In last week’s post, I discussed how themes, just like plot and characters, are innate parts of storytelling, and how we cannot divorce theme from the rest of our writing. The natural follow-up question, then, is how do you handle thematic elements well? Readers and writers alike are well aware that things like theme, symbolism, and motifs are delicate and difficult—give it too much space and your book becomes a sermon, and give it too little and your story suffers for lack of clarity and meaning. To quote my previous post, “poorly-handled themes are a result of their disharmony with the characters and plot of a story.” But how do you find that wonderful harmony of story elements? Realizing that theme is always there is the first step. The second step is understanding how themes operate (often uniquely) in creative storytelling; and the third step is finding techniques to question your themes in order to extract nuance.
(A preliminary note: for the sake of this post, let’s ignore the pace at which themes in your story will develop—you may begin a story immediately knowing some great question you want to tackle, or you may begin without a clue. Regardless, themes develop and expand and deepen over time just like characterization and plot, and often develop at different paces for each project. The principles discussed in this post can work at any stage of the writing process.)
Once you realize that theme is always going to be present in your story, the second step of handling them well is understanding how they operate in creative storytelling. I use the term “creative storytelling” loosely, as both fiction and nonfiction can be creative, and storytelling can mean anything from novels to poems to movie scripts. This also isn’t to say that other forms of communication aren’t creative; rather, I draw this distinction to make a specific point. The distinction that’s necessary is that theme enters creative stories through the back door, while theme uses the “front door” in more literal forms of communication. Take, for instance, the stereotypical term for novels that handle theme too heavy-handedly: sermons. While preachers or teachers may utilize creative openings to engage the audience, the purpose of their message is presented in a straight-forward way and discussed without excessive shrouding or questioning. The same is true with things like journalism (not the opinion-piece type), academic papers, lectures, practical nonfiction, and technical writing. The point of these communication methods is to discuss meaning, logic, and truth openly, and it works because that’s what we want when we read or watch them. A speaker who never gets to the point, or professor who never gives you a straight answer about a subject you want to learn more about, will make you frustrated because that’s not why you came to hear them speak. In those cases, we want the information to come to us directly.
Contrast that with (this post’s definition of) creative storytelling. When we pick up a novel, a movie, a show, a poem, even a song, we expect and want to experience an event or emotion, not (strictly) learn new information or analyze topics in detail. We want to hear characters speak like we speak to our friends and family; we want to see events unfold in a way at least somewhat akin to our lives; we want to explore and see extraordinary things that move us or make us wonder. The moment the characters turn into a lecturer, or the plot becomes a how-to manual, we disengage and grow frustrated because that’s not the point of that communication style. Thus, themes in stories have to be approached in what you might call a round-about way—we want to learn, question, and grow with the story, and see those questions or premises played out rather than summarized or neatly explained.
This leads to the third step—questioning your themes in order to extract nuance. The key is to:
- Analyze your story to see what themes are there or what questions are being raised through the characters or plot points, then
- Extrapolate those themes in order to bring about the most meaning.
As I said before, themes are always present—sometimes they’re just hard to find. They often hide in character dynamics or plot points, especially ones that are full of conflict or difficulty. If you’re having a hard time finding or fleshing-out your themes, ask yourself questions like:
- Why do these characters oppose each other, and what does that say about their relationship?
- What does my protagonist’s poor relationship with their parents reveal about parenthood, family, growing up, independence, etc.?
- What does the friendship between my protagonist and their best friend reveal about loyalty, honesty, trust, encouragement, or love?
- By having my antagonist get away with one of their crimes, what does that say about justice and humanity?
- By having my protagonist break off a romantic relationship at the end of the book, what does that say about love?
- Should I tweak any of these elements in order to say the right thing? Is anything wrong directly or indirectly being condoned by characters or plot points?
- What questions are raised by this chapter or scene?
- Do my characters represent varying viewpoints about a specific issue or theme, and do I treat these viewpoints with honesty?
This last point is especially important when weaving themes into stories. Because creative stories tend to explore rather than explain, your characters and plot need to present multiple facets and examples of the different questions posed about the main ideas (for instance, if your story deals with forgiveness, it’s important to show characters who have forgiven, characters who are struggling to forgive, and characters who refuse to forgive). The scope of the themes doesn’t have to be large, and you don’t have to cover every single nuance or objection—it’s unlikely that anyone could. But the more you’re able to incorporate the questions your audience would naturally ask about your theme, the more meaningful your story and themes will be. Play around with leaving questions answered or unanswered—if you answer a thematic question, even in a round-about way, what does it add to the story? If you leave the question unanswered, what does that add? Which is better, or more truthful? Just like you edit scenes so your characters speak more authentically, or modify your plot so it makes more sense, take the time to tweak your themes until your story raises the right questions and only answers the ones that are necessary. Just like characters and plot, the more time you devote to asking questions and finding answers, the deeper your themes will become.