Determining Themes for Your Story
Starting a story is always the hardest step. There’s a world to construct, characters to develop, a plot to chart and thematic value to attach. It’s a long list and each can offer its own struggle. Themes are intrinsic to any story; they offer purpose to a topic our plots and characters explore. Themes in story can be opinion, a moral quandary or an examination of consequences. The list of possible topics to explore is endless and because of that, it’s easy to get stuck at this step. In light of that, breaking down your story can unveil what themes may be hiding in your draft.
What does your plot have to say?
Sometimes when I begin drafting a story, themes appear in the very bones of my plot. Depending on what the story is about, topics manifest from the journey experienced by the characters. Sometimes the focus of the plot is on the journey rather than the characters themselves. World-driven stories focus more on the stakes the world of the characters face. The most famous example of this style of story is The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkein. For the sake of this example, we’ll examine a theme in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Good versus evil is an important theme of The Fellowship of the Ring(FoR). This is well-defined through any character that interacts with the ring of power. Even the best of intentions are subject to corruption when it comes to an evil piece of jewelry. Boromir's driven mad by the ring because of his desperation to help Gondor. His pure intentions twisted to evil ends. Frodo's having no desire for the ring and trusting little in his strength implies an ultimate virtue in his world.
The better you understand the relationship between your plot and characters, the easier time you'll have identifying themes relevant to your story. If you’re still struggling with themes after drafting your plot, the next step is examining your characters.
What do your characters have to say?
Many times my themes don’t reveal themselves until I draft my characters. This is particularly true when it comes to character-driven stories. When I start fleshing out my characters, themes unveil themselves in the “societal outcast” or the “recovering drug-addict who checked back into rehab.” Good characters are imperfect, flawed individuals with complicated circumstances. Sometimes my characters develop prejudices. Sometimes they start out with prejudices and learn to break from them. How characters act or react to experiences can speak thematic volumes in a story. An example of this can be found in Pam Muñoz Ryan’s novel Esperanza Rising. In this “riches to rags” tale, Esperanza goes from a privileged life in Mexico to working poverty in the United States.
The theme of perseverance is a constant in this story. Esperanza flees danger from home with her mother to a life of poverty, prejudice and racism. Esperanza is challenged with the very responsibility or perseverance when her mother is hospitalized and she’s forced to work her mother’s shifts. This theme takes a more direct role in the character-driven plot of this story as it’s intrinsic with the character's journey.
If you find yourself writing a character-driven story, your themes will manifest in your character’s struggle. This struggle can come directly from the plot, or prejudice established in the character’s world. A story will have many themes from many sources. The plot, characters and world are those sources of themes, regardless of which element is driving your story.
When you have it, prove it!
When you've familiarized yourself with your plot, characters and world, your next task is to put your themes to paper. That is to say, now comes the task of providing evidence of your themes. Themes take an active role in your story. They’re present in your character’s internal and external struggle. They’re present in your story’s plot. Sometimes they’re an active element in your story’s world. Having a good understanding of your characters and plot is integral to being able to apply your themes to your writing. Deciding if your story is character, plot or world-driven can help determine where to look if you’re unsure about your story’s themes. Your themes could appear as a racial or sexualized struggle your character faces on a daily basis. Your story could focus on a world where people live in a digital reality of their own making and the choices they make bring light to a deeper issue. Your plot could revolve around the consequences of neglecting a victim of extreme trauma.
Start breaking it down!
Start with determining what kind of story you’re writing:
Once you’ve done this, you’ll have a better understanding of the focus of your story and have an easier time applying themes.
Continue by familiarizing yourself with your characters and how they relate to the plot:
Character vs self?
Character vs society?
Character vs nature?
Regardless of what kind of story you’re writing, your characters will exhibit your thematic topics in one way or the other.
Then, after determining the themes of your story, apply them by providing evidence throughout:
The character’s journey
Your character’s struggle, the state of their world and their journey through the plot should offer thematic value.