How to Include Themes in Stories
The relationship between themes and the main story is an important one. Themes underscore what happens in the story and provide the basis of the reader’s deeper understanding of the characters, their actions and what the true meaning is at the heart of the narrative.
When we think of themes, the most common ones we find in novels are love, betrayal, loneliness, acceptance, deceit, friendship and so on. Most are formed around emotions; therefore what characters think and feel towards others can form a theme – hate, perhaps, or misunderstanding. This emotional element draws the reader – they can relate to many themes, therefore they will create some empathy.
Thriller and crime stories tend to lean heavily towards the darker side of human emotions – so themes of power, corruption, hate, mistrust, betrayal and deceit are very common. Romance novels rely on themes of love, naturally, but also might involve deceit, jealousy, betrayal and maybe forgiveness.
Themes run through the entire story. The main thing we notice about them is that they’re not visible. They dwell beneath the surface of the story like invisible threads. They can be quite subtle or they can be quite overt in nature. Like motifs, they can be repeated throughout the story to remind the reader, known as leitwortstil, by using recurring words or phrases to underpin the theme. Often such phrases and words are spoken by characters, so they become even more easily recognisable.
Many themes develop symbiotically with the story. They grow with and during the story because they're directly related to the characters and the plot. As they develop, so do the themes. And as a writer, you have to understand the relationship between theme and story arc. For example, To Kill a Mockingbird isn't just about racism. It has other themes: good v. evil, prejudice, distrust, hatred, friendship and innocence. These are borne from the very fibre of the story and not something that was added afterward. This is how themes work.
How Do You Include Theme Within Narrative?
Normally you’ll have a good idea of a central theme to your novel because of what the story is about. For instance, a boy meets girl story will dictate the theme of love. A story of an awkward teen finding his way in the world will dictate a rites of passage theme. So within that central theme, and during the planning process, the writer will see more themes emerge, known as sub-themes.
The best way, then, to include themes within your stories is to know and understand the story and what it’s about before you even type a single word. That’s because themes don’t work if they are an afterthought. It’s hard to force themes to ‘fit’ the narrative. Don’t overthink themes, either. Writers sometimes try too hard to shoehorn themes into their stories without realising they have no relation to the story. Let the themes occur naturally.
With some idea of the main theme, you can then construct your story accordingly. For instance, if the main theme is injustice, then one might expect that one character inflicts the wrongdoing on the main character as part of the story plot. The main character suffers because of this, which will create conflict, but it will also create empathy with the reader, who will despise the villain and root for the poor protagonist. As the story expands, the main character decides to exact revenge for this injustice. This revenge becomes another theme, borne from the developing narrative.
Another example might be a main character that works for a big company and is downtrodden and treated badly by the greedy, power-hungry boss. The main theme is greed and power and the effect it has on people. As the story develops, circumstances change for the protagonist, who finally outsmarts the boss to impress his peers, leaving the greedy boss looking foolish. This overcoming the odds is a sub-theme that develops from the narrative. Empowerment could be another sub-theme.
This is how themes become part of stories. The main theme comes from the main plot, and the sub-themes materialise as the story and characters develop. Theme within narrative gives the story more colour and depth. Most novels have a main theme and multiple sub-themes running through them. It really depends on the story. So in other words, the more you understand your story, the better the themes you’ll be able to develop.Summary
- The type of story will dictate a main theme. Look at the plot – what themes might arise?
- What are you trying to say to the reader? – This will often be the main theme.
- Planning or outlining the story will show possible sub-themes.
- As the story unfolds, more themes may naturally emerge from the narrative.
- Characters and their actions often give rise to sub-themes.
Next week: How to make your story flow.