Image Credit: Images created via Book Brush using Pixabay photos. Book cover images from Chapeltown Books
Themes are the bedrock of any story told in any form (play, flash, novel, novella, short story et al).
Why? I think there are four reasons for this:-
- Writers are consciously writing to a theme which will be on something they care deeply about (else there’s no point doing this).
- A theme emerges unconsciously from the characters and plot. I have sometimes looked back at a story of mine and realised there was a second, underlying theme to my tale which will back up the first theme I did write about consciously. A theme of love, for example, can also have an underlying theme for the need for forgiveness.
- Themes are timeless. There are always stories to be written about love, justice, revenge etc.
- Themes come up time and again in competitions so it is a good idea to practice writing to them. Sometimes the theme can be an open one but a good starting point for ideas is to look at the classic topics and draft some thoughts as to what you could do with, say, a love theme. Bear in mind love takes many forms so that is one reason why this is a theme which will always generate ideas.
Believing in Your Theme
I will sometimes use the theme as the title of my story too. In From Light to Dark and Back Again, I did this with my Serving Up A Treat. I then used the story to explore how my character did precisely that and, more importantly, why.
Themes will often suggest whether your characters takes a positive or negative view. It doesn’t have to be all sunshine and roses emerging from your theme. Indeed, it is often better when it is not. I want my characters to earn their sunshine and roses. Readers want to see that too.
Fiction does reflect on our lives and human experience so it would be odd indeed if certain themes didn’t crop up time and again. It is what we can bring to these themes with our author voices, our viewpoints, our characters that should make our stories stand out.
I believe it matters to focus on themes that mean something to you. You will write with conviction then. That will come through in your character portrayal and it is my belief readers pick up on this, even if they don’t consciously know it. When I am reading, I can get a sense of the theme coming through and the author’s view of it.
In one of my favourite novels, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen shows us the timelessness of a love story but also an underlying theme of love breaking barriers. Here it was Elizabeth Bennet’s prejudice and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s pride which needed bringing down and the story shows how that happened. I refuse to believe this is a plot spoiler after all this time! If Austen didn’t care about love breaking down barriers why write this story? It meant something. It still means something to all who love this book.
Themes Are Open to Interpretation
This, I think, is one of the great strengths of themes. Think about how many love stories there are. One theme – many tales. Love can play out in different ways too. How about the love of adult children for parents who need their help? It’s not just about romantic love (and there are many spin-offs from that. It’s not just about Romeo and Juliet either, fantastic though that is).
When I am deciding on a theme to write to, I jot down possibilities coming from it. So for a theme like justice, for example, I could come up with the following:-
Justice aimed at the wrong person/place
Living with the outcome of justice
Those are just a few thoughts. I can then take these and start working out what kind of character would be living with the outcome of justice, say, and then plan out what that outcome is, how it affects them, is it fair or not, and what they do to change things.
Change has to happen in any story. It’s why we read stories. We read to find out what happens. In this example, assuming the outcome of justice isn’t a fair one, I’ll be looking at what my character could do to put things right and whether they use fair means or foul.
Why Writing to Themes is such a Good Idea
There will always be room for love stories, crime ones etc. I mentioned competitions. Regardless of whether it is an open one or a theme has been set, any competition judge will be looking for what theme does emerge from your tale. They will then look at how well you deliver on it. When you think about it, every story, regardless of length, has to have a theme behind it. It is the story’s “point”.
On the odd occasion, I’ve been disappointed by a story I’ve read, it is nearly always because I wasn’t convinced by the character. That in itself stems from the character not being motivated enough in the story to bring about meaningful change.
It’s why I dislike Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet or Anne Eliot, Fanny Price does nothing to help herself. The theme of love here is less convincing for me because Austen’s other heroines did do something active to try to help their cause. That convinced me they believed in the theme themselves. Fanny did well eventually because of others not doing so well. I would have liked to have seen Fanny earn her happy after ever ending. To me, she needed to be more active than she was.
Actively looking for themes to write about will also encourage you to dig that bit deeper to find out what more you can do with them.
Themes crop up everywhere and not just in stories. Think about favourite songs. What themes are behind them? It will be the timeless ones. So writing to a theme is a good way for a writer to ensure their work doesn’t go out of date. We still read Austen, Dickens etc now though so much is different in our day compared to theirs. But their themes and character portrayals still grip us because we identify with these still. That is how it should be too.
You do have to care about the theme to want to write about it. I don’t think you can fake that. Why would you want to anyway? There are enough challenges in writing without forcing yourself to write to a theme you’re not really interested in.
So think about what interests you here. From the themes you like, you can then start to think about characters to serve your chosen theme.
Because you care about the theme, you will portray a character who cares too and that is what will grip a reader. Because you understand the theme, you will know what would drive your character to act in this way or that, partially because you yourself might act this way or that. Certainly you will understand why your characters are acting the way they are. Your readers will understand too – and that encourages the reading on to find out what happens.
Pick your themes then. Work out what could come from them. That will help trigger story ideas.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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