When I write I often don't have any great meaningful moral to share. I don't have a message that I want to convey to the reader. I often don't write about the nature of the battle between good and evil. Or what constitutes good. Or coming of age in a society that devalues adolescence. In fact I am often just along for the ride. I create characters and then set them on their path and watch what happens. Sometimes a theme develops and suddenly my story has more purpose and writing it becomes easier.

And sometimes, nothing. In fact things tend to begin to stall. I find myself throwing the characters into more and more contrived circumstances to explore them until my tolerance for absurdity is exceeded and I abandon the project.

I often have a point where I know that if I just had a greater purpose for the work than just a series of events, things would go better. However, if I just pick a random arbitrary theme by spinning the great wheel of themes, then I find myself struggling to develop it because there is nothing behind it. Then I fizzle out and abandon the project.

Is there any process to come up with a theme to use in these situations when I don't have any clear direction? Or is this a sign that the project is flat and I should let it die?

6 Answers 6


As you've described it, successful writing, for you, has three phases. The first is a discovery phase, where you just write. The second is a clarification phase, where you discover your theme, and the third is a completion phase, where you continue to discover your story, but in the light of the theme. The problem is the second phase doesn't always happen, which derails the third phase.

I would suggest, instead of viewing these projects as successes and failures, alive and dead, view all your writing as an exploratory process towards finding your next great theme. Write on something as long as it is speaking to you, and when it quits speaking, put it aside --for a while! But frequently review your old material, and search it for common threads, things that really speak to you, weightier concepts and so forth. Eventually you'll find that new living theme, and start to be able to pull the old threads together.

I'd also suggest keeping a dream journal, doing meditations, doodling, or doing other things to keep in touch with your subconscious. Our conscious mind often censors or edits our themes, judging them as trivial, or disgusting, or childish, or antisocial, or otherwise problematic. But our subconscious will persist in promoting what it wants to talk about, if only you allow it space to communicate.


I am a discovery writer; I don't usually look for a "theme", and my readers don't seem to miss it. There can be a problem with a story seeming to stall, and I don't know that there is an easy fix in identifying WHY it stalled.

As I have written in previous responses; I have minimized the occurrence of this by keeping the end-point of the story fixed in my mind; basically this is the climax of the plot and the solution to the MC's "big problem" that caused them to leave (metaphorically or literally) their "normal world" in ACT I, about 25% of the way through the story.

My end-point is vague, but not too vague to get to. So "She kills the man that killed her brother" is a little too vague; I'd need a little more detail than that, but I don't write out the end-scene, I just keep perhaps a quarter page of notes on how the end is brought about. Like what key piece of information she had to find that let her know who the real bad guy is, what mistake the bad guy made, or something like that. You might call it the KEY to the ending.

If I find I am writing a scene that will invalidate my ending, my rule is I have to come up with a new ending at least as good, or undo the scene. Usually I can tell I am shooting myself in the foot within a scene, but whenever I realize I have shot myself in the foot, I have to come up with the new ending, or delete or revise back to where my key was valid.

I think of the ending as a kind of compass setting to get where we are going. I don't have to know the path, and I might wind around a bit, but I need to make progress in that direction.

I think story stalling is indicative of a lack of this direction to write in, or taking a wrong turn in the story so whatever ending you wanted is no longer going to work.

ALTERNATIVELY, if you don't think that is your problem, I know of another.

As Stephen King has said about his discovery writing, "Every story has to turn out somewhere." And he tells a story of slash and burn in writing "The Stand", he stalled out and felt he wasn't writing anything interesting anymore, and after a week of thinking about it, he put aside the last hundred pages or so of what he had written, and started over.

He'd made a wrong turn. He was writing true to his characters, and true to what felt real to him, but in doing that he had written a stalemate between the villain and his heroes, and he found a place earlier in the story to prevent that stalemate: A bomb that killed half the good guys; a massive setback that created chaos and put them all back on their heels.

So while King is right to say every story does have to come out somewhere, the author is still responsible for coming up with the plot twists, the setbacks your hero will suffer. You can still write her and the others true to their nature, but you can't just let them settle down into the domestic life of keeping house and going to work everyday; which is basically what happened to King's story. This is a story and things have to keep changing; the "settle down" into the new "normal world" is in the last pages of the book.

If your characters have settled into some sort of comfort zone, find out where that happened, what makes it a comfort zone, and disrupt it early. Introduce a crisis, a setback that forces them out of it. Break something. Cause an injury. Whatever she is fighting against or trying to achieve, kick her in the head. Give the villain a win, or the environment a win, but make her respond. You have to knock her down, or put a wall in front of her, to force her onto a new path.

Fortunately for you as an author, you can go back in time and kill these problems before they begin, as King did. If you have to discard a chunk like he did, you might still be able to salvage and re-purpose some of the imagination that went into that writing; dialogue, jokes, descriptions of places.

But delete and repeat is part of the territory in discovery writing, sometimes what we "discover" is that we made a wrong turn fifty pages ago, and it took that long in our discovery process to realize we've written ourselves into a dead end.


A theme isn't a "meaningful moral"

Or even a regular moral.

A theme is the central idea and a moral is a lesson. These can overlap, but they're not the same thing.

It's okay to develop your themes (yes, you can have more than one in the same work) as you write. You may not even know them until the end. Or you might need someone else beta reading your work to point them out.

If you're a discovery writer, why tell yourself that you must have a theme in mind as you write? Allow your characters to tell their story and figure the rest out as its ready to be figured out.

  • I do understand that theme and message aren't the same thing, although they are often very intermingled. I suppose the wording of my question left it unclear that I understood that distinction. My main concern isn't that not having a defined theme is wrong. My concern is that not having a defined theme leads to me floundering and losing steam, and then having to quit the project.
    – Summer
    Commented May 5, 2019 at 20:20
  • 1
    @bruglesco I admit that some of your wording was ambiguous but I went ahead and answered anyway. It did sound to me though that you did get a surge of energy if you found a theme but sometimes it petered out anyway. My intention was to encourage you to set theme aside and focus on your characters.
    – Cyn
    Commented May 5, 2019 at 20:27

I have floundered a bit on my second novel and finally realized I did not have a central heartstring, a big question. I had the 'good guy' and the goals; I had antagonizing forces, but no big question to provide depth.

Actually, let's back up.

I started my second novel as a follow-on of the first. I wanted to follow the characters (heroes) that were established in the first novel, and I began 'discovering' them in a new story--the second story. The villain from the first novel was gone--he'd been vanquished at the end of (plotted) book one, although his organization was intact. For book two, I was keen to try this 'discovery thing' I keep hearing about. I allowed my established characters to do things. In different combinations, places, with their personal goals in mind. I thought i was on my way.

But the story stalled. I couldn't sort out why... Wasn't I discovery writing? Weren't the characters supposed to behave naturally and lead me toward something interesting?

I 'discovered' that I didn't have a villain. So I needed to build that, and I did. It was a breakthrough. New villainous character, with goals, and this immediately added depth.

Now we're caught up, and I bet this point is where you are.

So I kept discovery writing, happily working the villain and his goals into the story, too. Discover, discover, no idea of where these characters are going, but everything I have heard is that discovery writing is more natural and engaging than plot-heavy novels. Write, write, write.

I stalled again. This time, I realized there was no big question at the book's heart. There was no joie de libre in the novel, nothing to make it resonate, or matter, to anyone in the world. What is the crux of this story? Why must it exist? (Obviously, it doesn't 'must exist.') I don't want to write an entire novel unless it has a reason to exist... that feels personally meaningful to me.

And so, I mulled and thought and played with ideas, and during this stall, I asked how my characters were approaching their own personal goals. How is Character A trying to get where he wants to be? Character B? The villain? The secondary characters? What are the devices and interactions and behaviors that each character uses toward their own goal? (All of this, by the way, was discovered in writing.)

I discovered (heh) that my characters have different personalities and strategies. Each uses a different approach within their own life. And based on that, I was able to formulate what the central crux, the question, the 'moral thing' is of this particular piece. In my case, and for this novel, that central bit is the question: 'are we more effective as individual agents toward a personal goal, unencumbered by others, or are we more effective as a group, in concert, working toward a shared goal?'

This is resonant to me, it 'matters,' because of the failed 'stronger together' campaign of a recent presidential candidate and the current power structure of the US victor, who based a campaign on chaos. In other words, it resonates with me to ponder whether cooperative effort is truly more effective than individual determination-at-any-cost.

My characters naturally drift toward isolation, or alternatively cooperation in their goals. Who will win in my novel? The villain? hero A? Hero B? I'm not sure, but it'll come.

To answer your question, I believe you'll be happier when you identify a central question, thrust, moral, what-have-you that complements and deepens the conflicts that you've already placed in your story. And I found mine through examining my characters' choices and behaviors--and once found, I accentuate the theme to give my 'discovered' story more cohesion.

My answer is to examine your characters. Find something that runs through your story. Something that resonates with you. Is it the role of gender? The various faces of power? Nature vs. nurture?

Your central heartstring can be anything like this, find it, and I think that a novel that has this, in addition to the other stuff (goals and conflicts and antagonists and protagonists) is often more satisfying. Go for it.


  • 1
    I like your answer best so far. I'm not a big fan of saying that themes are irrelevant or just noisy moralizing. For me, they're the difference between an entertaining novel and one that can change my life. But that's not to say it has to be some world-shaking concept. As long as it gives me something to think about, it has elevated the story to a new level.
    – icanfathom
    Commented May 6, 2019 at 16:25

However, if I just pick a random arbitrary theme by spinning the great wheel of themes, then I find myself struggling to develop it because there is nothing behind it. Then I fizzle out and abandon the project.

In my experience (another discovery writer reporting in) the themes don't move the plot forward. It's either the characters or the plot. From that quote in your questions, it seems almost like you're expecting your theme to push your project, but that's ... well, unpractical to say the least.

While it's true that a lot of novels (the old classics in particular) can be read as showcases of some big themes, if you are interested in explaining a theme and a theme only you'd be better off in writing an essay or a paper.

It's true, as you note, that adding a theme can make your story more complex, more tridimensional. Yet again, I'd argue that a good story deserves to be narrated per se, regardless of its themes.

I often have a point where I know that if I just had a greater purpose for the work than just a series of events, things would go better.

So, the real question here is: are you really dissatisfied with your themes, or with your plot and characters?

Is there any process to come up with a theme to use in these situations when I don't have any clear direction? Or is this a sign that the project is flat and I should let it die?

In my humble opinion, you shouldn't need to come up with themes. Themes should stem naturally from your view of the world and from who you are as a person. For example, I'm interested in AIs and I'm writing a science fiction, so a lot of my knowledge of the matter naturally flows into my writing. So you could say I'm exploring a lot of themes:

  • What does it mean to be human?
  • Since AIs are so advanced, should them govern us? Or should we stick to human leaders, no matter how biased they may be?
  • What's the nature of intelligence? What's a human-like intelligence? What's a inhuman-like one?

At the same time, it's a coming of age story, where my character is going through the usual steps of finding who she is, what her roots are, and how to stand up for herself in the harsh world she lives in. Yet, none of this is driving the story forward. Themes are mostly in the subtexts, behind the stage and working in an implicit way. There are points in the story where I explicitly state them out (e.g., a character giving his opinion on something, or the main character thinking about certain arguments) but those are exceptions.

So, check your characters and your plot. If they are allright, you should be able to write. Of course, your desire to include strong themes in your work is totally legitimate. To this end, try to identify a central question (as DPT mentioned) and then research it further.

For example, everyone here is familiar with the concept of "good vs evil", since it's a theme as old as the written world (and older, maybe). Yet if you wanted to get a better grasp of the theme (and go beyond the typical hollywood movie) you could research the various philosophical implications of the theme. A lot of thinkers have come to wrestle with the concepts of good and evil after all, and there's a lot to read about it.

Doing further research will deepen your comprehension of a theme. Your opinion on the matter shouldn't change, at least not necessarily. But by having a deeper, wider view of what a certain theme implies, you'll be better armed to talk about it. And hopefully that knowledge will seep almost effortlessy into your novels, because now (as a certain youtuber uses to say) you know better.


I would probably be categorized as a "discovery" writer. I certainly don't work from a formal outline, and only make occasional notes to remind myself of some particular minor detail or other I think would be interesting to work in later.

That said, I generally don't start writing a story unless I have some ending scene in mind. It's hard to imagine, for example, that Herman Melville didn't know all along that the ship would be destroyed in a confrontation with the white whale, and Ishmael would see his shipmates lost. The theme follows from the end, and the end gives your story a general destination.

Metaphorically, you can wander aimlessly in the woods in some valley, "discovering" various scenes, but it isn't until you pick some looming mountain to make your way towards, or some other THING in the distance, that you really have anything but a series of meandering scenes. It isn't really the fault of the forest that you haven't got direction. It can be a very fine forest, with lovely streams and beautiful trees.

Or, less metaphorically, "discovery" to me means you do a lot of your development work as you're doing your writing. It's not magic, though; all the work of creating a plot, of making a meaningful path between the beginning and the end, still has to be done. I wouldn't even call something a project until it had a direction, some ending or theme in the background, to give it a shape beyond just character sketches and interesting scenes.

If you've already got a lot of beautiful trees and lovely streams, that's a great place to start a story. You haven't really started though until you're going somewhere - at least in my own experience.

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