Among the various writing how-to books on my shelf, Stephen King's On Writing is the one I absorbed the most. And not just because he remains a favorite author of mine, but because his advice was rational and came straight from his own experience. From the trenches, so to speak.
One such practical topic was on theme. Everyone knows from grade school how to look for the theme of a story. I've seen writers stress over this. How on God's green earth do you write toward a theme? According to Mr. King, you don't.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write that doggone story to the best of your ability. Make sure your characters, plot, setting, and all the guts of said story are solid and relatively polished. THEN, go back and look for the themes. Like the sodden earthworms that emerge after a downpour, your themes will emerge after the story is completed. Now, it's your time to go back and tweak those themes to make them have more impact.
Why even worry about it in the first place? Because theme is more than just a lofty moral lesson. It answers the age-old question of "What's the point?". If you cultivate a strong theme(s), your readers will walk away with your story lingering in their minds, instead of turning on the Playstation, never to think about it again.
Since I love examples, I'll use A Ranger's Tale as one. As I wrote it, I remained mindful to not be mindful (um...yeah) of the themes in the story. When I worked on the final drafts, I started looking for them, and what do ya know? I spotted themes of loyalty, forgiveness, and making the right decisions even when they're not the easiest ones.
To my surprise, Caliphany turned out to be one of the most loyal characters in the book. Sure, she was impetuous, naive, and downright stubborn to a fault, but deep down, she remained loyal to her family and friends, even when she felt betrayed by them. I made sure to bring this aspect to light in how she handled situations with some of the other characters, making sure she never completely abandoned those people, but experienced realistic hurt and inner turmoil over her decisions regarding them.
The theme of forgiveness came about through Galadin's interactions with the Juntay family, who were old family friends of his parents. I won't give away any spoilers, but his story with them was probably the one that touched me the most in the whole book. Forgiveness can also be seen through Caliphany's interactions with her father and Jayden Ravenwing. In her case, both she AND the other parties made mistakes, so I made sure their paths back to one another were not easy, particularly the relationship with her father. I added a few little scenes to make their journey back to forgiveness real. Because, in real life, forgiveness really is a journey, particularly when the hurt runs deep.
Now that I'm finished with Serenya's Song, I've found a strong theme that ran throughout the story. I suspected such a theme going into it, so on my final drafts, I made certain to bring it to light.
Would you just tell us already?!
All right, all right. It's a theme close to my heart, and one that I drew on from my own life, which speaks to the "write what you know" advice you've probably heard before. It's the theme of a father's love, particularly when the child isn't biologically his.
It all really started with Jayden in A Ranger's Tale. And again, I won't ruin it for those of you who haven't read it yet. But, as you'll see in the prologue for SS, Douglas Barnaby risked life and limb to save his stepdaughter, Serenya, when her mother died during childbirth. He outran some pretty deadly creatures to get the tiny infant to safety. And as you'll see from chapter one onward, he raised and loved her as a single dad and made plenty of sacrifices to ensure her happiness and survival.
In early drafts, I had Douglas more in the background, but as the story went on, I realized he needed a bigger presence. He deserved it after that life and death run! I made sure to make this theme into both a connector for Jayden and Douglas and to make it a driving force in some of the biggest events in the story. In fact, the scenes in which the theme is strongest are the ones that brought the most tears to my eyes.
Bet you're just dying to read it now, aren't ya?
But, let's talk theme. Writers, share with me your thoughts on themes. Do you consciously work toward them in your story or just let them emerge organically? What are some of your favorite or strongest themes you've employed in your stories?