How to Build a Story Using a Set Theme

When I first began writing horror, I found it helpful to check lists of short story submission calls. The reason why this helped me when I was just starting out was because many of them provide you with a specific theme. Starting a story with a set direction can be extremely useful, but even with prompts I still found that I struggled to create a coherent narrative based around the given topic.

A turning point for me was when I learned about a couple of helpful writing exercises. The most useful of these was the spider diagram technique, but you can modify the basic idea and create lists, bullet points, free-write pages, or any other method that you may find more useful.

So, here’s how it works. Let’s say you want to write a horror and the theme is “summer”. You’d begin by writing “Summer” in the centre of the page, and start to build a diagram by taking the first few words that pop into your head related to the topic. You’d probably end up with a list of popular summertime terms, such as Beach, Holiday, Sunshine, Tan.

On your next round, you expand on the specific words you’ve initially picked. So, from the word “beach” you may have;

  • sand
  • sea
  • volleyball
  • sandcastles
  • crabs
  • shells
  • suntan lotion

Go around and around your main words, listing images, colours, sensations, tastes, textures – anything that links to those words.

Once you’ve built up a well-stocked word-bank you can refer to, go back to those original second layer words and begin to concentrate on the purpose of the story. The one in this example is a horror (shocker!) so what are some dark elements that we can introduce here? Already, there are a few ideas that spring to mind. What if a kid kicks a sandcastle on a beach, but there is something sinister living inside it? What if the suntan lotion you pick has a terrifying effect on your skin? What if an innocent game of volleyball turns into a fight to the death? These are just spit-ball ideas, but jot down whatever pops into your head. Don’t think of these ideas as the set storyline you have to follow as this can send you down the wrong path. Right now, we just need to explore our theme.

If you don’t write horror and are trying to think up a romance story, you might have very different choices in your word wheel: Sunsets, ice cream, walks on the beach, hearts in the sand… Of course, these too can be turned into a terrifying story if you want, but for the purpose of the exercise, I wanted to demonstrate that this works for all genres!

When you’ve settled on a story direction that really excites you, use a highlighter or simply circle the words you like that link most closely to the themes you’ve chosen. Be sure to include each of the words as you craft your narrative. By having tastes, sensations, colours, smells, and objects that directly link to the setting you are hoping to evoke for your reader close at hand, it reminds you to paint a more detailed picture and keep the clear theme throughout your story.

You may be worried about doing this exercise if you’re pressed for precious writing time, but believe me when I say it’s a time saver in the long-run! Having your word-wheel at the ready is clear progress, and beats staring at a blank page waiting for inspiration to strike. It also prevents the dreaded sensation of starting a story off-the-cuff with a blistering paragraph, only to falter halfway down the page when you lose momentum.

I encourage you to give it a try! Grab a sheet of paper, some coloured pens, and your favourite highlighters, and experiment. Here are some centre words to give you some inspiration if you can’t find any themed submissions:

FrostSubmarineShooting Star
Use random word generators to create prompt lists of your own

Here are some of my favourite resources to find themed story submission requests*:

Authors Publish

Curiosity Never Killed the Writer

The Horror Tree

Publishing…and Other Forms of Insanity.

Good luck!

*Note that I’m not affiliated with any of these sites. I’ve just found them very useful in the past, and hope that you do, too.