Image Credit: Images created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos.
Themes, like story ideas, are all over the place. It is a question of having an open enough mind to spot them and then working out which ones you like best. Those are the ones you will put heart and soul into writing up.
Classic themes never date. There will always be love stories, crime tales, horror ones and so on. But a writer can put their own spin on the classic themes to give them a new life and come up with something unique. And writers will have their own pet themes they love to write about.
One of mine is liking to see justice done so in most of my stories, especially the fairytale type ones, you can be sure my villains are going to get their comeuppance. The story is then about how this happens and what does my hero/heroine do to ensure that comeuppance does happen.
One of the things I loved about the classic TV show, Columbo, was it turned the rule book on its head. We knew from the beginning who the murder victim was and why they were killed. Why, we even knew who the murderer was! So where is the story then? Simply in watching Columbo unravel the mystery (and it is for me the late Peter Falks’s greatest role). The underlying theme here was that justice would be done and a detective in the awful raincoat would find a way of ensuring it was.
Themes are everywhere on TV and radio shows. Sometimes they’re blatant, sometimes you have to work them out. And there can be sub-themes. In the TV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, so wonderfully played by David Suchet, there is an underlying theme of racism in some of the stories. Time and again Poirot is looked down on because he is a foreigner. Time and again that proves to be a mistake.
The Purpose of Themes
The purpose of themes for me, as a writer, is to give me a structure to my story, whether I’m writing a 100-worder or something far longer. The theme and the title are the basic building blocks for me. Readers will latch on to themes they like and/or can identify with. A good theme gives resonance too – the justice will out one will always resonate because we know so often in life justice isn’t done. (Fiction where justice nearly always is done in some way can be a great comfort and yes I think that is part of the purpose of it. We don’t always want art to reflect life).
I will use proverbs and well known sayings as titles for stories but also, even where I don’t do that, they are my underlying theme. I’ve used Time Waits for No Man as a title and theme, The Circle of Life as another and so on. They are helpful “pegs” for me to hang my story on and I then outline a suitable character to fit in with that theme.
In the first example given above, I prove the theme to be true for my lead character where, in a hurry to get a job done which could’ve waited, they find themselves stuck by a situation that has gone beyond their control. In the second one, I again get the character to prove the theme true by using known animal traits against their village where animal cruelty is not unknown and my character wants to do something about that.
So for a writer it pays to hang on to those old books of proverbs. Mine them for story and theme ideas!
The Themes That Matter
It also pays a writer to ask what really matters for them. Those are the themes for them to write to – conviction is important. A reader needs to feel that the writer cares about the characters they have set up. And when it comes to short story and flash fiction writing, where entering competitions is a common thing to do, you are set themes to write to all the time.
Top tip here: when facing this kind of thing, jot down ideas that come to you when you know the theme. Try to write down your first ten ideas, yes ten. The first three or so will be the ones everyone will come up with for the good reason these things will be common human experiences and therefore good material to write about. (And yes, they can be when done well).
But it will be the ideas further down the list that are much more likely to be unique to you. A unique interpretation of the theme is likely to catch the competition judge’s eye. What you don’t want is cliche or for the judge to feel they have seen it all before.
Themes for Short Story and Flash Fiction Collections
I sometimes have work published in the Bridge House Publishing anthologies and I’m glad to report I will have one in this year’s book due out later this year. All of these anthologies are to a set theme.
I found as I was drafting From Light to Dark and Back Again groups of themes (with associated moods) emerged and that literally inspired the title for my debut collection.
When editing collections (as I do with my editing hat on), I am looking at the overall theme and checking that all stories fit in well with this. You want readers to pick up on the themes as they read through without “laying it on with a trowel” so to speak.
Themes and Competitions
I must admit I love open competitions where I can choose my own theme but set ones have their uses. They challenge you to write on topics that may not have occurred to you in any other way and I’ve found for my flash fiction work, I’ve loved writing to themes I’d not considered before. For Tripping the Flash Fantastic, for the first time I’ve written historical fiction based flash tales. And talking of history…
How to tell a Classic Theme
Classic themes reverberate over the centuries. It’s why the best stories are based on them. They appeal to what we know of human nature and reflect something of who we are. Okay, nobody said those themes had to be nice ones. I do wonder if part of the appeal of horror writing, to name one example, is to reassure ourselves we are nothing like the characters portrayed in such stories.
Any thoughts, anyone? Also, what are the themes that most appeal to you and why?
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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