Finding Your Story’s Theme

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WHY IS A THEME IMPORTANT?

Themes can give a story focus, clarity, and power. Often we unconsciously write stories with a core idea. However, until we become aware of the themes we’re tapping into and work to bring them out consciously, we can’t use a theme to its full potential. How do we uncover these unconscious themes and weave them, with intention, into our stories?

BRINGING OUT THEMATIC ELEMENTS

Often the easiest way to develop a theme is to start with a key word. This key word can be a broad ideal or concept that all the characters are adapted to, or it can start with the cast and shape the narrative around them. Once you’ve identified the core concept you want to explore, you can start expanding your key word into a complete theme. After a theme is developed, it must be applied to the entire narrative to bring the message into focus for the reader.

EXAMPLES OF KEY WORDS

Here are some examples of key words:

  • Isolation
  • Love
  • Family
  • Loss

None of these on their own are theme statements, but all of them have the potential to become one. They are core topics, but until we flesh them out to be specific statements/messages about those topics, it will be difficult to develop a theme to work with. Determining what all of your cast has in common is often the first step to unraveling this puzzle.

CLONE CHARACTERS

A “clone character” is a secondary character that mirrors in some way aspects of the main character. The clone character often acts as an example of how the main character could grow, or fail to grow, during the course of the story’s journey. I first came across this term in Brian McDonald’s book, Invisible Ink, which I highly recommend for all authors, regardless of their chosen medium.

Frequently, every member of a cast is, to some degree, a clone character. This creates a series of endless, but very subtle, echoes. It gives the theme a lot of extra punch, even though it is usually completely invisible to the reader.

For example, villains are often characters that have failed to learn the lesson that the main character is struggling with. Villains can highlight the dangers of failing to evolve. They are regressive clones, demonstrating what could happen if the protagonist doesn’t grow.
CloneCharacters
Being a clone character doesn’t mean that the personalities, look, or history are identical. However, they do have a lot of common ground in key areas related to the same issues. Often they deal with the same problem, but may all solve that problem differently. The method or means a character uses is often what defines them as a villain or hero for the audience.

CLONE CHARACTER EXERCISE

Go through every member of your cast. Write down some key words you’d associate with their character. Consider using note cards or sticky notes.

These key words could be related to every aspect of your character, such as their personality, fears, motives, weaknesses, strengths, and personal history. Think about what kinds of problems they’ll need to solve, and what the character will learn as they face those challenges and grow. Compare the person they start the story as, and the individual they become by the time the narrative ends.

Once you’ve gone through all your characters, start grouping the key words you’ve developed. Do you see the same key word show up multiple times? Or do some key words fit together under an umbrella idea? How do they connect to each other? What do they have in common?

You may find that the personality, problems, and path of many of your secondary characters echo the journey and issues of the main character. Finding the common ground between them will help you uncover what your story is about on a deeper level.

Not every character will relate to the key words and theme in the same way. Some could be direct clones, having a lot of traits very similar to the main character. A character could also be a regressive clone, highlighting a failure to grow. Many antagonistic characters fall into this category. Look at the big picture and paint in broad strokes.

TURNING A KEY WORD INTO A THEME

The difference between a key word and a theme is that a key word is simply a central topic, whereas a theme is a complete and specific idea. Let’s take the first key word, Isolation, as an example. Two entirely different theme statements could be:

  1. A team is always better at solving a problem than a person working in isolation.
  2. Isolation will eat away at a person like a disease, until they self-destruct.

APPLYING A THEME

If we’re exploring Theme A, then every event must reinforce that idea. Whenever the main character tries to solve a problem working alone, the result is treacherous and difficult. Often it will fail or just barely succeed. Whereas when they work with others, the result is clearly more favorable. Presenting events in this way would emphasize the value of working collectively, rather than in isolation.

If we’re exploring Theme B, we must focus on the impacts of isolation and how they self-perpetuate, leading to increasingly dangerous behaviors. For example, the main character could be established as a risk taker, with behaviors that worsen whenever they feel particularly alone. They could rely on mistrust and bluster to get through difficult situations, both of which isolate us from others as a means of self-preservation. However, as the narrative progresses, the audience sees how this tactic is mal-adaptive, leading the main character to feel unwanted, unloved, or unimportant in a self-destructive cycle.

Applying either of these themes shifts the emphasis from one aspect of the character to another. The narrative goes from a series of events to having a clear purpose in mind. It also starts to highlight a core problem statement for the character. The audience can understand with clarity exactly why this particular theme is important for the main character to learn, and, in turn, for the entire cast.

THE THEME SHOULD BE PRESENT, START TO FINISH

Exactly what key word and theme you create is up to you, but once you decide on a statement and can articulate it, go through your material and adjust every piece to fall in line with your narrative’s new purpose.

To be truly effective, whatever theme is chosen must be present and active from the very first scene. So while a theme may be determined before writing ever starts, or deduced long after a draft is finished, it must be applied the entire draft to have an impact. Putting in a statement at the beginning or ending will not work very well if there is nothing in the narrative as a whole to support it.

While this may seem daunting, especially if you’ve already finished your draft, don’t despair! Often very subtle adaptations in dialog or actions can make a big difference, and even small improvements can yield a more focused result. Just going through the process will teach you valuable skills for the next time you write.

Need some help identifying the themes in your story? Let’s discover them together! I’m a Creative Consultant, and my first call (or text chat) is always free. I offer project development, crowd-funding coaching, creative career planning, and developmental editing. Contact me!

Curious about my creative work? LeyLines is the story of an irresponsible prince, his dream-weaving sister, and their adopted brother. When their mother dies under suspicious circumstances and a goddess asks them for help, they embark on a quest that will force them to choose between their family and their future. Read it at LeyLinesComic.com

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