How to bring out theme to give your story extra oomph

Nov 22, 2011

It's been a crazy month around here-- a lot crazier than I thought it was going to be, hence me being absent from the blogosphere even more than I thought I'd be. I'm sorry I haven't been around to your blogs much lately. I really do miss hearing thoughts and news from my internet writing buddies! Hopefully things will calm down soon, and I'll see you around a bit more.

In the meantime, let's talk a bit more about what I mentioned last week-- theme. I've often found that there are times when it feels like my story is missing something, like there's some important piece missing. It just falls flat. It might be bad, it might even be good, but it's never GREAT. When that happens, I've found that the main culprit is a theme that's either missing or not fully expressed.

Theme is a complicated but necessary part of every story. For me, I've found that theme is one of the things that tends to come more organically. Even when I plan things ahead of time for a theme, it changes (or becomes more specific) 90% of the time. So let's talk about how you can use theme to enhance your story, whether you plan it or let it come out on its own.

1. Know what theme is-- and what it isn't.

Theme isn't the "lesson" or message you're trying to teach your readers. You don't want to come across preachy, because people will get bored an ignore what you're trying to say. Theme is what your story is really about underneath the plot, and as such, it often comes out as a natural part of your concept or characters. For example, in my current story The Unhappening of Genesis Lee, the plot is about a girl whose memories are being stolen. A natural thematic extension of that revolves around identity-- how do you define who you are? By your past? By what people tell you? By what you feel, say or do?

2. Write out your theme, and try to phrase it as a question

It's often a good idea for your theme to be a question-- and you don't necessarily have to answer that question. You can explore the different facets of it, and leave your reader to make their own conclusions. That will have a much bigger impact on them than if you told them what the point of the story is. Let them find their own point.

3. Remember that there can be more than one theme-- but there is usually one main theme.

It's fine if you discover there is more than one underlying theme to your story. It's probably good, actually, because it's indicative of depth. But you don't want to be schizophrenic in your storytelling. If you're hopping from one theme to another, your reader isn't going to get a clear idea of what the story is "about"-- the theme. Let the little ones come out, but don't let them take over the story.

4. Bring out the theme through both the plot and the characters.

As different events unfold in your story, how they work out-- or don't-- can have a big part of what you're trying to say. The choices your characters make, which often affect these events, are another way you can emphasize the theme. Like in Brodi Ashton's Everneath, the theme often also comes out as part of the character's personal growth arc. This is an effective way to highlight the theme, and lets the character's actions touch on the theme. Character's relationships and their individual strengths and weaknesses can be good places for different sides of the theme to be explored.

So, my friends, how do you find your theme? How do you bring it out in your story so that it makes the story more powerful? What are some books you loved that had strong themes that touched you?


akoss said...

Theme in a book is still one of those things that puzzle me. So far I haven't been able to make the conscious choice to put a theme in my wip.
But your post makes it a bit easier to do now.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting but the good vs evil theme seems to get the best followings like Lord of Rings and Harry Potter and I also love The Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness (YA author) because the theme is so powerful and yet so very fundamental.

Anonymous said...

Oh this is just what I needed, thanks.

MKHutchins said...

After high school English class, "theme" is usually a topic I hate, but this post was perfect. I love the idea of making theme a question, and not necessarily answering it, but developing the various possibilities.

As for books, I always thought it interesting that every villian in LotR -- even Sauron if you read the Silmarillion -- was given the chance for redemption and change. Often, the bad guys don't take the offer, but it's still the act of offering Gollum a chance to be a good guy that allows success.

Adrienne said...

I found my theme grew organically from the main character and her major internal conflict. Trust became the overarching idea, and my three POV characters illustrated different aspects of dealing with trust, chosing who to trust, opening yourself back up after a major break of trust, etc, through their interactions with each other. Other minor themes came as offshoots of that main idea, and usually on a subconscious level, after I recognized my main theme. Interesting post!

Cortney Pearson said...

Theme is so hard for me because I can never tell what mine is or if I even have one! I never write with a specific theme in mind (and maybe I should!). I'm glad you gave the distinction between themes of stories and morals of stories.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

For me theme tends to evolve as I write the outline, even as I write the first draft. I rarely start with a theme. You are right, though, to recognise it and bring it out in the edits.

Golden Eagle said...

I've always found this tricky--sometimes I feel like I can point to some element of the story and say "Aha! There it is!" and other times I can't find any unifying theme.

Great post. :)

Lindz Pagel said...

Great post.
I love the way you break theme down, and make it easier to discern.
Theme is a tricky mistress. I am 99.9% sure I know what my theme is, but I can never be sure if A.) it comes across at all or B.) I', beating my audience over the head with it... I suppose that's why we have our beta readers.

Teralyn Rose Pilgrim said...

Great article! Theme has always come easily for me because everything I write has to have a purpose to it. This stems from my urgent desire to make the world a better place (one book at a time!)

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

I like that idea of the theme being a question that you explore, but don't necessarily answer. That works for me. I find themes so illusive! Here I was an English major and everything, and I still can't really wrap my mind around them. I'll keep trying, though. :)

Krispy said...

Totally agree that theme comes about best organically.

Hope things calm down for you soon. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Julia Hones said...

Hi, Shallee, interesting topic and blog! I will be following your blog. To answer your question,I think of the theme of a story before I start writing it, but then sometimes I find another theme is evident after I finish crafting it. I find a lot under the surface after the story is on paper. Sometimes I tend to be so subtle with the theme that some of the readers do not get the message I try to convey. Today I finished writing a short story by Albert Camus: An Artist at work and the theme is about how pressed an artist can be by society. (I really enjoyed this funny story).

Rachna Chhabria said...

You know Shallee, I am constantly confused by what constitutes a theme. I like the idea of the theme being a question, that is easy enough to make or create in a story. Otherwise, themes are illusive for me.

Vicki Rocho said...

Excellent post. I've got an accidental theme going on right now, but I think the story could benefit from taking some time to explore the theme a bit more.

Stacy Henrie said...

I love books where the theme is understated, but present. Theme is a tricking thing to nail.

Peggy Eddleman said...

I totally agree that the theme needs to come out in the character arc! If the plot and the character arc can both climax at the same time and focus on the theme, you're pretty much golden.

Anonymous said...

My current book has two themes.
It's told from two different perspectives.

First one is - Can you really escape your past? Or will you repeat the mistakes of your family?


Second one - Obsession and lust also naivety.
How much are you willing to change yourself for someone else?

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