Wednesday, February 22, 2012

O' Theme, Where Art Thou?

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?


  1. Great post! I agree with Stephen King, and also love his book "On Writing". I think theme is something you should ignore while writing. It will show itself, and you can further tease it out, during the editing process. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I agree. I don't write with a theme in mind, I write with a story in mind. To be honest, I don't think anything I've written has a theme.

    1. Thanks for posting, Darke!

      I bet a theme is there, if you look for it, no matter how minimal it might seem.

  3. Thanks for visiting Rebecca! I just added this:

    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.

  4. I don't write towards a theme either, but I've noticed I tend to use the theme of 'choices' a lot. Along with self-sacrifice. And love of family and loyalty.

    I think the world needs more of that today :)

    1. The theme of choice is a common one, and well-employed, it can really make for some excellent plot twists. A character's decision between choice A and B can make or break them. Easy to relate to that in our own lives, even if we're not faced with some of the fantastical choices presented in fiction.

      And yes, love of family and loyalty are main themes in my writing too. I think it reflects our priorities, perhaps?

  5. I don't start out with any theme in mind, but usually when I'm done with any of my short fiction stories, especially when I'm wrapping it up, I always find an underlying theme. Then what I do in revisions is go back and weave in some more contrast to make it more impacting when you finally read the words "the end."


    1. That's exactly the idea here! I wonder what Phil Bacon's theme would be... :)

  6. I don't write with a theme in mind either. If I did, my story would end up sounding preachy or unnatural. I let the theme emerge on its own.

    Like Stef, I also tend to write about choices, sacrifice, and family.

    1. That's where the danger lies in a pre-conceived theme. If you're not careful, it'll come out too forced. Great point, Lindsey!

  7. I think, each of our lives are FULL of themes and they naturally spill into our writing. I don't notice MY themes, but my writing buddies sure do. Apparently, I write the same ones over and over again!!! LOL!

    I'm glad you mentioned moral because so many people get moral and theme mixed up. And they are VERY different birds.

    I keep hearing about the On Writing book and I've never even picked it up. I'm a big wimp about horror so I've never even read one of King's fiction books. BUT, my F2K class gave me some excellent suggestions for some of his non-horror books so I'm picking up one of them and ON WRITING. Thanks, Mysti!!! :) Always a pleasure to visit your website.

    1. I LOVED On Writing. You don't have to be a King fan to find it useful. Besides the practical advice, I enjoyed reading about his personal journey--years of writing and rejection, living in a trailer, and his wife is the one who got "Carrie" out of his trashcan and made him keep working on it. It ended up being his first bestseller :)

      And you're right about themes and morals being different. Themes aren't there to each a morality lesson. It's more like the driving forces of the story. Like what the characters are fighting for or against. Corruption can be a theme, for instance--and that's certainly not considered "moral".

      So glad you stopped in, Von!


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