How to Get the Most from Your Themes
Every story has a theme or two that cover the main topics within the story, but they also convey deeper meanings within it. Stories need them in order to help the reader understand the concept of the story.
Themes embody different subjects that might surface during writing, so it’s common for writers to uncover these themes as they write, but there’s nothing wrong with having certain main themes in mind before you begin writing, either. Themes such as love, hate, betrayal, deceit and lies are all very popular themes, as are ones about growing up, discovering the world or growing old. They can incorporate just about anything, but they must relate directly to the story.
How to make the most of your themes?
Know your audience. The genre, and what the plot is, often determines a main theme. For example, with two lovers who can’t be together, the main theme would be love. For a story about conflict between the main characters, the main theme might be hatred or bigotry. A crime novel might have the main theme as deceit or vengeance. A sci-fi might explore a main theme of discovery.
But around these main themes, we often find smaller themes emerge to provide deeper meaning, relevance and extra detail, so if you want the most from your themes, ensure that they enhance the story rather than distract.
Emotion is also a great theme developer. What characters feel often dictates what they do, and how they behave affects situations and other characters around them. Characters do this with their dialogue, thoughts and actions. How they act and react bring themes into focus, especially as characters develop and change throughout a story. Who they are at the beginning of a story is different to who they are by the end – and there’s often a theme behind this (understanding, forgiveness or seeing things differently and so on).
Conflict is another theme enhancer because each character will have their own views, beliefs, opinions and principles, especially with a protagonist versus antagonist. Not everyone in your story will get along. This is where conflict and bad situations can create new themes.
Situations within the story happen for a reason, usually due to character actions, so major events could help you develop sub-themes that ebb and flow beneath the surface of the story, enough to provide extra depth and dimension for the reader.
Use symbolism and motifs to bring themes to the forefront of the story. Repeated motifs can be stand-alone themes – like a ticking clock that represents the passage of time, or a colour to represent a specific dark emotion to show the theme of sadness or isolation.
Know your audience and genre and know your plot. Make sure your characters, emotions, conflict and key situations work to create, develop and enhance themes. And don’t forget to use motifs and symbolism to help those themes stand out.
One thing you can’t do is force themes into existence. They will emerge naturally as you write. The main thing is to create themes that help your readers understand the story, the characters and the message you want to get across.