What Is a Story's Theme and How Does It Fuel Subplot?

The theme of your story is an important key to its readability. It will move the narrative by moving the characters along. It is their purpose, the overriding idea that defines your story. The theme in the novella Warming Up is loss. Marcella is struggling with the loss of her mother as she tries to grow into a young woman. That struggle is a percolating in the background and is a big part of her motivation to get involved with trying to recover a stolen harmonica.

Don’t be discouraged if you’re not entirely sure what your theme is as you start to write. You will start with an idea but as you write, the story can develop in directions you had not anticipated. You will discover things about your protagonist that may change where the story is going. That’s good. You’ve created a strong, three dimensional character. Part of the fun of writing is letting your characters be who they are. It may only be as plot and character come together that you will be able to clearly state the theme of your story.

A word on theme; you don’t have to come up with one that’s never been done. In fact, you can’t. The themes of loss, good versus evil and love conquers all have already been done. The individual against society and man vs. nature have already been done, many times. The question is: how will you make your story on that theme stand out from the rest?


One way is subplot. The coming of age theme is everywhere in literature and movies, but Marcella is a girl in her specific time, neighborhood and family, faced with a unique set of challenges. The theme of Warming Up is loss. The main plot is the efforts of a group of friends to recover an old man’s stolen property. The story is filled out and enhanced by subplots.

Marcella is not the only one dealing with loss. Bobby’s father has left, leaving him, his mother and his sister to fend for themselves. Stan has lost his wife and now his prized harmonica has been stolen. The Canners are dealing with loss of a normal life because the father decided to express his doubts about practices at the shipyard. The conflict between Marcella’s new world ambitions and her grandmother’s old world values help us understand Marcella’s emotional struggles and adds drama when her grandmother insists she cease her involvement with the efforts to help Stan.

These subplots arise out of and meld into the theme and enhance the main plot. Marcella learns an important lesson from her eventual discovery of the Canners’ back story. She begins to understand her father’s caution not to judge people before she knows what they have been through. She realizes that although everyone suffers loss, with the help of family, friends and home they carry on. She knows she can carry on, too.stories

Each of these subplots adds to the emotional weight of the story because they give Marcella a chance to express herself and learn important lessons. Nothing happens in a vacuum. An eleven-year-old lives in a town, a neighborhood, a household. She has family, friends and even rivals. These subplots paint colors onto the canvas of the story. We said in our discussion of plot that a good dramatic structure is the skeleton a writer builds. Subplots allow you to add muscle and sinew.

There are a number of good primers on dramatic structure, plot, subplot and theme. Do a Google search with those words. You’ll find a wealth of advice from some great writers.

By Joan Verlezza