Allowing Theme To Develop Itself: #3 of Pixar Storytelling

I’m blogging my way through Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling as compiled by Emma Coates, Pixar storyboard artist.  It’s been a ton of fun so far and I love seeing how many of you comment, tweet, and add to the discussion! I haven’t missed a day yet, so that’s a miracle in itself. See my initial post on this blog challenge and the first two rules in sidebar to the right to catch up!

So here’s the 3nd rule of storytelling from Pixar and Emma Coates:

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

This rule strikes me as a complicated one with lots of “if”s, “and”s, and “but”s. A few “however”s should probably also be applied. The principle is a sound one, though. Forcing theme on a story makes it didactic and preachy, or at the very least, heavy-handed. At its core, theme is just an idea like justice or forgiveness or the trials of becoming independent. Theme becomes impacting and gains its depth when it is explored realistically through a character’s experiences, because then we’re experiencing it too. But here’s the rub: theme arises most naturally out of how the character handles the experiences. Forming the character’s actions around what you want the theme to say often results in heavy-handed ideas that aren’t organic to the story.

For me, characters take shape as I write. Characters gain an edge or a soft spot. I figure out things they would never, ever do, and realize what they could possibly do under pressure. Most importantly, I learn how they think. As how they handle their situation takes shape, theme follows along behind and develops as they handle and process what I throw at them. The interesting part is that the characters often get their biggest moments at the end of the novel- the do or die moments tell us who they really are and how they’ve changed. That’s hugely important for developing theme. I don’t always know how my characters are going to handle those moments until I’m writing it. In those final moments, theme becomes the strongest, whether it comes full circle or stays open-ended. Letting the story and characters play out naturally and then pulling on the ideas that arise from thorough world and character development is the best way I’ve found for working with theme.

In my WIP, a new theme practically fell into my lap as I wrote Johnny’s storyline: the high cost of loving severely flawed people. This wasn’t any element of the story before I wrote him into his situation, but now it’s there and it fits perfectly. I didn’t see it before, but it absolutely should be part of his story. When I’m done with this draft, I’ll go back and strengthen that element and see where else it can be developed and what subplots it might impact.

Theme takes careful, intentional development, and a heavy-handed one can turn off readers quicker than just about anything. The difference is the guiding force. Are the themes shaping the experiences, or are the experiences shaping the themes?

How do you develop theme when you write? How do you find it when you read? Tell me what you think!


Don’t forget to check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me!

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and also an intern to a literary agent,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

As always, thanks for reading!

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