111. About Writing: Theme

All great works of fiction have one thing in common.

What is that, you ask?

They mean something.

Granted, most stories mean something whether the storyteller intends to convey meaning or not. A cheesy romantic novel may be awful, but it still expresses something—probably something shallow and clichéd—about romance.

A clever reader can sometimes discern meaning in a bad story, but it’s not very rewarding. It’s like sifting through a ton of sand to find an ounce of gold dust.

Good stories are different. Finding meaning in good stories can be exciting and satisfying, like digging into a cave to find heaps of dazzling jewels.

From Aesop to Jesus Christ, great storytellers have used stories to teach powerful lessons. However, storytellers must use caution and discernment when trying to convey ideas. Stories must not become propaganda. Storytellers must not be preachy. After all, one of the most important rules of writing is to show, not simply to tell.

What are themes?

A theme is a thread or pattern of meaning in a story. If that definition sounds vague, it’s because it is! Themes can be highly subjective. A reader might discern themes in a story that the storyteller never imagined. Consider the hundreds of interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays! Many good storytellers, however, are intentional in weaving themes into their work.

Let’s get practical. I want to write a story about, say, a young man named Socrates going on a blind date. How can I figure out the theme of the story? Where do I begin?

There are several ways to figure out themes. In this blog post, I’ll mention two of the most common.

The first is to use a particular theme (or several themes) as a starting point, and write the story around it. Let’s choose a theme for Socrates and his blind date. Destiny. That’s a good one. As I write the story, I’ll try to make it consistent with the theme I’ve chosen. Soc’s destiny might be to fall in love at first sight, or possibly to have the worst night of his life. Either way, his destiny—not his choices—must guide his blind date.

Personally, I don’t like this approach to figuring out themes. It seems too technical.

I prefer the second approach, which is simply to write the story and figure out its theme afterward. How can a storyteller know a story’s theme until the story is written?

Once the storyteller has discerned themes in his story, he can go back and revise the story to develop those themes. In the case of our friend Socrates, I’ll write his story and let it go wherever it wants to go. There will be time enough once his story is written to discover what it’s about.

I’ll use another example, this time from my novel. When I began writing The Trials of Lance Eliot long ago, I had no intention of giving it any kind of meaning. My only intention was to write a fantasy with swords and dragons and stuff.

As I worked on the novel, however, themes crept in, ninja-like, and wove themselves stealthily into the story. Instead of ignoring them or trying to uproot them, I decided to develop them. It was a good decision. Emphasizing existing themes was much, much easier than forcing the story to fit themes chosen arbitrarily.

Every good story means something. If you’re a storyteller, the meaning of your story is mostly up to you. Make sure it matters!

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