Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the LDStorymakers Conference held in Provo, Utah. I would definitely label it as the best writers’ conference I’ve been to thus far, and I was not disappointed by my third year attending in the least. They do feed their attendees, which I love, but more than that, I appreciate how their classes are always so well prepared and relevant to my needs as a writer.
While I was at Storymakers, I took a class from Amanda Rawnson Hill (author of “The Three Rules of Everyday Magic”), who taught us her secret weapon for going from 28 drafts of a manuscript before publishing, to only 4. This secret weapon is starting with a theme in mind and threading that theme through your story. If this is done from the very first draft, it is so much easier to bring the story together in each subsequent revision.
To begin putting theme into your story, you have to start with a message—what your story is really about. In your story, there will first be a Theme Topic, which is where your main character begins. It will be only a few words long, and it will be a lie. A lie that the character holds tightly to, and that the other characters in the story will have some sort of relationship with. Throughout the story, there should be situations that continually challenge and explore the idea the Theme Topic presents, eventually leading up to the ending, where we come to the second part of the theme, which Hill called a Theme Statement.
The Theme Statement is the central truth of the story that will counter the lie the main character so firmly believes. It can be a bit longer than the Theme Topic, though not longer than a sentence. At the end of the character arc, this Theme Statement will be what the character has come to understand. But, depending on whether the ending is positive or negative, the main character will either have grasped the truth of the Theme Statement in time to save the day, or they will still be holding onto their lie at the last crucial moment, only realizing how wrong they were when it’s too late.
Now we’ve covered the basic foundation of what the theme should look like from beginning to end. It’s time to go more in-depth to add flesh and heart to that foundation.
Let’s go back to the thought that other characters in the story should have some sort of relationship with the Theme Topic. Every story has a supporting cast of some kind, whether it be dozens of people, or just a few. Each of them should have some sort of way they feel about the Theme Topic, whether it be in support of it, strongly against it, or wishing to avoid the subject completely. Your antagonist should be in direct opposition to it, but you may have other characters that explore all three of these scenarios, and in varying degrees. They should provide the reader with multiple angles of perspective about the Theme Topic. And, in the end, they may come to a different conclusion about the Theme Statement than the main character. There’s plenty of room to play with these different perspectives in your subplots!
On top of how the characters interact with the theme, your setting should also reflect the message you’re trying to convey. Touch points are a good way to make sure this happens. These touch points can be a place, an object, or even an event. The key is to make whatever it is come up at least three different times. Each time the main character encounters one of these touch points, there should be an indicator of how they are feeling about the Theme Statement at that time. Their reaction to the touch points will show where they are in their character arc.
All of these things will help to make your story more organic, and will give it an emotional resonance that it may not have had before.
Many people avoid writing with a theme in mind for their story because they worry about bludgeoning their readers over the head with overbearing morals. It can be pretty easy to lose sight of the balance a theme should have and take it too far, but that doesn’t mean theme should be ignored altogether. The needed weight of the theme changes from genre to genre, and from story to story. Work to find the balance that’s right for yours!
Putting a theme into my story made some sort of sense to me before the class started, but it didn’t seem super essential. However, after the class, I’ve been able to look back at the stories I’ve worked on that I haven’t been satisfied with, and little pieces here and there are already starting to come together for me, even when I haven’t thought there was a theme to work with.
If you’re having trouble identifying what your story’s theme might be, think of the message you’re trying to convey. If you’re not sure what that is, try thinking of what realization you’re main character comes to in the end. They might come right out and say it, or it might just show strongly in their response to the climax, and how it differs from their reactions to things earlier in the story. The truth is, your theme is probably right under your nose, just waiting to be discovered and utilized.
Give this a try! And tell us in the comments about how focusing on your theme has helped you work through whatever “brambles” you have come across. Or tell us some of the stories you’ve read that you feel use theme particularly well.
This post was written by Rachel White
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.