Writing Basics: Theme


Market in Yerevan, Armenia, www.carolineallen.com

This is the second in a series on Writing Basics. Each week I’ll cover a different element used in both fiction and nonfiction — description, setting, plot, theme, characterization. Today, we explore Theme.

In the previous blog Writing Basics: Short Story, I described one method for writing a short story. I’ll use that story as an example as we discuss today’s topic: Theme.

I begin this series with writing a short story and theme because I’m one of those writers who believes that we must write out our stories before analyzing them. If I’d started with how to build a character, or how to develop setting, my worry would be that as writers we would become stuck in our heads as we tried to write and the work would come out stilted. We wouldn’t be writing from the soul.

So, first things first, write out a rough draft of a story. Let it flow. Make things up. Have fun. I promise that deep soulful unconcious elements are at work. Even as you “make things up” you’re really crafting a profound story with universal truths. That’s what theme is.

Write your story, then look to see what “big ideas” come up almost accidentally. What set of values appear through the characters? What are the characters fighting for or against? Usually, you’ll find that you’ve written some truths that you hold dear to your heart.

So, in Antique Clock, mentioned in the first blog on this subject, I finished the story and realized I was exploring ancient wisdom and the modern woman. Where do modern women fit in the old world paradigm of knowledge? Formal institutions from universities to temples hold a powerful knowledge base that has long been protected and hoarded by men.

My made-up idea of having a Jewish female protagonist collect antique clocks, of having her be an alcoholic because she cannot find where to put her power, was actually my creativity exploring this theme. I do believe empowered women find it very difficult to fit into the old paradigm. Sometimes, this sends women over the edge. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it.

I reread the rough draft of my story and found my theme only after I’d finished it. Now, what to do with it? Look to see how the theme plays out in dialogue exchanges, in the protagonist’s inner thoughts, in the actions that happen. Is there a way to polish or heighten the theme? Be careful, you will ruin the story if you make a character preachy or if you write cliches. Just as I used antique clocks to symbolize both old world and the forward moving hands of time, what object might hold the metaphor of your theme?

In the end, theme is what moves you deeply and personally. What profound beliefs do you have to share with the world? Don’t be shy. Write from your soul. The world needs your wisdom.

I’m a writing coach, contact me for a free initial consultation: carolineallen@aol.com. www.artofstorytellingonline.com

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