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The theme is the central idea of a story, the moral of a fable, the meaning/point of the tale, the topical issue that runs through the narrative, a statement about the human condition; the author’s message if you will. Theme is less about events and more about significance; what does the story say? Themes tend to be serious and universal and often truisms (think ‘love conquers all’ or ‘beauty is only skin deep’).
The theme of The Ugly Duckling or Beauty and the Beast is: ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’.
In fables and fairy tales, themes are fairly obvious and easy to summarise in this way. In contemporary storytelling, themes may be more elusive and complex. Nevertheless, every tale you’ve ever read or watched has some kind of point to it.
If you take a closer look, you can see how each event, character reaction and plot twist, builds on top of each other to support an overarching message. Or at least it should. Maybe you’ve had that experience of getting to the end of a story and thinking to yourself: what was the point of all that? A story that fails to explore any kind of theme at all is one that falls strangely flat and leaves readers unsatisfied.
Identifying the overarching theme of your own work means you can ensure that each part contributes to the whole, and irrelevant scenes can be removed. But how do you recognise the theme that emerges from your own work?
6.1 Building Themes
Some writers start with a theme in mind; however, this can be restrictive. Over-emphasis of your theme can lead to bad storytelling. Ever felt like an author was bashing you over the head? That’s the result of a forced theme: it feels like the author is badgering you.
Most writers don’t worry about theme initially as they find it presents itself after the writing/first draft has been complete. Sometimes, the message you want to send when you start writing your work evolves over the course of the writing into something else. Themes grow naturally out of a story and they more subtle they are, the better the storytelling can be because the theme doesn’t overpower.
A theme is properly identifiable only in hindsight, once you have completed your first draft.
In second and third drafts you can apply techniques to amplify aspects of your theme and downplay others.
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6.2 Motifs or thematic patterning
These are recurring ideas or phrases that help to build an impression in a reader’s mind and develop and inform the text’s major themes. Through its reoccurrence, a motif can help produce other narrative aspects such as theme or mood. Motifs differ from symbols in that they are repeated in ways that aren’t coincidental, and it means the reader can notice their importance and meaning.
What kind of things might be considered a motif? If a story is about fragmentation, for example, is may feature recurring instances of shattered glass, unfaithful spouses, or runaways (pet, teen, car).
In Suzanne Collins’s novel The Hunger Games, Roman names are a motif: Cinna, Cato, Portia, Octavia, and Flavia are all names associated with Rome. The name of the country, Panem, is also a common Roman word meaning bread. This motif suggests that the world as we now know it (especially the United States, which in the book collapsed and gave rise to Panem,) could one day see the rise of a new Rome.
In William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, hallucinations are a motif. Macbeth sees a bloody dagger floating in the air, later the ghost of Banquo. Lady Macbeth imagines that there are spots of blood on her hands that she can’t wash off.
In John Connolly’s novel The Killing Kind, he uses the phrase, “This is a honeycomb world”, in the prologue to set the mood and lay down the motif, and again a couple more times throughout the text as subtle reminders to the reader. You can read the prologue here.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five, the author uses a lot of phrase repetition to enhance the theme (as seen in the example below). The repeated phrase, ‘so it goes’, is a motif that speaks to the theme of brevity of life and destruction, while the phrase, ‘looking back’, is a motif that enhance the theme of avoiding your own self-destruction.
I looked through the Gideon Bible in my motel room for tales of great destruction. The sun was risen upon the Earth when Lot entered into Zo-ar, I read. Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven; and He overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.
So it goes.
Those were vile people in both those cities, as is well known. The world was better off without them.
And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.
So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.
People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.
I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun.
This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.
— Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
These can be objects, characters, figures, colours, or places used to represent abstract concepts.
A lot of commonly recognised symbols have been used so frequently, they have fallen into the dreaded bin of cliché.
This is why you might want to avoid the following examples. Although easy to understand, they will cause your reader’s eyes to roll:
- doves = peace
- roses = love
- four-leaf clover = luck
- white = purity or innocence
This is your story and you are free to link objects and concepts in unusual and surprising ways. Just make them relevant to the story and clear to the reader.
A talisman is a kind of extended symbol: a recurring object in a story that’s been given a meaning or significance by the writer.
In Midnight and Moonshine, Lisa Hannett and Angela Slatter use several story talismans: a sapphire that’s repurposed into a comb, a broach and later a necklace, all with a bluebird shape to it; a bridal veil made of antlers; and a shrunken head. These items move through a multigenerational story and provide links from one story to the next. They help to keep the reader anchored in the changing stories and act as little reminders of what’s gone before.
6.5 Character archetypes
A character archetype refers to the role your characters may or may not play in expounding the theme your story explores. Certain types of themes demand certain character archetypes, whose role is more or less understood by the audience.
We give character archetypes labels that sound as though they’ve been lifted straight from a deck of tarot cards:
- The Innocent
- The Hero
- The Rebel
- The Lover
- The Jester
- The Wise Man
An archetype is not a stereotype. Archetypes do not dictate your character’s traits, only their function in the story as it relates to the theme.
Again, it’s much easier to think about this as it applies to myths and fables.
If, like Beauty and the Beast, your story explores the maxim ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, then the theme demands a character whose appearance does not match his or her nature. Without that character archetype, you can’t explore that theme.
But then how you present that archetype is completely up to you. Your character can still be original and surprising.
Again, like theme, character archetypes are identifiable only in hindsight. A character’s function should emerge from the story itself, rather than being forced by the writer.
6.6 Activity: Let’s force a theme
We’ve just spent this entire section telling you not to force a theme in your writing. But, just for now, we’re going to try deliberately writing to a theme as a way of getting a handle on how motifs, symbols, talismans, and archetypes work.
Again, these are devices for you to employ in later drafts of your story, but playing with now will give you some insight into how to use them.
WHAT TO DO
Write a 300-400 word piece that conveys one of the following themes. Think about how you can use a motif, symbols, a talisman, or even an archetypal character to bring out the message:
- Age and experience versus youth and skill
- Truth will out
- Beauty is only skin deep
- The power of self-sacrifice
- The kindness of strangers
- Pride going before a fall
- Don’t judge a book by its cover
Remember, this is just an exercise and your writing will reflect that. This is your opportunity to overdo it and have a little fun with theme.
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And that’s it, for now. Throughout our exploration of narrative, we’ve covered:
- How to plan out the structure of your story in a way that will maintain pace and interest for readers
- How to create believable and compelling characters who sound genuine when they open their mouths and dialogue and, in the process, reveal something of who they are
- Creating settings that can transport a reader into a world of your own making, whether it resembles the real world or something radically different, all without slowing the story down or boring the reader
- Choosing the characters through which your story can be best told and letting their voices ring through without you as the author getting in the way
- Using more sophisticated storytelling devices like motifs and symbols to reinforce the underlying message that you want a reader to take away
If there is one underlying theme that applies to this course, it’s that you should remember always that writing a story is more than just the mechanics of getting words down and setting them in a pleasing order.
The storyteller’s craft is one that constantly asserts the presence of an audience. It demands that the writer always consider the person at the other end of your work, who will ultimately give life to the characters, the situations, and the places you have invented.
7.1 Where to go from here
Continue to practice using the techniques and concepts you have learned in this course. Train yourself to recognise when authors use these techniques, and consider whether you think they are used effectively or not.
If you are looking for another course, AWM also offers Fundamentals of Creative Writing, a self-guided course that will teach you how to establish a writing routine, the basic skills used by professional writers to keep themselves on task, information about different writing forms and styles, and information about the publishing industry and opportunities available to writers in Australia.
Get in touch with your local writers centre to find out what courses they are offering that would be suitable for you. State writers centres are non-profit organisations that offer a range of courses in different genres, forms and skills. The people there are passionate and engaged, and engaging closely with your local writers centre will help you find a community and start building professional contacts and experience.
And keep writing!
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