This week’s topic may seem like a throwback to high school English class–how many of us struggled to come up with 5-7 pages explaining the theme of some book we barely understood? But I’m happy to report that the idea of “theme” isn’t nearly as confusing as your English class may have led you to believe.
Truth is, our teachers had it right–theme is a critical part of any story. Maybe the most important part, because the theme is the heart of the story. The why behind the writing. The best stories don’t just entertain, they show us something about ourselves. And after reading them, we leave subtly different, changed.
How do writers accomplish this feat? Not by preaching, moralizing, or outright telling the reader what’s important. Nothing turns a reader off faster (unless your name is Aesop) than being told by the author what you’re supposed to learn. Perhaps this was one of the reasons Jesus taught the crowds in parables or stories, and only explained the meanings when his disciples asked him directly. No, we readers value what we have to work hard for, and while it might drive us nuts that we can’t be sure we’ve interpreted the author’s message correctly, we feel satisfied when we have to figure it out ourselves.
Theme is the answer to what a reader can get out of a story besides being entertained. And yes, just like in English class, it is ambiguous, because themes generally involve an author’s attempt to wrestle with some broad or vague topic–like love, forgiveness, redemption, sacrifice, death, friendship, family, or suffering.
The theme is conveyed through the events of the story (plot) and through the character arcs. Sometimes an author may incorporate a color, object, or specific concept to serve as a repeated symbol of the theme, adding to the richness of the story. And of course, any theme will have more impact if it reflects the author’s heart–something they’re passionate about and want to share with their readers. If the heart of your story reflects your heart, it will matter to readers.
So how do you unlock your own story’s theme? The key is to know your own heart–what matters to you, personally. Think over your characters, story concepts, and any scenes you’ve developed so far. Do you see any themes starting to emerge? List some ideas, making sure to include things that really matter to you. You don’t have to have all the answers; maybe your story will explore an issue or topic rather than give a decisive opinion. What questions about life and love and death do you wrestle with personally? What have you experienced and learned in your own life that you want to share with others? Can you explore any of these ideas in your story?
Don’t worry too much yet about how you will work this theme into the story. If it’s reflected in the character arcs and elements of the plot, it will flow naturally instead of feeling forced. And later, as you revise your first draft, you can tweak these elements or add symbolism to strengthen a weak theme.
It can be a little scary, putting something out there that matters to us. But sharing a part of our hearts, as writers, is how we authentically connect with others through our work. It’s what makes the writing, and the risks, worthwhile.
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