Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Theme And Truth In Story

Every story has a theme. You may not know what it is. It could be vague or hidden. Or there could be multiple themes that make things unclear. But there is always a theme in there somewhere.

Theme is the underlying  truth. What the story’s really about.  But sometimes the underlying truth is the same as the overlying truth. This can lead to a feeling of being spoonfed or being told the obvious.

Some people are afraid of being too heavy handed about theme. They don’t want the story to be about an issue or force characters to behave in a particular way. But that won’t remove it from the story. There will still be a theme. It just might not be very clear what it is.

Or, if you’re lucky, it might all fall into place by itself. I think that’s what most writers hope for, but it really happens that way.

If you can get identify the underlying truth of your story, then you can harness it to make the events in your story much more powerful and affecting for the reader. And one of the best ways to do that is to try and prove yourself wrong. 

If Buddy is going to fight in a war he doesn’t believe in, and it becomes apparent that the war is in fact a waste of time where horrible things happen for no good reason, the point would be better made if Buddy sets out a patriotic soldier and gets the scales knocked from his eyes.

Similarly, if the point at the end is that sometimes war is a good thing that saves lives, perhaps Buddy should start out jaded and misanthropic.

Both those examples are grossly simplified (although when it comes to war stories, grossly simplified is usually what you get), but if you’re making a suggestion that the world is a particular way—and that’s what theme basically is—it helps for you to make the counter argument as strong as possible.

Like any viewpoint, if you cheat the set up in your own favour, it only makes the results less convincing.

If Johnny finds it hard to talk to girls, his best mate should be able to charm them off their feet in seconds.

If beautiful Mandy can’t get a guy to be faithful to her, her ugly best friend should have the most faithful boyfriend ever.

These counterpoints aren’t just there to give the narrative some interesting places to go, they challenge the validity of the worldview you’re creating. And in doing so it will be much harder to dole out pat answers or generic clichés.

As you question the truth of what your characters believe and how they behave, the true theme will emerge.

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17 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Counterpoints - good tip.
I never even realized I had a theme until I completed my third book. Then I could see the theme in all three.

Stephsco said...

Like Alex said, the counterpoints is really key to solidifying theme. That's something I think I recognized subconsciously, but didn't ponder further until I started writing.

C. Lee McKenzie said...

I guess I start with theme, and then people the story to reveal what the underpinnings of the story are. That's always seemed to be the glue I needed to write anything.

Great post as usual. I love the discussions you provoke.

mooderino said...

@Alex - any story with stakes and choices will form a theme of some kind, I think.

@Steph - most of the time we naturally tell the story with the things that make it a story. We all have that ability. Sometimes we overthink these things (well, I do)

@C. Lee - an interesting theme can get the juices flowing.

Pk Hrezo said...

I always figure out the theme with my outline before I draft. It helps me add in twists as I write. :)

Elise Fallson said...

I don't pay much attention to theme when I write. I just cough up the story and usually there's a theme in there somewhere. Off to retweet! (:

Al Diaz said...

I think I have a great theme but I don't actually have clear what's my personal opinion about the whole proposition. I am trying to find it out as the story develops.

mooderino said...

@Pk - I usually have a good idea before I start too.

@Elise - thanks!

@Al Diaz - good way to approach it.

Sarah Foster said...

I usually start with the story and let it speak to me. I don't think about theme until it appears throughout the first draft, then when I rewrite I can find ways of working with it.

Patricia Lynne said...

I think most themes in my stories I stumble upon. It's not something I think or worry about, so they come out on their own. It's not until someone points it out that I notice.

mooderino said...

@Sarah - theme usually finds a way to make itself known.

@Patricia - I find some themes are more obvious than others. Varies from story to story for me.

Nicole Disney said...

Make the counter argument as strong as possible. Terrific advice for every conflict in the story, theme, of course, included.

Silvia Villalobos said...

I agree -- there should be a theme. And in fiction, that's easy to determine beforehand, or at least after having written the first chapter or so.
Good read, and good to be here.

Silvia @ Silvia Writes

Janeal Falor said...

I really like your thoughts on counterpoints. I've always included them in my writing, but this has me thinking I should put more thought in them. Thanks for the great insights.

mooderino said...

@Nicole - yes, i think it can work for the story in general.

@Silvia - some people do the whole first draft before figuring it out, which is another way to do it.

@Janeal - the more convincing you can make them the stronger the theme.

Lynda R Young said...

Yep, I can never write a story with a theme in mind. The theme just seems to evolve.

mooderino said...

@Lynda - as it should.

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