The Hidden Third Element of Storytelling

The Hidden Third Element of Storytelling

What are the bare basics you need to tell a story? Characters are essential, of course—stories can’t exist without them; plot goes-hand-in-hand, whether it’s intricate or loose; and, to allow for some obviousness, you always need a medium by which to communicate the tale, whether written, oral, or visual. But that’s not everything, is it? Although we may not always realize it, there’s another element that always comes alongside characters and plot, but often remains hidden even from the author: theme.

In my experience, talking about themes has an odd reputation amongst writers—namely, so many writers don’t want to talk about them directly! Many seem to hold the philosophy that themes will emerge once the other story elements are set, or perhaps after the first or second draft, and shouldn’t be added “unnaturally.” Many authors are also (often rightfully) afraid of becoming preachy, pushy, or cliché if they try to incorporate themes into their stories, and end up avoid having anything overtly “theme-like” in their tales. However, the issue that arises from this philosophy is that theme becomes of secondary importance—or of little importance at all. But just like when I talked about the false dichotomy between characters vs. plot, there’s a similar dishonesty about how themes are integrated into storytelling: just like how characters create a plot and plot creates character, the way characters and plots work together creates themes whether we intend them to or not. In other words, theme cannot be divorced from characters and plot or relegated to a lower rank. Storytelling doesn’t work that way. To quote my post about retellings and adaptations: “If plot is the skeleton of a story and characters are the heart, then theme is the soul: you can’t have a whole ‘person’ (story) without all three.”

To qualify, I don’t think that themes don’t emerge as we write or develop best through natural, rather than forced, means. I want to be sure to allow for writers who are more exploratory with their stories, since it’s just as valid of a method of writing as meticulous planning. But the idea that themes are either too pushy if you try to add them in on purpose or have to emerge “naturally” once everything else finished is the wrong way to approach themes, motifs, and symbolism. A few important perspective shifts need to be made in order to not only stop being afraid of actively including themes, but knowing how to create harmony in the way themes meld with characters and plot.

First of all, it’s important to make a distinction among “types” of themes, particularly the bad ones we often fear. We can all think of stories where the “message” either overtook everything like an overzealous weed or sat awkwardly in the middle of the story like misplaced furniture. But within the realm of bad themes are two important variances that spring from different storytelling issues: themes that overshadow the story and themes that lack nuance.

In the case of themes that overshadow everything, it’s usually a reflection of a premature story—one where the author didn’t spend enough time on characters and plot to make the whole story strong and, thus, effective. The final product ends up being nearer to an essay or sermon than a story, but without the better qualities of nonfiction or fiction. Fellow Christians out there will likely nod their heads at this one, recalling some (or many) Christian movies or books that fell into their category—but the same happens regardless of religion or philosophy, and I bet that everyone can think of some movies, books, and shows where the “theme” came across so heavy-handedly that it made the reading or viewing experience insufferable, whether you agreed with the creator or not.

Themes that lack nuance, on the other hand, are a sign that the theme itself is underdeveloped—the author may have put a lot of time into the characters, plot, or both, but the theme ends up lacking, and either disappears altogether or becomes so disjointed and simplistic that it juxtaposes poorly with the story’s better qualities. In the worst cases, a story may even end up condoning, romanticizing, or approving unhealthy relationships, ideas, or systems because the author (whether intentionally or not) didn’t think through the implications of what they wrote.

Do you see the common theme (hehe) with both of these issues? Poorly-handled themes are a result of their disharmony with the characters and plot of a story. When an author believes that theme operates outside of characters and plot—whether that it’s more important than them, or less important than them—it makes it that much harder for them to successfully implement thematic techniques, and that much easier for them to botch them. What happens most often, however, is that skilled authors will nail their characters and plot, but end up with a compelling story that misses its full potential. This happens regardless of genre and intended audience, and far more often than it should.

I can’t say why so many skilled authors end up in that category, but I’ve picked up on at least two explanations (though there are others, beyond the scope of my experience and this post). One is the fear of being heavy-handed, like I said earlier, which makes authors not want to pay much mind to their story’s theme beyond the bare necessities. The other is the desire to create a story that doesn’t have any themes, or ones that are so few and so vague that readers can interpret the work for themselves and all be “right.” The first fear is understandable and, I think, rather common—it comes from the same root cause that makes writers worry about their characters coming across correctly or their plot making sense. We don’t want to create bad stories. But, just like with characters and plots, the only way to create a bad theme is to neglect it or abandon it. It may take you longer than others, it may come as an epiphany during edits of your third draft, or it may be so subtle that you can’t trace its development, but time and thought invested in what your story “says” is just as fruitful as time and thought invested in any other story element. The point is to not ignore or avoid it. Not every story has to grapple with great, complex philosophical conundrums, but every story will grapple with some form of meaning: about life, death, love, human nature, justice, health, God, religion, the natural world—the list goes on. How you plan your plot, what you make your characters say, how your characters treat one another, how you craft your storyworld, and how you imply what’s right and what’s not, is going to come through whether you mean to or not—so the more you mean it, the better it will appear on the page. Often, the concern with making sure your story’s themes come across well will lead you to giving it the attention it needs. The method and timeline by which you develop and incorporate themes is less important than the time you devote to polishing that piece of your story.

This thought leads to the second option I posited: the idea that some authors want their stories to be void or nearly-void of themes, or want their story to be vague enough to be interpreted hundreds of ways. But the avoidance of themes or vagueness of themes is itself a concrete, explicit theme—there’s literally no way to create a story that doesn’t tell the audience “hey! This is what reality is like—this is what I believe and understand—this is what you should believe and understand, too!” If you write a subjective theme, then you’re telling readers that’s how the world works or how you believe the world works—which, then, is no longer subjective. Actual, complete subjectivity falls in upon itself; in that way, then, the avoidance of theme is rather pointless. If you want to create a work that is subjective and/or vague, then your energy is best spent a) determining why you want to create a “vague” or “subjective” story (what purpose does it serve? what meaning does it impart?) and b) putting purposeful effort in making that vagueness/subjectiveness emerge as a consequence of your characters, plot, or writing style. Just know that vagueness/subjectiveness is still a theme—and if that defeats the purpose of writing about them, then perhaps your original goal isn’t what you thought it was. At the very least, if that is your goal, evaluating your intentions will lead you being better able to express your thoughts in a way that the audience will understand (or, not understand).

You may be wondering, if themes really can’t be divorced from characters and plot, how you can better handle the themes you want to explore or end up exploring in your writing? Have no fear! My next post will delve more into techniques that authors can implement to incorporate thematic elements into their stories and develop nuances in their themes in a way that’s successful and harmonious rather than clunky and awkward. Hopefully by the end of these two posts, you’ll not only view themes in a more holistic sense, but have more confidence in handling them in your writing.

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