Writer's Toolbox: Themes in Story

Thread by Annette S. Thomson
Authors sometimes get nervous when the topic of theme comes up.  We have this notion that themes are some grand thing; philosophic commentaries on the state of human existence, complete with some answer to these overarching questions.  Themes, think some genre writers, are for literary writing.  They’re not compatible with an adventure novel or a kick ass fantasy romp.  To this, I say…

Horse pucky.

Themes are just thread of thought that weave through stories, pulling it together into a cohesive whole.  When characters have motivations there are themes.  When there is conflict, there is a theme.  When anybody wants something… Okay, you get the point.  What I’m saying is that themes can be simple thoughts.  As simple as “good triumphs over evil,” or “blood is thicker than water.”  Their main function is to connect things, to bring things full circle, and to link all parts of the story.

If the protagonist is fighting to get to the MacGuffin before the antagonist, why does the protagonist care?  What’s the point?  What does it mean to them?  Boom.  There’s your theme.

They exist already.  They’re already in there whether you mean for them to be or not.  Just because you don’t pick up the thread and run with it, weave it into the story in new ways, doesn’t make it go away.  It just means that it’s an element you’ve decided not to use.  That’s okay.  If you feel your story doesn’t require you to think about the themes, then that’s your decision.

However, you should understand themes before you make that decision.  A cohesive theme can add to your story, it can pull together disparate pieces and make a whole of several different plots and subplots.  It can help a reader understand your characters, plot, and conflicts in new ways.  And, yes, it can say things about the nature of humans and life, but it doesn’t have to answer the big questions.  In fact, themes are often better when they speak to the small things, the commonalities between people, their essential natures, the little important things that make us tick.

For instance, if there is a knight fighting a war against another nation, why is she fighting?  What is she fighting for?  Why does it matter?  Why should the reader care?  All of these questions are ones you surely asked yourself when you started writing, or at least answered as you wrote.  But what does all of this have to do with theme?  Well, it sort of is theme.  If a character is racing to save their family it’s because family means something to them.  “Well, duh,” you may say.  “Of course their family means something!”  But that’s my point.  Just by writing that story, family becomes a theme.  The character thinks about their family, feels about their family, and goes to the lengths you specify in your story to save their family.  All of this says something about the nature of “family” as a concept.  Just by telling the story, you make a statement your individual thoughts on that concept, family, which may or may not match up with everyone else’s idea of family.  Hey presto!  Theme.  If you’re writing a story about good triumphing over evil you must, by necessity, define good and evil.  Talk about big questions!  But the way you define these concepts makes a statement, it evokes thought.  It is a theme.

Now, of course, there are storylines that many people are willing to accept without any thought at all.  That doesn’t mean you’re not making a statement, just that they have accepted your premise and line of thought.  Not every story has to have themes that are controversial, or that challenge preconceptions, but all stories make statements, have lines of thought, and therefore have themes.  Stories—whether we notice it or not—make statements.  They cannot help it.  The way we portray events, the angles from which we look at our characters, the goals they find worthy or unworthy, these all ask the audience to accept given statements.  “This character is worth rooting for.”  “This conflict is important.”  “This event is could happen.”

So, now that we’ve defined what a theme is, we’ll turn to what a theme (or themes) can do for your story.  In order to be effective, themes should be repeated, but not word for word.  Take a simple situation—for example, your protagonist wants to become a wizard, but is struggling with being away from home for the first time—and then examine it from different angles—other students are away from home for the first time as well, and they feel different ways about that, highlighting or contrasting the feelings of the protagonist.  This basic strategy gives substance to the theme, shows the thoughts presented from different angles, and begins to deepen our understanding of all of these characters.

Now the theme needs to be brought into other aspects of the story.  Why is the protagonist struggling?  Is it loneliness?  Is it culture shock?  Is it fear of the unknown?  All of these?  None of them?  These, too, are questions you should already be asking yourself.  After all, you have to know your characters to write them.  And, the answers you come up with can give you more than just character background and insight.

What is your character fighting against?  Is there a conspiracy?  Some form of deadly magic?  A murderer on the loose?  A war coming?  And in what way do these conflicts relate to the student’s struggle with leaving home?  Is your protagonist afraid of the unknown and therefore working past their own fears to deal with this unknown and deadly magic?  Are they terrified of being alone in the middle of an army marching on foreign soil?

In this way you connect the different aspects of the story, bring the major conflict home in a way personal to the character, and make the entire story more cohesive.

Themes can also help the audience understand and relate to your plot by bringing larger concepts down to a more personal, emotional level.  We can all relate to feeling lonely, to being afraid of the unknown situations, or to feeling overwhelmed by change, but we might have a harder time relating to deadly magic.

This makes your writing tighter.  Tight writing is cohesive writing, not necessarily writing that excises all passive verbs and never “tells” instead of showing.

Themes can also pull different story lines into a cohesive whole.  It’s common in fantasy and science fiction to have more than one point of view character, each doing separate things.  Sometimes they’re working toward the same goal, sometimes not, but these different story lines can begin to feel disparate.  They can compete with each other or leave the reader feeling disoriented.  One way to help with these problems is by tying the different plot lines together with your themes.

These themes can provide context for the characters.  One character lost their family in a mysterious fire.  Another left home to get away from controlling parents.  And the little wolf was abandoned by its pack for some mysterious reason.  All family-related backgrounds, connecting the characters even when they’re off doing their own things.  Because all of the characters are motivated by family-related backgrounds, they probably think about their families, see their companions in a way which highlights or contrast their own experiences, and view events through their own filters.  The theme of family runs throughout and can be strengthened by its inclusion into other aspects of the story.  For instance, if the villain turns out to be one of the family members we think died in the fire, etc.  The twist can be unexpected, and yet feel completely natural to the story.

Additionally, knowing your themes and having worked with them throughout the book gives you a leg up when the book is finished.  As a cover artist I have the easiest time understanding and making covers for books when the author knows what the book is about, not just what happens.  In my experience, these authors write more compelling synopses, not because they necessarily talk about the themes.  They simply seem to have a clearer vision of the book and a more concrete idea what to say.  The commonalities provided by running themes don’t hurt of course.  In fact, they often provide good transitions from one situation or character to another and a good basis for cover art.  Of course, knowing your themes doesn’t guarantee a good synopsis or blurb, but in my experience it does seem to help.

So, themes are present whether we intend to write them or not.  They are merely reflections of and upon the characters, plots, and events about which we choose to write.  They aren’t necessarily big or scary, and writers shouldn’t be afraid to play with them.  They exist in all types of stories, even in action-packed pirate stories (themes of truth, freedom, greed, and goodness spring to mind).  You can ignore them, you can always write stories with easily accepted themes (these are genre staples, but run the risk of becoming cliché), but you can’t get rid of them.  Every decision you make, every character you create, every step of the way… They’ll be watching you… Er, no, wait.  Wrong song.  What I mean to sing… say is that themes exist, and when they’re nurtured they can do a lot for your story.

Happy writing!


Pamela Kelt said…
Great read. I'm a sucker for themes, too, so much so, I have to ration them a bit.
Marion Sipe said…
Hee! I tend to stick to one or two per story and just work them in *everywhere*, but it can still get out of hand. LOL! Thanks for reading!

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