March 13, 2018

Are Unintended Themes Undermining Your Story?

Apple on books with text: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold (at Writers Helping Writers)

It’s time for another one of my guest posts over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site. As one of their Resident Writing Coaches, I’ve previously shared:

With this turn for another coaching article at WHW, I’m exploring an issue that we might not be aware of at all, much less know to watch out for problems: How do we make sure the themes in our story are expressing the messages we want?

Or put another way: How do we avoid unintended themes?

The Trouble with Themes

Our story’s messages or themes try to convince readers to consider another view of the world:

  • what to value,
  • what to believe,
  • what to hope for,
  • what to aim for, etc.

But outside of certain genres (such as children’s literature), we don’t usually just come out and say those messages. A straightforward approach would be too “on the nose,” potentially feeling melodramatic or juvenile (like the theme-equivalent of “See Spot run”).

Let’s take a look at how we avoid that on-the-nose problem and how that solution means we can end up saying the opposite of what we intend

Our Messages Need to Be Sneaky

Themes are often difficult for readers—and authors—to recognize because, in most stories, they exist in the subtext.

Subtext is a much more powerful way of getting our message across. A message that readers might reject if written out in a spoon-feeding or you-should-believe-this way might get through their defenses when presented in subtext.

For example, our story can express a certain worldview through:

  • our story’s premise (do the good guys win or lose?)
  • our characters (what does our protagonist learn or overcome?)
  • our plot (are “bad” actions rewarded or punished?)
  • our characters’ choices (do they make good or bad choices?)
  • our villain (do they bring about their own failure through their actions, choices, or refusal to learn?)

Oops! Messages Can Sneak Past Us Too

However, that sneakiness means that we can miss what we’re saying with our own writing. We might intend to write a story about a good heroic character but unintentionally include subtext that makes them look selfish, etc.

In other words, while subtext fixes one problem, it creates another. We can accidentally send mixed messages with our themes, undermining the heart of our story.

But there’s hope! The more we learn about how we create our themes, the more we can watch out for those unintentional messages.

Armed with the knowledge of how themes are developed, we’ll know which elements of our story contribute to our readers’ impressions. We’ll know when a piece of dialogue, a character’s choice, or a plot twist might interfere with our intended themes, so we can tweak or fix the element.

If we know where to look, those mixed messages will be less likely to sneak past us. In addition to improving our own writing, this skill can help us give better feedback to our critique partners or beta-reading buddies too. *smile*

Writers Helping Writers: Resident Writing Coach Program

Deepening Our Story: Theme It Like You Mean It

Come join me at WHW above, where I’m sharing:

  • what creates our story’s theme
  • 5 ways we can undermine our theme
  • 4 examples of mixed messages
  • where to look for unintended themes
  • how to fix unintended themes
  • how to let characters screw up without breaking the theme

How much do you think about story themes while you read or write? Have you ever come across a story that sent a message you think the author didn’t intend? What was the “bad” message? Were you able to figure out what created the impression for that message? (My WHW posts are limited in word count, but I’m happy to go deeper here if anyone wants more info. *smile*)

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Comments — What do you think?

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[…] understand what unintentional themes are and how to avoid them […]

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Theme may be shown in the background – the society or environment of the story. Something the hero/ine is born to or that happens around them. Without making it explicit, as the hero/ine is merrily running around, the author can invite the reader to use their vote, recycle, eat healthier and consider their future.


[…] Last week, my quarterly Resident Writing Coach post at Writers Helping Writers brought up the potential for allowing unintended themes to appear in our story. Every cause-and-effect aspect of our story can create the possibility of our characters experiencing success or failure for the “wrong” reason, theme-wise. […]

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

For unintended themes, we would have to be careful with what we include and what we omit too. One genre theme of monogamous romances, is that there can be no straying, whether physical or mental. If we have a hero who is in a committed relationship with his boyfriend (who is the other protagonist), but honestly has sexual fantasies about other guys too, we don’t want to tell the readers that, because readers want to believe that monogamous romance heroes will never have sexual feelings for other people once they are involved with the other hero of the story. This goes for hetero romances too, not just for gay romances.

I mean, you could say that my theme/ idea is that it’s possible to be sincerely devoted to your partner, while any sexual thoughts about other people do not count as infidelity, because they are only thoughts, not actions. (And I’ve been told that allosexuals do regularly have sexual fantasies and desires for people other than their partner, even if they genuinely love their partner. But as long as they don’t act on these thoughts and feelings, right?). However, I think most readers of monogamous romances wouldn’t want to see a hero have sexual desires for anybody else anyway, even if it’s realistic.

What do you think about this romance scenario?

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