What’s a Story Theme?
Edmond Blackadder once said to the Queen of England (Queenie) in Blackadder II, “Without you Ma’am, life is like a broken pencil – pointless.”
I can’t think of a better way to sum up the need for a theme in a story. Without one the story suffers from meandering, both for the writer and reader. Without a clear Theme in the head of the author before they start, they often get lost shortly in, or make as far as the middle before scratching their head thinking: where is this going? It’s the single greatest reason so many people give up on a story and halt a promising writing career, or miss out on an enriching and satisfying hobby.
So what does Theme mean for an author, and why does it have such an impact?
For an untrained writer, a story appears easy. It’s a sequence of things that happen around characters. So they set off with an idea and start writing. They choose someone (often based on someone they know), and think up some scenes. If they’re clued up, they would know to create a ‘bad guy’ too.
But somehow the writing soon feels flat, unsatisfying, being just a bunch of stuff that happens.
The reason is almost certainly going to come down to lack of feeling. We live our lives talking and communicating facts. Even when relating stories verbally down the pub, or writing home, we focus on things that happened, and not how it felt. Successful stories are about invoking an emotional experience. If it makes you laugh, cry, angry, sad, or even curious or thoughtful, then the story was a success.
Creating an emotional response is best served through choosing a Theme for your story. Consider it the delivery angle.
Choosing and Applying a Story Theme
The seven most popular themes in traditional storytelling are:
The Rocky films, for instance, were number 7. When viewers see a familiar story theme, even though they’re aren’t told what it is, they’re more likely to home in on the message you’re trying to send and have an emotional response.
- You decide to write a story about a child being beaten up at school because he’s undersized. Straight away you can see some scenes in classes, the playground, or the toilets away from prying eyes. Maybe you think, well the Theme is obviously bullying. Let me stop you right there. The Theme isn’t the story, it’s the underlying message, so what if I said instead the theme was going to be:
- Isolation. Now we have a new view to it. The scenes are going to depict the child being bullied, then perhaps going home to a drunken father who doesn’t care, a mum who’s always out at work and says ‘it’s just kids, they’ll grow out of it’, and teachers who are in fear of the bully’s parents. Perhaps an older sister who bullies him too. The ending for such a book might not be pleasant, with a powerful emotional impact and a strong message.
- Vengeance. Now we see a whole new story arc. The boy, against all odds, plans to turn the tables and get his own back. And perhaps this has a nice ending where he wins, or a bad one where he fails and things get worse. In the latter, perhaps the theme would be expanded to the futility of vengeance.
- Let’s take a second example, a story about a husband who finds his wife has been cheating on him. Our immediate thoughts turn to obvious scenes of the discovery, fighting, tears being shed. But if we now add a theme:
- Forgiveness. Here we have a story that perhaps has the couple getting back together, we explore the power of love and friendship over temptation and desire, and that mistakes happen.
- If, however, we borrow from the first example and say Vengeance again, we can see a completely different story line. Maybe now we have a murder story, first exploring the pain of the husband, then turning an ordinary man, through hatred and jealously to plotting to kill one or both of the culprits. Again, the ending could be either way.
- But what if I said the theme was Weakness. This is something very different, even uncomfortable. The husband perhaps is the one who is weak, and can’t do anything about it. The writer explores cowardice, with scenes of the husband being put down by the wife, the lover, or even worse, he is mocked by both. How would such a story end?
Whenever you write a story, it doesn’t matter how small, fiction or non-fiction, even for business, without a theme you’re creating difficulty for yourself, and robbing the reader of a rich experience with a story that has staying power, impact and the strongest ending.
What’s your experience with writing themes?
Miles has run a self-publishing company since 2008, specialising in first-time authors, as well as being a successful self-published fantasy author, coach and trainer.
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