Monday, September 23, 2013

Writing Theme-Based Stories

By DeAnna Knippling

I know there are writers who hate theme. As an idea. They hate it. The idea of having to have a theme is a shackle on their creativity; it’s a burden that former English majors have thrown onto their shoulders like a dead camel: smelly, heavy, and full of fleas. They cast off theme and run giggling into the wilds of story. If their work has theme it’s because the readers put it there...the fools. Why ruin a perfectly good story with theme?

Okay, most writers aren’t like that - they just leave theme alone and let it take care of itself. If some theme wanders in, great, but they’re not going to worry about it beforehand.

Me, I like theme.

Sometimes I let it come up on its own, but sometimes I sit down at the keyboard with something thematic to say, dang it, and I’m not going to avoid consciously using theme just because some writers get the heebie-jeebies over it.

Why would I bother? Because I need to add “depth” to my stories?

Uh, no.

Sometimes I’m in the grip of a strong emotion. I wrote one story because someone had cheesed me off by writing about a Magic Indian character with no function in the story but to solve a (I think) white character’s problems.

“Magic Indian, I’ll show you a Magic Indian,” says I. Then I sat down to write a story, because that’s what you do when someone is wrong on the Internet. Whether it was a wise project to take on, I couldn’t say, but the theme is what made me write the story.

I wrote another project, not in the grip of an overwhelming passion, but to answer a question. The question wasn’t a particularly nice one: “Why would a guy kill his spouse for leaving him?” Another maybe not-so-wise project, but that’s what I do.

The point being that theme doesn’t have to be a set of shackles. It doesn’t have to be something you paste artificially onto your story nor does it have to grow naturally out of your story. You can sit down with a theme in mind and run with it.

You can even write by the seat of your pants with theme (I’ve been doing this a lot lately). The Anti-Magic Indian story ended up taking me back into unpleasant childhood memories, to find sympathy for a person I barely remembered and had totally taken for granted at the time. The theme of story started out with anger, but ended with regret. The other story, the domestic violence one, made me realize that need and fear and loss of self were at the core of what motivated my character. I couldn’t condone his actions, but I knew him. It scared me. It was one of my earlier stories, and I didn’t think at the time that monsters were supposed to be sympathetic. Not like that.

Okay, fine.

So how do you write a theme-based story? I don’t want to go into too much depth, because, really, there are a million ways to write any story. But some of my helpful mental tools for writing them are these:

  • When you set up your character, setting, and problem, make each of the elements relate to your theme. That is, if you’re writing about family, make sure the characters have families, or don’t have families, or have messed-up families, or have failed their families. Make sure the setting is a family home, or a million miles away from on. Make the opening problem about family, wanting one, having one and hating it, etc. 
  • If you use trite examples of your theme, your story’s probably going to be trite. A story starting out with a housewife whose kids don’t like her pie is probably not going to interest people - even if she goes after people with an axe for always being on a die-et. 
  • Instead of a statement theme, like “you need a family to survive,” ask a question: “Do we need families to survive?” The best answers aren’t “yes” or “no,” but “It depends; let me tell you about this one time...” 
  • If you like mapping out character motivations, this one’s for you. Don’t just map out your character’s internal and external journeys. Map out the scenes like each one’s a point in a debate or argument related to your theme. If your theme is “reading expands your world,” then first show a world without reading and the efforts of the characters to solve their problems without reading. Then expose the characters to reading and have them mock it, reject it. Then show the characters getting in a situation where the thing they mocked could have prevented or quickly resolved the problem, etc. The problem with this one is that it can quickly settle into our blind spots, and take a lurch for the preachy. However, you may need to do it once or twice anyway to get a feel for the idea of theme as a kind of subplot or story within the story. (There’s nothing wrong with trying a technique a couple of times, then abandoning the conscious use of it - it’ll come out when you write if you’re meant to be using it.) 
  • Let go and trust yourself. Theme is a kind of secret story within your story; it rises and falls, it tries and fails. If you let yourself follow your irrational urges to go off-outline (or completely off-topic, for pantsers), you might find yourself in a little eddy of theme, working itself out, making your story richer and truer. 
Theme doesn’t have to be dry; it doesn’t have to be forced. You can force it, of course. You might even want to your first couple of times working with it consciously, even though it’ll feel fake, the way trying any new technique feels fake. Theme can be driven by emotion; it can take you places you (and the reader) would never guess. Theme doesn’t have to be a blank on your outline that you “should” fill out; it doesn’t have to be an artificial spice that you add to give your story “depth,” but really just keeps you from the real work of developing the story. You definitely don’t have to add the same amount with every story, either.

In short, there’s no reason to fear theme. It’s just another tool for your toolbox. Okay, maybe sometimes people use it like a chainsaw, but you don’t have to. You can use it like a fine-detail brush instead. Or a tighten the nuts and bolts underneath the chassis.

About the Author: DeAnna Knippling started freelancing in May 2011 and wouldn’t be able to do it without her wonderful family and friends, especially her husband. In fact, she owes a lot to Pikes Peak Writers for helping her be a better writer, especially through the Write Brains, both in the lectures and in meeting lots of other writers.

Her reason for writing is to entertain by celebrating her family’s tradition of dry yet merry wit, and to help ease the suffering of lack of self-confidence, having suffered it many years herself. She also likes to poke around and ask difficult questions, because she hates it when people assume something must be so.

For more kicks in the writerly pants, see her blog at or her ebook How to Fail & Keep on Writing, available at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit.

1 comment:

  1. Good post, DeAnna. Your advice is spot-on. It's an interesting exercise to discover how you handle theme in your writing. I started from theme and had to learn story and plot. For a long time my work was inaccessible to everyone but me. After a lot of hard work (hat tip to Blake Snyder, John Truby and the rest of the screenwriters) I think I've finally got that plot thing. So theme is still organic and it still burbles up first or very close to first when I'm thinking of a story. But now I know how to use it. I had a teacher once who said it was the writer's job to understand what the story was saying and then to use that to revise around those words to make it stronger. Great topic!


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