Writing Workshop III

Theme: How to Incorporate it into your Story

This week, I want to talk a little about theme. For some of you, theme is one of those elusively abstract and daunting topics talked about ad nauseam in English class that has you immediately reaching for the wine bottle. Trust me, I’ve been there. Some days I’d rather pretend it doesn’t exist at all than tackle it. However, theme is one of the fundamental pillars of great writing, and if done correctly, will propel your story from the mundane to the exceptional.

As I mentioned previously, theme is the broad philosophy or underlying idea you wish to explore in your novel. It is the subtle message hidden in the undercurrents of the plot, always alluded to, but never expressed directly. This, unfortunately, is what makes it so damn slippery. Think about some of the most common themes in literature. Here are a few popular examples to help you:

  • *Good vs Evil (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings)
  • *Redemption (Atonement, The Kite Runner)
  • *Love (Romeo and Juliet, Jane Eyre)
  • *Revenge (The Count of Monte Cristo, Wuthering Heights)

Now, figuring out the general theme of a book is relatively easy. The trickier question we have to ask ourselves – especially if we are going to use it effectively in our own stories – is what do these books say about those themes, and more importantly, how do they say it? The authors certainly don’t have a section in the front of their book with an explicit explanation, and when you’re developing your own theme, the last thing you want to do is perch yourself up on a soapbox with a giant megaphone and shout your theme at the top of your lungs. Trust me. Readers will only cover their ears and run. Theme, like many aspects of a story, should follow the age-old adage of show, don’t tell.

Oh no, you say, Not this again.

I know, I hear you. But have another sip of wine and let me explain. Here goes…

The best way to convey your theme is to derive it from your character’s emotional development, or from the consequences they face as a result of their actions.

Sorry, can you explain that again?

Okay, I’m going to take my own advice, and show, rather than tell with an example from my own book, Chasing Fireflies. In this story, I touch on three central themes: family, morality and self-determination. For the sake of this post, I’m going to focus on the last of these.

Most of you haven’t read the book, so let me give you a brief rundown:

Liam is a seventeen-year-old boy whose father was imprisoned for murder, and who lives with his mother and her abusive, alcoholic husband, Ray. Unable to abandon his vulnerable mother, Liam feels trapped, helpless, and angry. They have very little money, and not much food, and despite being smart, Liam knows he’ll never be able to afford college tuition. This leaves him feeling powerless and stuck in the shadow of his greatest fear: that he will end up just like his father.

Rainey, on the other hand, comes from an affluent family and had the kind of future where almost every door is open to her. However, because of her little sister Maverick’s heart condition, Rainey feels utterly helpless in the face of impending tragedy, and is terrified of a future she has no control over, to the point of inaction.

You can see how both characters feel powerless, and have no control over their futures, right? Right.

So then, you ask, what does the story say about the theme?

Well, let’s take a look at these characters’ emotional development. As these two characters get to know one another, they start to teach each other small lessons: Liam teaches Rainey the importance of standing up for others and acts as a constant reminder of all the things she takes for granted, things that give her freedoms he could never dream of. In turn, Rainey teaches Liam that it’s not money, success, or the cloth you’re cut from that makes someone good, it’s how hard you try. Over time, both characters realize they have more control over their situations than they first believed, and it was only their fear that has been getting in the way. Thus, I would argue (and being the author, I feel I am qualified to do so) that Chasing Fireflies illustrates how we are not limited by external constraints, but rather by our fears, insecurities and internal perceptions. Did I ever say it explicitly? Of course not, but the idea is there, reflected in the characters and their emotional journeys.

So the next time you want to consider theme in your story, remember these points, and enjoy the wine (though I have to admit, I’m more of a whiskey drinker myself). If this has been of any interest to you, please let me know, or comment below!

One thought on “Writing Workshop III

  1. Yes yes yes I love this!! I’ve always struggled with show/tell in my own writing and this is a really succinct breakdown of how to incorporate theme in a very intentional way:D


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