I don’t know how schools in other places teach writing, but around here, most composition lessons focus on non-fiction. Kids learn how to write research reports, persuasive essays, and journal entries. But rarely do schools (especially pre-high school) focus on writing fiction.
Usually when kids do study fiction, they’re in analytical mode. How did the point of view affect xyz? How did the author’s word choice affect the story’s mood? What was the theme of the story?
Some of us might have winced at the last question above, as kids (and adults!) often struggle with identifying a story’s theme. So when it comes to writing themes in our own stories, we might be at a loss for how to do so.
This past weekend, a writing workshop for preteens included lessons on how to write with themes. The processes the kids went through to discover how to incorporate themes in their stories might help us too. *smile*
Step 1: Understand Why Themes Repeat
In our stories, we try to come up with unique plots, characters, twists, etc. Yet we often repeat themes. Why?
It’s because certain ideas and beliefs resonate deep inside us. Our view of the world—optimistic or pessimistic, God does or doesn’t exist, true love is possible or not, people are basically good or selfish, technology will help us or kill us, etc.—is so deeply a part of us that we might not consciously recognize it as a construct of our mind.
Despite us not always being consciously aware of those beliefs, more often than not, our stories will reflect that worldview. If we believe people are basically good at their core, we’re more likely to write stories that include elements of redemption or sacrifice. If we believe people are basically selfish at their core, we’re more likely to write stories that include elements of society breaking down in some way.
Our stories reflect our worldview. Our themes reflect our worldview. Therefore, unless we go through a massive psychological change that affects our worldview, our themes will repeat.
We might not even be able to write against our worldview. Above, I had a hard time putting myself into the shoes of the “people are selfish” believers to guess what elements their stories might reflect. A whole story would be even more difficult.
That’s not to say we can’t write characters with opposite beliefs (even with our protagonist), but on the story level—the overall message we want readers to take away—we might not be able to write a story with an opposite belief at the core. If we believe people are good, we’d probably be hard pressed to write a story where the point was to “prove” that people are selfish. That isn’t good or bad—it just is.
Step 2: Identify Our Core Beliefs
For the preteens in the workshop, many of them didn’t have enough life experience to guess at their core beliefs. But a simple technique helped them figure out what ideas and beliefs resonated with them.
- Think about what stories—especially the specific scenes, reveals, or turning points—have felt the most powerful to you. Really powerful, not because they were surprising, but because they “spoke” to you. Books, TV, movies, whatever, they all count.
- Now think about what those scenes have in common. Are they all about love, loyalty, betrayal, friendship, loss, etc.? Do they share a theme? Do they share a certain perspective? Do they share a type of twist?
The commonalities between elements that speak to us—that resonate deeply within us—can reveal our core beliefs. Our favorite stories will often have themes in common with each other and with our world view.
The first time I experienced one of those powerful scenes, I was younger than the kids in the workshop. I used to watch the old Lost in Space TV show reruns after school, and one scene blew my mind. I was probably about 8 or so, and yet I still remembered the gist of the scene enough to do a Google search for it yesterday.
In this episode, an alien spirit has possessed Professor Robinson (the dad) and he’s about to push Will Robinson (the son, of “Danger, Will Robinson!” fame) off a cliff. In a final goodbye, Will tells his dad he loves him. Ignore the cheesy acting and dialogue, and pretend you’re 8 years old. *smile*
When Will wonders how his dad was able to fight the mind control, his dad says, “Love, Will. In all the worlds and galaxies of this universe, there is nothing stronger.” *eight-year-old brain explodes*
Every story I’ve loved over my whole life includes variations on this “love is powerful” theme. Every scene that gets my chest to clench and tears to spring to my eyes reflects that idea, from a hero sacrificing for his true love in a romance novel to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow‘s reveal of Professor Snape and his statement of “Always.”
Step 3: Explore those Core Beliefs in Our Stories
Once we know our core beliefs, we’ll know what themes will feel the most powerful to us as we’re writing. And if the themes resonate with us, we might naturally write echoes of those ideas throughout the story.
My stories all explore that “love is powerful” idea in different ways. Some include redemption brought on by forgiving love. Some include sacrifice triggered by protective love. Most include overcoming obstacles because of the strength granted by love.
Whether between lovers, friends, or family, love is at the core of my stories. That’s who I am. That’s my worldview, and I couldn’t write a story from the opposite perspective.
Being aware of our core beliefs can help us write deeper themes and stronger stories by:
- Recognizing when subtext might imply a contradictory theme
- Ensuring turning points reveal theme in some way
- Suggesting a basic character arc (they’ll grow into the theme’s ideal)
- Knowing how to fix our themes to give the message we want
- Brainstorming story ideas to explore a theme
For the kids in the workshop, many of them had ideas for setting, characters, or premise, and by learning their core beliefs, they could pick one aspect they wanted their story to include as a theme. Then they came up with conflicts or situations that would expose that aspect.
Now we don’t have to be conscious of all this when we draft. I’m often only subconsciously aware of my themes during drafting, but I know my core beliefs will be in there somewhere. We don’t have to plan this in advance, especially because our stories can have more than one theme, but when it comes time for revisions, we should know what we want to say with our story.
Step 4: Trust Our Core Beliefs During Revisions
Ever get feedback from an editor or beta reader that feels like a gut punch? Like the suggestions would change the essence of your book?
Unfortunately, most of us have. It’s a bad feeling, and we wonder how we could be so off-base in getting our message across. How could they have misread the point of our story so badly?
Many times, no one is “wrong” in that situation. Their suggestions wouldn’t necessarily make the book better, they’d simply make the book different.
The reason some feedback is that far off is because they look at the premise and see how they’d explore that premise within their worldview. The feedback would change the story to match their worldview, not ours.
(Yeah, that’s not helping us improve the story we’re trying to tell, but just as we can’t help our worldview from coloring everything we experience, the same goes for them. These differences are yet another reason why reading is subjective. Our stories probably won’t resonate as much with people who have opposite worldviews.)
So when we’re faced with feedback that conflicts with how our story unfolds at its essence—especially when it feels like if we made the changes, our story wouldn’t be ours anymore—we can compare the suggestions with our core beliefs. If the suggestions conflict with our worldview, we know we shouldn’t make the changes.
Again, while the story would be different, the changes wouldn’t make it better. The changes would simply create a different story. We can’t compare apples and oranges.
Paying attention to our core beliefs when we’re revising might help us trust our gut reaction more. If changes conflict with our core beliefs, we don’t have to doubt ourselves when we ignore those suggestions. Remember: We’re the only one who can tell our story.
On the other hand, if a suggestion aligns with our worldview, we should definitely pay attention. In that case, it’s likely the changes would improve the story we are trying to tell. Our themes would likely be stronger and more powerful.
Knowing what we want to say can make all the difference. If we know what makes our story worth reading (the “so what?” factor), we’re more likely to be able to include those themes than if we hope a theme emerges from the collection of words. Just like our characters, we’re more likely to reach a goal if we have ideas for how to get there. *smile*
Do you repeat themes or core beliefs in your writing? Do you know what your worldview is? Can you think of favorite stories or scenes that reflect your core beliefs? Could you write a story from the opposite perspective? Have you received feedback that reflected a different worldview?