Shaping Your Theme

The theme is the message–the why–of your writing. You imbue the whole of your story with your theme and it, in turn, influences the choice of every element in your story–even when you’re not aware of it. In fact, all writing carries a message from the writer, an index of the motivation of the artist. Theme can be as broad as “There are good guys and bad guys, and you can tell them apart” and as subtle as “I want to tell others what it was like to live at a certain time of my life.”

1) Make your choice consciously about what message(s) you want your writing to impart. You’re going to do it anyway–so do it consciously.

Because of your choice of one theme over another, you will find that you will also choose one word over another, one phrase over another, to describe an experience, to narrate your memoir. In so doing, you will be shaping the reader’s response to your life story.

2) A danger with theme is “preaching.” You are preaching whenever you impose a point of view on the reader. It is a writing problem because readers don’t want to be told what to do or think, least of all readers who have paid a nice cover price for a book, or are reading about someone they love and respect.

If phrases like the following pop up in your writing, you have succumbed to “preaching”:

“Kids today wouldn’t…”

“The only way to…”

“Most people…”

“In the past, we weren’t afraid to…”

Although preaching can occur anywhere in a story, the last and the first paragraphs of your memoir are especially susceptible. Here you run a high risk of making an explicit statement of the theme. This will permit your writing to be read more like an essay than a story. The offending last paragraphs read like this: “And so it is necessary sometimes in life to decide to…” Or conversely, the opening paragraphs start with “This is a story about how it is sometimes necessary in life to…”

Most readers enjoy discovering the theme of a story on their own. When authors add these preachy tags onto paragraphs, they are telling the reader what to think.

Good luck developing your memoir’s theme!

For your FREE 36-page Memory List Question Book, go to


About Denis Ledoux

Denis Ledoux began helping people to turn their memories into memoirs in 1988. Denis was named Lifewriting Professional of the Year by the Association of Personal Historians in 1996. Today, Denis is a writer, educator, teacher, autobiography co-author, memoir-writing coach, editor and publisher. He directs The Memoir Network, an international group of memoir professionals who use his method and materials to help people write lifestories. Denis also offers writing tele-classes and leads memoir writing tele-groups.
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