and named it the Kübler-Ross Change Curve for Story. In fact he wrote an extensive post that breaks down each stage called Stories are About Change.

And if you want to dive further into the Eight Stages of Grief Writing, listen to the Story Grid podcast episode called Change Requires Loss.

Speak your Truth

“What I know for sure is speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.” – Oprah Winfrey (Golden Globes, 2018)

At our editor training in September, Shawn validated my personal discovery. About an hour into day one he said, “Here’s a secret. The first novel any of us write is really a shadow of our internal pursuit of truth. So the characters that people are writing, if it’s their first novel, are usually themselves.”

In my case and maybe for most writers, it’s not just our first novels that are about ourselves, or at least we don’t need to limit it to only our first novels. It makes complete sense that a piece of ourselves, our experiences, our worldviews trickle into our characters, our stories, and the outcomes we want our stories to have.

If we want our stories to have an effect on others, they must resonate on a personal level. And if they must resonate on a personal level, then we must look within to find those true challenging places.

I brought up the Kübler-Ross Change Curve for Story because it provides a clear expression of the changes characters (and people) go through when they process some sort of loss or change in their life.

The Kübler-Ross Story Curve for Change is a tool to help you identify a stage where you may feel stuck in your life (or had been at some point) in order to reflect on your characters and connect a possible theme for your story.

Does a particular challenge or deep wound come to mind? Where on the Kübler-Ross Story Curve for Change are you stuck? And where do you want to be?

Can you envision a character who is stuck in that same place, but wants to grow/heal/learn/change and must travel on their own hero’s journey, through the ups and downs until they are finally able to Choose and Integrate the new way of living? The story can end positively or negatively.

Or maybe you already see a parallel in your life to your protagonist. Is there a common theme that is emerging?

From there perhaps you will discover your own “Be True to Myself” theme.

Write what you want to Learn

I honor your courage and openness to face the parallels in your stories and your life. Not many people in the world will go to these deep places. But as writers, we must push ourselves to crack open our own basement door so others may feel a little braver to face their own.

My writing mentor, colleague, and friend Jenna Avery often says, “we teach what we’re here to learn.”

I encourage you to write what you want to learn.

And there’s no better place to start than by exploring the theme in the “Story of You.”

Don’t be hard on yourself to put your Controlling Idea/Theme into the perfect words on your first or even 100th try. Focus your time figuring out what the heart of your story is rather than polishing a perfect sentence. Sharing what’s inside of your head and heart with the world is more important.

If you’re true to yourself and do the work, there’s no story you can’t write.

“I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write.”  – Elizabeth Gilbert

In case a theme is stirring for you already, here are a few more posts to help guide you on some next steps.

For more practice, read Anne and Leslie’s post Discover Your Story’s Core. They guide you to look at your story’s emotional core and see what kind of internal genres inspire you.

Did so many themes in your life inspire you that you’re not sure which one to write about? Kim’s post about Vetting your Book Ideas will help you test, narrow down, and choose a story you can write over the long haul.

And if you need guidance to get started and stay on track: Maya provided some solid advice about Heading into 2018 with a Writing Plan that Works.


*Thank you to the amazing Leslie Watts for editing this post and to all my fellow editors for engaging in this deep discussion!






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About the Author

Courtney is a novelist, screenwriter, film industry veteran, world traveler and Resistance Whisperer. She is currently writing the Story Grid editor’s analysis for Ready Player One and completing the first book in her Middle Grade fantasy series. It includes reincarnation, gender fluidity and a magic crystal. She believes we infuse our stories with the experiences that shape us and she helps authors mine those experiences and discover the stories only they can tell.
Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
by Shawn Coyne
What are the first principles in writing a story that works? At Story Grid, it’s easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on and on. However, all of this eventually comes back to five first principles. In Story Grid 101, Story Grid founder Shawn Coyne distills 30 years... Read more »
Paperback: $19.99
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Audiobook: $14.99
Author Courtney Harrell


Karen B (@sabaceanbabe) says:

Thank you for a great post, and I’m looking forward to reading your fantasy series. It sounds awesome!

Lori Puma says:

I love how much clarity there is about your book now, Courtney. Having it be that concise means that I can remember it. Cause, when I’m talking books with my friends who love gender-bending fantasy, I want to be tell them enough so that they will follow you. 🙂

Courtney Harrell says:

Awesome! I’m so glad it came through and I can’t wait to share them. 🙂

Georgina Green says:

Great article. I love the way you write, it makes us feel like we know you.
Your fantasy series sounds really interesting. Are there any other novels about gender fluidity that you’d recommend?


Thank you for your great article – but it was quite a shock to suddenly realize that what you say applies exactly to some of my own writing. Look forward to discovering your books.

Courtney Harrell says:

I totally understand! My discovery was a shock to me, as well. And also a very needed discovery. I look forward to sharing my stories with you.

Violet says:

Thank you Courtney!
Your story went straight to the heart and gave this writer a clear focus on theme.
Well done.

Mary Ann says:

What an emotional article Courtney. I really felt the journey you’d taken and used several tissues along the way. I would love my readers to be able to have an emotional attachment to my own stories as I did yours. Thank you so much for sharing and I look forward to more of these exceptional articles and/or books.

Mary Ann

Courtney Harrell says:

Thank YOU, Mary Ann. You just made me feel emotional with your words. I know your readers will have an emotional attachment to your stories. Keep saying what’s in your heart, your heart never lies.

Lyn says:

Spoken from the heart, Courtney, and what you said about theme couldn’t be more true. Inside each writer, there’s a purpose and a message just waiting to be told. Sharing our experiences through fiction or nonfiction can change readers’ lives. You explained it so well and the quotes were moving too. Thank you so much for this post and for reminding us why we write.

Courtney Harrell says:

Thank YOU for writing and for sharing yourself and your experiences with the world!

Lorraine says:

Hi Courtney,
Thank you for this amazing article. There were quite a few ‘Aha’ moments as I read it. It’s printed and is part of my reference library.

Courtney Harrell says:

Wow Lorraine! I am honored to be printed in your reference library. Truly. Thank you for reading and I am so happy it is helpful. 🙂

Jonathan Clark says:

Oh God! me too! Just realised that the 3rd novel in my series has the same underlying theme as the first two, and its the story of my life! I’m feeling vulnerable and inspired and a bit thick all at the same time 🙂


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