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:
- insights on how to approach an overwhelming revision
- how to increase the stakes (the consequences for failure) in our story
- 7 ways to indicate time passage in our stories (and 2 issues to watch out for)
- how to translate story beats to any genre
- how and why we should avoid episodic writing
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
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*)Pin It