Monday, November 30, 2009

The How of Theme

I’ve talked about theme before on this blog, but as I look back, it was a year ago when I talked about it. To summarize what I said then, every story has a theme. The theme is what the story is about. The theme is like the statement you wish to prove through your story. For example, our theme could be that marriages would be happier if couples would forgive each other. I said that we should delete anything that doesn’t support the theme. I said that writing to a theme helps eliminate the problem of preachy writing. I also listed 101 Christian Themes. I stand behind what I said last year and I encourage you to go back and read it if you haven’t already, but I want to add to what I said by talking about the how of writing to a theme.

Know Thy Theme

To begin with, you may not know what your theme is. Sometimes we begin with the theme, but there are many ways to begin a story. We can begin with some characters, throw them in a situation and see how they handle it. In that case, we probably don’t know the theme. We may not know the theme if we begin with the story. We might know we have a story about a detective solving a murder mystery, but we might not know the theme until we have written a significant portion of the story. But one will. One always does because every story has a theme. Look for that theme and write to it. If you don’t, the story will be so cluttered with other stuff that no one knows what it happening.

Illustrate Thy Theme Through the Primary Plot

Using the theme from above, happy marriage come from forgiveness, the first thing we will notice about a story with this theme is that the primary plot is focused on illustrating this theme. We might have discovered we were writing a story with this theme after we began our story with an argument between a husband and wife. One of the problems the protagonist has is that he is unwilling to forgive his wife. She says some mean thing and he doesn’t do the right thing by letting it slid. Instead, he stores it away and uses it as ammunition for the next time they argue. Later in the story, as we are illustrating the result of change, we show how she responds when he treats her with respect and forgives her for words she used in the heat of a moment. As we near the endgame of the story, we address the question of how to handle a situation when she has done the unforgivable. Perhaps she reveals that she had an affair. Will our protagonist continue to respond in forgiveness or will he revert to the previous way of doing things? He can go either way, but to support our theme, if he responds in forgiveness then he will be rewarded with a happy marriage, but if he reverts then it will end tragically.

Discuss Thy Theme With Secondary Plots

Once we know the theme, we can look at the secondary plots and either write them to the theme or revamp them. The secondary plots aren’t just a place to tell some of the other stuff that is going on in our protagonist’s life. The best use of a secondary plot is to provide a safe place to debate the theme. This is why the love story usually happens in the B-plot. By love story, I don’t mean romance, but rather a story involving any two characters that love each other. For our example theme, the secondary plot could be about the wife going off and doing something with her sister. Now, they could go shopping and get into an argument about a sweater. That would give us a plot, but it wouldn’t add value to our story. Instead, we want the sisters to go off shopping and talk about possibility of the wife leaving the marriage. It is safe because the sister will love the wife no matter what she decides. It gives us a respite from the main plot. It allows us to discuss the various possibilities. Does she leave? Does she stay? Does she tell him about the affair? Does she not?

Pick Thy Half-man For Thy Theme

A half-man is a character that has confronted the beast of the story and failed. He faced the dragon to rescue the princess, but now his face is scarred from burns. We don’t just pick any half-man. In keeping with our theme, we must pick a half-man who tried to learn how to forgive his wife, but now he is divorced because he failed. He must warn our protagonist of the danger.

I think you’re seeing the theme here. We use the theme to provide consistency throughout the story. There is much variation in the plot, but the theme must stay constant.