Theme: The Truth Behind the Tale
I once read somewhere (and I do wish I could remember where so I could give proper credit) that we story-writers are in the entertainment industry; that the primary goal of the story-writer is to entertain. While I basically agree with this statement, I think it’s also true that the best stories all have something real to say.
This is where theme comes into play. The term can be a little bit broad sometimes so just to be clear, when I talk about a story’s theme, I am referring to the meaning(s) or dare I say, the message(s) of the story. What fundamental truth(s) are you conveying in your idle fantasy? What aspects of real life are you exploring? And equally as important, how are you conveying that truth?
Let’s look at the easy(ish) bit first: identifying your theme (we’ll come back to how to convey your theme later). Themes can take many forms: it can be a moral lesson (e.g., ‘don’t do drugs, kids’), a particular idea or belief (‘the meaning of life is such-and-such’, ‘God is like this’, ‘socialism/capitalism is destructive in this way’, etc.) or it can be a general portrait of a particular subject (friendship, poverty, religion, etc.). Depending on how you write, you may have decided on a theme before anything else (that is to say, your initial idea was something like ‘I want to write a story about domestic violence’) or the theme may have come about as a natural byproduct of your story. If it’s the latter, you might be tempted to ask yourself: ‘do I really need to identify my theme(s), since they occurred purely by happenstance after I began writing the story?’.
Answer: yes, you do. After all, whether it was your intention to write a story about lies, sex and/or murder or not, your audience will pick up on these themes if they’re there. And believe me, if you’ve written a half-decent story, there will be at least a couple of naturally occuring themes. It’s unavoidable. Has one of your characters been pursuing a love interest who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings? Then your theme is unrequited love. You may not have intended it, but it’s there, growing wild in the tulip patch that is your story. Depending on how your characters behave, it may also become a story about obsession, harassment or rejection. Therefore, since it’s almost impossible to write a good story without a theme or two popping out of the mix, it’s worthwhile identifying your theme so that you can make it work for you. Themes may be naturally occurring, but they shouldn’t be allowed to grow wild. Once you’ve identified them, you can use them to really enrich your story.
How you convey your theme is something else entirely, and will depend largely on the kind of story you’re writing, but the best advice I can give you is this: avoid sounding preachy. That’s not what people want from a story and it will certainly annoy your reader, even if they agree with you. Don’t misunderstand me, you should be bold in communicating your ideas, but there’s a way to do it and a way not to do it. The chances are your readers came to your book quite comfortable in their own opinions. If you want to change their opinions, you’ll need to do it with tact and subtly. Show them the truth by the events of your story.
In the same way, avoid soapboxing (yes, I just made that term up). This is when you turn your characters into a soapbox from which you casually throw out your opinions on controversial subjects, usually in the form of internal or external dialogue. e.g.:
Pro-abortion soapboxing: There was a small group of nuns standing outside the hospital, clutching pictures of the Madonna and Child. Isobel shook her head. Didn’t these outdated old crones realise that a woman has the right to make decisions about her own body?
Anti-abortion soapboxing: There was a small group of nuns standing outside the hospital, clutching pictures of the Madonna and Child. Isobel shook her head. It saddened and amazed her to think that in this day and age, there was still any need to protest what was clearly the legally sanctioned murder of unborn babies.
Soapboxing won’t only annoy your reader, it will actually undermine your story. Remember stories and characters must develop. A story never ends where it began, because the characters therein must develop (even if that ‘development’ involves a downward spiral of self-destruction). If a character’s strongly-held beliefs are relevant to the story, they ought to be challenged throughout that story (and probably, although not necessarily, altered in some way by the end). Therefore, if you begin with absolute statements (‘such-and-such is evil!‘) you’ve nowhere to go but contradiction or compromise (‘such-and-such isn’t so bad after all’ or ‘I’m not sure what I think about such-and-such now’). You could, of course, end with an absolute statement (‘Jeanie thought such-and-such was okay, but now she knew it was evil!‘) but that is a very lazy way to write. If your audience was truly drawn into Jeanie’s plight throughout the story, they’ve probably already come to the conclusion that such-and-such is evil. They don’t need you to lecture them.
If, on the other hand, your character’s opinions are not not relevant to the overall story, ask yourself why you’ve included them. There may be a legitimate reason to include them (e.g., characterisation), but if it’s nothing more than an opportunity to soapbox, chop it out. Air your controversial opinions on Twitter if you must, but don’t let it ruin your story.
Remember, your audience didn’t come here to learn your opinions. Your audience doesn’t give a rip about your opinions, even if they happen to share them. Instead, focus on telling the story. Make it as true as you can and fill it with believable, sympathetic characters to whom your reader can relate. They’ll start to understand what it’s like to be in that position and will begin to think. And that’s all you can hope to accomplish as a writer: provoke thought. You cannot force someone to believe something. You can only offer them the truth as you see it.
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