Writing From Theme and What It Really Means

By Ruth Barringham

A couple of years ago I attended a writing workshop all about writing from theme. I’d heard about it before but like many writers, I didn’t quite know EXACTLY what it meant or how to use it to write a better novel.

So I did the workshop and took notes and to help other writers, here is what I learned about writing from theme.

What is Theme?
It’s the main thread that pulls the story together. The particular slant or angle the writer takes on a topic, e.g. war (which is the genre/topic) and the theme might be ‘war is futile and only leads to suffering,’ so this is the message the writer wants to deliver to their readers. It’s the message that leaves the reader thinking about it. The theme. And it’s always implied, never stated, and there are many ways you can imply them into a story.

Delivering Theme

Symbolism. This is something concert, intangible, yet is symbolic of an unstated meaning and is used more than once (repeated), e.g. a wedding ring (love), a feather (freedom), a colour (white/surrender, red/danger), moonlight (hope/the search for truth) as in, can walk in moonlight, see moon from the bedroom window, etc.

Literary Allusion. This means making reference to other works to deepen the meaning of the story.

Character. Their choices, actions, reactions, changes, can all deliver theme, e.g. a character takes on responsibilities to experience growth. Seeing repercussion on characters can help to create empathy from the reader, e.g. a character begins with a skewed world view but learn something contrary by the end of the story. The story is the ‘unpacking’ of why they hold that view.

Or a character may hold tight to a certain belief which is completely blown apart as the story progresses, so they discard it, then claw it back.

Characters can represent opposite spectrums of the theme/values which creates plenty of conflict.

A Thematic Argument. Contains an ideological conflict between two opposite values, ideas or beliefs and the writer has to decide on which side of the thematic argument the story will ultimately fall. An overall win is the most satisfactory outcome, but with losses along the way.

An antagonist. Doesn’t necessarily have to be human to challenge a character internally or externally, e.g. lost in the desert, a building, a road.

Let’s look at theme in action in the movie The Matrix. The theme is, is freedom possible? The Oracle doesn’t believe in personal choice/freedom. Neo says he does believe in freedom “because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.”

The dialogue shows theme by the characters’ opposing views. When a character experiences a transition, a journey, re-birth, and change of how they see themselves and others, this is typically called “the hero’s journey” which is a well-known story structure.

If it’s a negative regression it’s called “the hero’s fall.”

The nature of the experience can point to theme, e.g. perseverance leads to achieving goals.

A character’s mood/behaviour (usually from a change in circumstances) points to theme, e.g. a husband’s death causes a wife’s grief, her questioning life and death, then eventually, self-determination and freedom.

Overall Story Through-line
This is the central plot point that propels the hero from beginning to end, from one scene to then next, from one act to the next. It’s the big picture, the situation and activities which all the characters are involved in.

The Character Through-line
This is everything a character does and what they represent, that primarily relates to him alone. It’s the desires and circumstances impacting upon one particular character as opposed to their specific relationships with others. It’s how they deal with each situation, all the circumstances they find themselves in, and all the changes that are occurring throughout their journey.

How to Design and Use Through-lines
Once you know your scenarios, situations and ideas for your story, brainstorm a couple of characters that will drive the overall through-line which means a main character and an influencing character.

For each character write out where they are (emotionally and psychologically) in the beginning and by the end. This is their individual through-line.

And that is what theme and plotting is all about. Knowing what message you want to get across to your reader, plus which characters will do it, how it will happen and what the changes will be for them.

Next time you have a great idea for a novel, try writing to theme to create the most believable characters, and write the most absorbing story you’ve ever written.


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