Themes & Conflict

The two main ingredients of any story.

I’ve linked theme and conflict together because they work alongside each other in a story.

Theme should not to be confused with plot. Theme is a secondary writing device used by writers to accompany plot and shore up the conflicts you have in your story, and the underlying theme itself should be source of conflict. It’s the subject matter for your story.

Love, hate, redemption, religion, hope, betrayal…all these themes provoke conflict. And with conflict, you also elicit emotions from your reader. Conflict and emotion is closely linked too, and a story without either of these is unlikely to move your reader, except to bore them to sleep.

Think of the historic struggle between black and white people; racism is an emotive theme and a rich source of conflict. “Roots” by Alex Haley is a perfect example of this conflict as black African slave Kunta Kinte strives for freedom from his white American oppressors.

Theme is the heart of the story in a sense. It may not always be clear what theme runs through your story because of the interchanging content, but it may emerge later as you write it. Some writers have a clear indication from the start, and build their story around it. Experienced writers may have several themes running through their story.

One thing you shouldn’t do with theme is to force it onto your reader. It should be hinted at within the and throughout the story; otherwise you may be in danger of preaching to your reader. Clever use of dialogue, narrative and description will help you subtly drop hints to your reader what your theme is without it being too obvious. You can also use symbolism to give clues, things like use of colours, places, shapes, repeated words, and so on.


Most themes will elicit emotion, and with it, you have the power to create conflict. Conflict is the building block of fiction. Without conflict, there is no story.

Conflict arises when your protagonist strives to realise a goal, and has to overcome certain obstacles in order to achieve this. As mentioned in previous posts, there are three main types of conflict.

• Man against man
• Man against nature
• Man against himself

Again, I’ll go back to "Roots" as a great example of theme and conflict working perfectly together. The themes of racism, power and freedom, and the conflicts created between the protagonist and his white oppressors, the conflicts of the protagonist struggling with his own emotions during his epic struggle, all make for an emotional, dramatic story. The motivation of freedom from slavery drives the main character throughout the story.

Theme works wonderfully with the conflicts you create, which in turn power the emotion behind the whole story and motivate your character to achieve his or her goal. Theme and conflict is the fuel that drives a story engine.

Remember, you can strengthen your story if you can include two or more of the above main conflicts. The more conflict strands you have, the more emotive a story you create.

Next time: The art of characterisation.


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