The theme of a story doesn’t always become clear to a writer until the story is written and revised (and often, ready by others and discussed).
Today, however, we’re going to turn that on its head.
The theme can be summed up as ‘the moral of the tale’, or a proverb, or the overarching lesson in a fable. Let’s take a well-worn proverb and construct a new story to illustrate it.
Choose A Theme And Write A Story That Illustrates It
- The danger with starting theme-first is that stories can get preachy. Remember to base your story firmly in the character (unless you’re being intentionally experimental).
- There’s no need to explicitly quote the moral or proverb you based your story on.
- Try to go wa-ay beyond the first idea suggested by the theme/proverb you pick (no frogs carrying scorpions across rivers, please). Dig deep for a different idea. Try lots before you settle on one.
- Use the theme less as a lesson for the reader and more as a guidepost to keep you on the right track as you write.
- Don’t think I’m telling you to start theme-first with every story you write. Use this as an experiment to see what happens, what changes, when you start writing with a fixed theme in place.
- If the theme is constraining your story too much, throw it out and follow the story where it wants to go (post about this in the comments or the community, if it happens. I’d be interested.)
I once read an article that suggested it’s easier to talk to men/boys when you’re doing something else at the same time (some complex psychological study that showed men don’t like to talk directly to/about things but can have more meaningful conversations when engaged in an activity together).
I don’t know how accurate it is, but I do know it makes for an interesting writing prompt.
Write A Story Based Around A Hobby You Enjoy
Pick something you like to do, so you can include all kinds of realistic details (for example, I might pick knitting or gardening or singing in a choir because I could talk about the personalities and the clashes in a group that gets together around these hobbies. I could also talk about the moment of adrenaline that hits when you think you’ve dropped a stitch, or the sheer physical power it takes to belt out the chorus from “O Fortuna” along with all the bizarre warm-up tricks choral directors have subjected me to over the years, from ‘ma-me-me-mo-moo” to group shoulder massages!)
- This is a great opportunity to work on character-building. Have your main character interact with all kinds of different characters in the group. See what shorthand you can use for each secondary character in the story, without descending into cliché.
- Try including some tiny, here-and-now moments in the group that echo a larger issue for your main character. This strengthens the theme of the story. (e.g. if you discover that your main character’s issue is that she can’t seem to keep relationships together, allow one of the group’s participants to have issues with commitment to something in the hobby: one month he’s all about cacti, the next month he’s revamping his greenhouse to hold nothing but palms; maybe someone can’t ever seem to knit more than one sock in a pair before moving on to another project; perhaps the newbie on the sports team has been through 14 different sports before this one and can’t settle on one…). Mine other people’s reactions to this micro-problem to illuminate the answer to your main character’s macro-problem.
- Linking your themes like this helps you transform a character sketch or vignette into an actual story that goes somewhere.
- If you feel you’re missing the mark on this as you write your first draft, don’t worry. Make notes as you go to help you flag this stuff on a future rewrite. (e.g. [“link this to her issue with Dave?’].
The most important thing today, is to get a first draft finished. Get to the end of your main character’s story and set a date to come back and beef up all the theme/image/foreshadowing stuff later. (Pro tip: Put it on your calendar!)