THEME. THEME. THEME.
What is a theme, really? And could it be even more important than a plot?
It sounds a bit high-concept at times, but when you strip it down to brass tacks, the notion of putting Theme into your writing is just like buying all the Tiki torches, grass skirts, and fruity cocktails you can get your hands on for a themed birthday party. It’s the glue that makes everything feel smooth, cohesive, and all matchy-matchy.
Today, I’m not going to teach you how to achieve a #1 Bestseller, or how to write books that absolutely everyone will love, but how to craft a theme that hits home with you, so that you will not have to scratch your head and wonder if your audience will be emotionally moved by your work or not—you’ll just know, because you were moved by it.
The Holy Trinity of Fiction
If you have ever wondered what it really takes to make a good story—I mean at the very core of a story, past all the arguments about dialogue tags and mechanical details like ‘showing v.s. telling’—then look no further than these three elements: Character, Plot, and Theme.
- Character and Plot:
Every story must (should) have a Plot, but no Plot can exist without Character. A Plot is action; it’s what happens to the Character to lead them onward into the Adventure, the Quest, or the Heist.
- Plot and Theme:
The Plot should always test the “stuff” the Character is made of. It should test the values, strengths, weaknesses, and ideologies of the Character while providing exciting (and frustrating) hindrances that keep them from their Goal. These challenges should be especially hard on one particular area of the Character’s flaws, such as their selfishness. (Think: Scrooge being visited by the three ghosts.)
- Theme and Character:
Theme is the heart of the Plot. It is the change in the Character that occurs after they have been tested by the Plot’s many hindrances that keep them from their Goal; it is the common thread that ties together all of the Character’s stumbling blocks and impactful decisions. Through the use of subtle, reoccurring messages, the Plot’s Theme will reaffirm the direction the Character’s heart is headed in—for better or for worse.
Picking Themes That Resonate
“You don’t know what you don’t know. But once you know what you don’t know, you’ll learn what you need to know.”
Clear as mud, eh? A close friend of mine recently shared a story about his father from years ago, on the day my friend was taking his last finals of high school. Jim’s dad sat him down the night before the big day and he told him, “When you’re sitting at your desk, pencil in hand, do you know what you’re going to learn? You’re going to learn what you don’t know, and with that knowledge, you can improve yourself. Never stop improving.”
Isn’t that just life in a nutshell? We don’t realize how deficient we are in an area until we are put into a position where we depend on that missing/deficient skill. Then through embarrassment or failure, we (hopefully) learn from that moment and go forward.
It can be very difficult to think up emotional challenges for your characters from scratch, (though this reference is very helpful,) and it’s especially difficult to write about something you have never experienced personally, which can cause even your most emotional scenes to feel flat and manufactured.
To think of themes that you will understand on a personal level, take a moment to reflect on the ways you have grown and matured as a whole and in particular relationships since you were in high school or college or a newlywed, be it with coworkers, friends, family, or outreach to the community. Or even your relationship with yourself.
Have you struggled with self-care or know someone who does? How does it affect loved ones? I know I struggle with it personally, and my father was very neglectful of himself, which was hurtful to see. I don’t want to subject anyone else to that feeling of helplessness, so I constantly work on de-stressing, drinking plenty of water, watching what I eat, and meditating. Losing him made me cherish others more dearly.
Once you have your thematic idea, something you understand and can write authentically, THEN you can brainstorm all the ways you can deliver that theme through a character, plot, and setting that’s very different from your own story. Success! You have created a character whom you can empathize with.
How did you get to the healthier emotional/physical state you’re in today? Your Character will have to traverse a similar journey, on his or her own path.
You can think of every step in your Plot as a test for your Character to learn what he didn’t know about himself or the world, and you can think of his reactions to these tests as the reaffirmations of the central Theme, a.k.a. his growth.
Make sense? Gosh, I hope so haha.