Your Conflict is Not Your Theme

Your Conflict is Not Your Theme

Don’t confuse the question of your conflict with the question of your theme.

Here’s why:

“Will Luke Skywalker Destroy the Death Star and live happily every after, or will he die in the attempt?”

This is the question of the Conflict – I.E., the Physical Layer. It’s a good question, and should lead to a strong Conflict. Which is great, and what you want as a story teller.

However, that’s not a Theme.

The theme is the “human element.” It’s the intangible visceral connection between the story and the reader. It’s the message the reader can apply to their own lives or it won’t fulfill the unknown expectations the reader has. Without these emotional needs being fulfilled, the reader will not care about the story.

The depth at which the writer understands this is the difference between an amazing story, a mediocre story, and a piece-of-crap story.

Theme vs. Conflict

The above question is an event. “Will the whiny moisture farmer survive or not?” Well, in the end, who gives a crap? The answering of this question does not, in any way, affect the reader’s life. It teaches the reader nothing. Even if the writer does a great job, and the reader really likes this Luke character, it still does nothing to move them at a visceral level. Sure, if Luke survives, they’ll feel good for him. If he dies, they’ll feel bad. But in neither case is his win or loss anything the reader can apply to their own life.

I doubt very seriously any reader shall be fighting any Death Stars anytime soon.

That’s where Theme comes in, and why a story is not a story unless it has one (or more).

The Theme is the message the reader consumes “because of the event.” The reason so many new writers get confused about this is because a Theme is often a question posed by the story, and it’s normally answered at the same time the question of the Conflict is answered.

But they are very, very different.

I’ve had tons of people tell me, “I wrote a story, one that had a cool, relatable character who did some pretty cool and amazing things, and my grasp of grammar and English are solid, but no one likes my story.”

They say they get a lot of, “Well written, but I didn’t like it.”


Because the writer is focusing on the wrong thing.

Events vs. Theme

Theyre’ focusing on the Events of the story, and totally forgetting about the only thing that’s important.


Look, all the Physical Layer stuff that happens in your story (the Events)—the characters, their dialogue, what things look like, the world around them, their conflict, the situation, their mothers, etc., all the things that make up your “story”—are totally worthless.

They don’t matter.

Well, they do (especially your mother). But that’s the rub. They matter because your Physical Layer elements have to be interesting and make your story feel unique and keep the reader reading. But they DON’T matter when it comes to whether the reader feels your story was good or bad.

In other words, if you create an amazingly written story of a young farm boy who saves the universe by blowing up a Death Star you will fail to please the reader every single time.

However, if you create the same story, but force the reader to consume a humanizing message they can apply to their own life through the transformation of that young farm boy, they will sing your praises to the heavens. Themes are complex, and not something I have time to fully describe here in a blog. If you want to read 12,000 words of me describing them, pick up a copy of my Dynamic Story Creation here.

List your questions in the comments!


Benchmarks of Theme

Benchmarks of Theme

Setting benchmarks of what your character loves, is about to lose (State of Perfection), or has already lost (State of Imperfection), will help the reader understand and care about the character’s plight.

This is Physical Layer stuff, but starts to build a visceral connection between the reader and the characters.

Benchmarks help make the reader care and help bridge the gap between the Physical and the Invisble layers. These benchmarks establish a place that the character will attempt to return to (in some semblance of their State of Perfection).

Again, more Physical Layer stuff, but this is the reason the reader continues to read the story.

In your writing, you want to transform the character from someone who cannot achieve their State of Perfection into someone who can. This is the bridge between the Physical Layer and the Invisible Layer. This is where the Events force the character (and the reader by extension) to deal with the “Human Element” of the Theme.

In Overcoming the Conflict, the question (or choice) of your Theme will unknowingly be consumed by the reader so they not only enjoy the ride—which, again, is the Physical Layer Events—but will walk away with something they can apply to their own lives.

The Invisible Layer happens because of the Physical Layer Events.

None of this is easy.

It’s why so many of today’s “published” books piss me off so much. Everyone thinks, “I’ve read a movie and watched a book, so obviously I can write a novel.” Unfortunately, that’s the same thing as thinking you can become a successful heart surgeon after watching a episode of ER.

It’s not enough. Every “patient” you “operate” on is going to die. Just like the crappy stories of those wannabe writers.

You must study, learn, and understand what creates a good story before you’ll have any hope of creating a good story. That means having a deep understanding of what a Theme is, why they are so vital to a story, and how to implement them into the stories you create.

Figure out how to turn your attention around and write stories that affect the READER, and you’ll understand what it means to create good stories.

Hate met yet? Good.


Leave your questions in the comments.