Earlier this week, Julie Musil had a great post about how to create story endings that resonate. I almost wrote an epic comment to her post, but decided to save my wordiness for here. And I get to use one of my vacation pictures—Disney’s California Adventure theme park, get it? *snicker*
To answer the question in this post’s title, no, stories don’t need to have a theme. But a story without one is like empty calories. Junk food for the brain.
As Julie stated in her post:
We’ve all read them–stories that resonate with us long after we’ve closed the book. The main character lingers in our mind, and once we finish the book, we feel like we’ve lost a friend.
I think theme is a big part of what creates that effect. A theme can elevate a story from a sequence of plot events—like a glorified synopsis, and a bad one at that—to an experience that has meaning to the reader.
As I noted in my abbreviated comment on Julie’s blog, one way to make a story ending resonate with readers is to have the final dialogue, summary, or description touch on the theme of the story.
How Do We Give Stories a Theme?
Okay, a theme is good to have. How do we make sure our stories have one? And what if we’re pantsers and don’t plan things out ahead of time?
Most stories have themes, even if we’re not consciously aware of them. The real difference is how well they’re developed in the story. So we can improve our stories by identifying our theme and making sure we’re using it well.
If we’re not sure what our theme is, we can look at our premise to try to find it. Themes are often intertwined with a story’s premise. In fact, these two terms are sometimes incorrectly used interchangeably.
Let’s look at an example inspired by Kristen Lamb’s post analyzing the plot structure of Finding Nemo. The premise of Finding Nemo could be stated along the lines of: A father’s love for his son pushes him past his fears.
If you’re familiar with the concept of a log line, the premise of a story is similar, but more high-level and generic. The same premise can apply to several different stories.
The high-level aspect means that even pantsers probably have a basic idea of the premise of their story. A woman struggles to believe in love. A boy learns to trust himself. A team races to save the world.
Finding Our Theme
Now take that same premise for Finding Nemo and make it even more generic: Love is stronger than fear. Our theme is hiding in that statement, do you see it?
A high-level premise is made up of theme and an implied conflict and ending. Based off just five words—love is stronger than fear—we’d expect a story where a character has to face their fears (implied conflict) and win (implied ending).
So if Premise = Theme + Implied Conflict + Implied Ending, where is the theme in those five words? Love is strong. Bingo. Similarly, the themes of the other examples above might be: love is worth believing in, self-confidence is good, and the world is worth saving.
How Can We Use Themes in Our Writing?
Now that we have a theme, what should we do with it?
Make the whole story resonate with that message by using some of these ideas:
- Have the antagonist’s beliefs be an opposite or twisted version of the theme. “Love is strong” turns into “love is weak” or “love can be forced.”
- Make the character’s emotional arc be learning to trust the theme during the course of the story.
- Show the protagonist’s current attitude toward the theme in the “normal world” scenes at the beginning of the story.
- Reflect the theme with the inciting incident in some way.
- Echo the theme in the choices the protagonist faces.
- Show the protagonist losing faith in the theme during the black moment near the end of the story.
- Demonstrate the truth of the theme with the climax.
If we’ve implemented some of those ideas, our theme intertwines with the story. Then when we end our story with beautiful prose, emotional dialogue, stunning descriptions, or an insightful summary—and that ending touches on the theme in some way—the reader will feel the whole story resonating with meaning.
How much do you notice themes when you read? Do you consciously add theme echoes to your writing? Do your themes come out during drafting, or do you only see them later? Have you ever had problems with the “wrong” theme coming out in your stories? (This article by Alicia Rasley might help with theme problems.)Pin It