If the theme does not engage the reader then neither will the story. Theme is what prevents a story from reading like a list of events in a newspaper.
Many people are unclear on the difference between theme and plot, so if you are unsure read this.
DOES YOUR STORY HAVE THEMATIC POWER?
So, how do you know if your story has thematic power or not? Try asking yourself the following question: ‘what is your story about?’
If this is your only answer: ‘it’s about a man who gets drunk, crashes his car into a crowd at a bus-stop, and how his friends and family all stop talking to him,’ then you are only talking about the plot of the story.
But if you also reply: ‘…and it’s about a man forced to cope with guilt and isolation and who is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve redemption and forgiveness,’ now you are discussing the theme of the story.
I think you will agree that the combination of these two answers is more evocative of a good story than just the initial synopsis.
The addition of the themes gives the story emotional resonance, which, at the end of the day is the difference between a story forgotten, and a story remembered.
In my children’s story The Tree Hugger, My young character, Debbie, hates seeing how another young girl who is new to school is isolated and bullied.
She wants to stand up for her, but facing up to the bullies means Debbie would be isolated herself. Debbie’s fear results in her doing the wrong thing, and so themes of fear and guilt emerge.
The theme develops further when their two mothers become friends. Debbie is now forced to make a choice between conquering her fear, or living with the guilt.
DON’T USE YOUR STORY THEMES TO LECTURE
Avoid any temptation to deliver messages/sermons/lectures, or to grind your personal axes and grudges through your writing – drunk driving kills, all drunk drivers are bad, bring back the death penalty for drunk driving etc.
If this is really all you want to do then start a campaign; write some leaflets or write to politicians – readers hate to be lectured and can smell a ‘hidden message’ a mile away.
People are always more complicated than we think.
So, forget about black and white thinking and remember that it is the grey and therefore complex areas of the human condition that are most intriguing and interesting.
It is from this that the thematic power of your story will emerge and engage your readers.
To see some examples of themes click here.
‘If there were only one truth, you couldn’t paint a hundred canvasses on the same theme.’