What can I do to develop my muscle for generating themes, purposes, and content, as very often I haven't used it, focusing mostly on style?

  • 1
    Read. Read voraciously. Read 'like a writer'. Pay careful attention to purposes and themes and to content, copy ideas and dress them in your own words Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 10:26
  • That's good advice. Thank you. However, with perseverance in reading, I have trouble. But I will try to follow your advice, attending to purposes, themes, and content.
    – garbia
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 15:03
  • But I have some questions on the last bit of advice you gave me: What is the benefit of copying ideas in my own words? How will that help me?
    – garbia
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 15:08
  • Take Hamlet - son sets out to wreak vengeance on step-father and mother who colluded to murder his father. There, now you've got one of Shakespeare's ideas (and it's probably one he 'borrowed' from someone else). Now start writing ... You said you found it difficult to figure out themes, contents, purposes, so steal from Shakespeare, or from Dostoevsky, or from Ford Madox Ford, or whoever you want to steal from. Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 16:32
  • 1
    Get a system in place where you can write down all your ideas as soon as they come to you... they'll like the attention and respect and tell their friends ;)
    – Erk
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 18:15

2 Answers 2


I remember finding a great answer for this on "The Rules of Writing" question here on WSE. I'll link it here: https://writing.stackexchange.com/a/51671

All credit for this answer goes to the original writer.


I can't so easily formulate themes, purposes, and content. For this requires a different part of my brain to be at work, one which long has barely been at work.

What, therefore, can I do for the strengthening of this muscle?

Be Selective

As you have no problems with creative writing, I suggest you don't 'just read a lot of books'. Many prolific authors do not stand up to analysis. Many are style over substance, or good at one niche which becomes marketable for a while. Pop eats itself and tropes are mindlessly remixed.

Whereas the 'classics' often become better through analysis – hence the reason they are the Ur-examples. As literary classics age the themes and subtext remain while the tropes and word-technique fade. Translations can also have this effect, separating the words from the substance. A book that is still being discussed after 80 years, probably strikes a social nerve.

Learn from the source, not the thing that imitates the source.

Identify core traits

Genres have identifying traits, like cuisine has identifying ingredients. To be a 'chef' within a genre, you will need to become familiar with the ingredients and how they are styled.

If someone offered a 'breakfast taco', you already have an idea what ingredients are identifiable as core-breakfast and core-taco. Weirdly, we can imagine which core ingredients might be 'compatible', and which core elements of each would be left out.

Make lists of core-traits that you identify with various genres. They don't need to be complete, and they don't need to 'fit' in any category. The list itself will be informative, suggesting tropes, archetypes, and plot structures.

Try to be reductive, in other words find the fewest and broadest identifying traits. What are the archetype characters? What are the main conflict structures? What are the unspoken 'rules' in this type of story?

Compare your ideas to real examples

With each list, try to think up examples (books, tv, film) that support, and are exceptions to the list, and try to answer why. Very simple binary, thumb up or down – but also why.

Types of Horror Stories

  • ghost story
  • maniac killer
  • etc ...

Is Ghostbusters horror genre? Pfft, No way, not even horror-comedy.

So then, what is core-horror behind a 'ghost story'?

  • Paranormal - unnatural science
  • Macabre - wasting decay
  • Afterlife - a message from beyonnnd
  • Body horror - rotten skeleton hand grabs at your face

Hmm, some of these elements could co-exist, but some might be a tonal clash. Each implies different themes with different plot and character conflicts.

Keep making lists and mentally checking the items on that list with real world examples. The lists don't need to be long or complete, the goal is to 'strengthen those muscles' by challenging your initial assumptions. Things we 'just know' usually have a reason.

Recognize Genre

You will be able to identify genre traits where you see them, even out of context or mashed-up with other genres. You should also be able to spot where genre elements are poor, misguided, or just style-without-substance. You will be able to point to the 'breakfast' in the breakfast-taco, and you will be able to say what it lacks (Ok, that metaphor is done).

The genres you are familiar with will have more nuance, but you should be able to create within the 'rules' of any genre once you have identified the core traits. Writing is subjective, so it's your own analysis that counts.

Analytic Landscape

An analytic landscape is a thought exercise that plots known characteristics on a graph to visualize their correlated properties. It's called a 'landscape' because mathematicians use it to plot 3 (or more) properties on a 3D graph, but the most famous example is 2D, the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram:

enter image description here

By making a graph that plotted the data for temperature and brightness, astrophysicists discovered stars are not 'random' but follow a Main Sequence revealing an undiscovered correlation. Other, small clusters also appeared, but what's really interesting is where there are no stars – science had to adapt to explain why.

The missing stars weren't known until the data was diagrammed, but this discovery forced scientists to re-think how stars form.

Correlate Genre Tropes

An analytic landscape that correlates genre tropes might reveal a 'main sequence' that correlates theme, genre, plot devices, and character archetypes. Here's a simplistic example:

Types of Crime Detectives:
cerebral vs action correlated to how famous they are in-world.

enter image description here

Hercule Poirot is the most famous detective in the world. Phillip Marlowe is a random number in the Yellow Pages. It change the nature of their cases, the economic class of their clients, and their motivations. Poirot snubs cases that don't challenge his grey cells. Marlowe gets conked on the skull for $20.

7 of 8 detectives (obviously not a definitive list) align roughly on a Main Sequence, suggesting a correlation: the more celebrated the detective, the more cerebral the mystery. Conversely, a tough guy who busts heads correlates to in-world anonymity (The Saint and Batman are famous by reputation but anonymous as citizens, having their cake and eating it).

An outlier is Miss Marple, a village gossip who can't throw a punch. She was designed to be a trope-buster, but subsequent versions of Marple had to 'fix' some of her narrative problems (like having no authority to access police reports or crime scenes). When you go off the main path, there may be unforeseen plot holes.

Generate Ideas and Themes

The diagram suggests dynamics can become baked into a genre – there's a better reason for that particular Main Sequence, it's the history of Mystery sub-genres: cozy murders are discussed over tea with the vicar, meanwhile pulp detectives use their fists in back alleys.

There's another hole at the top-right of the graph, suggesting a detective who is a violent celebrity, maybe a beloved psychopath – I have no doubt there is such a character (Rorschach maybe?).

With correlated traits, you could invent a detective anywhere along the Main Sequence, like balancing brains and brawn but compromised by burgeoning recognition in the media (Perry Mason, LA Confidential). Or team up both ends of the spectrum, a stuffy by-the-book thinker with a 'street-wise' partner (Nero Wolf, LA Confidential). The Main Sequence implies an inherent dynamic that can be exploited for theme, and an internal conflict where someone might have to choose.

Interesting new situations can be discovered by analyzing the landscape for what's missing – allowing for inherent quirks and instability in the resulting character.

  • Thank you for your answer. I will read it later when I get a chance. Sorry I edited my question removing all the context for the answer. I either did not know the question was answered or the question was answered shortly after I edited.
    – garbia
    Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 1:00

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