Weaving Themes Into Stories

Year_Swallows_Came_Early_coverI’ve written from time to time about incorporating themes into stories, but I realized recently that most of my posts on the subject have been an apologetic–explaining the legitimacy, even the necessity of putting themes into stories intentionally. One of my repeated cries has been the need for authors to weave their theme naturally into the fabric of the story rather than tacking it on as an after thought or neglecting it completely in the belief that what the author holds to be dear is bound to seep through somewhere, somehow.

The natural question that arises, however is, how does a writer go about weaving a theme into the story?

There are several ways that come to mind. One is to use symbols. In the article “Symbolism, Part 5 – Final Thoughts”, I used the debut middle grade novel by Kathryn Fitzmaurice, The Year The Swallows Came Early, as an example of the use of symbols. Throughout candy, particularly chocolate which hides what’s underneath, symbolizes how people appear on the outside, with the candy filling showing the way things are on the inside.

The novel begins with the chapter entitled “Coconut Flakes” and this:

And that our house was like one of those See’s candies with beautiful swirled chocolate on the outside, but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard, like undercooked white rice.

It ends with the chapter entitled “Caramel” and this line:

Because even though he’d picked that chocolate by pure chance, it just so happened that when I bit into it, I tasted soft easy-going caramel, and no coconut flakes.

A second way to weave a theme into a story is to show character development. Often times the events of a story have an impact on the protagonist, to the point that she changes in some significant way. The story may not continue on for the reader to see the change played out, but the character should take some action that demonstrates a new outlook or a change in commitment. Whatever has caused the change in the character is the key to the theme.

Poster_-_Gone_With_the_Wind_02One of the saddest stories, I believe, is Gone with the Wind. The main character, Scarlet, lives for years with the delusion that she is in love with a man who married someone else. Through all the pain and suffering of the civil war and the recovery she experienced, doing (and marrying) all she could to stay alive and keep her household together, Scarlet ended up alone because she killed the love of the one person still alive who knew her and had loved her anyway. She woke up to reality too late.

But her character development, her ability to finally see her relationships as they really were, comes through all the more poignantly and leaves an indelible impression on the reader, even as Scarlet repeats her mantra and prepares to return to her family estate, the one love to which she has been faithful.

A third way to build a theme into a story is to pit the worldview of the protagonist with the worldview of the antagonist and show in the end which of those two competing outlooks is the most desirable. In some cases the outlook that wins is clearly the most desirable, but in some stories the one that loses is shown to be the most noble, the most appealing. These stories are infrequent, and yet they exist.

One such was an old movie I saw on TV, I think called Remember the Alamo. In the end, as it happened in real life, all the soldiers defending the Alamo died, but the movie showed their deaths to be noble, even heroic. Consequently, though they lost their lives, their worldview still “won” in that story.

Braveheart is another such movie as is Camelot. In the former, the protagonist is sentenced to death but shouts “Freedom” before his beheading. Those who continue the fight do so in his memory. He lost, but his worldview won. The latter is similar. King Arthur’s round table is broken apart, his desire for a unified England in tatters, but a young boy shows him that the ideal will live on after him. The worldview he fought for, believed in, wins, even though he doesn’t.

Other stories show the triumph of the protagonist over the antagonist which validates his worldview. The Harry Potter series shows this kind of victory. Though for a time all seems lost, in the end, the protagonist makes the last great sacrifice and brings victory. His way of viewing the world wins, validating in the mind of the reader that grasping for power and ruling as a demigod is not the right way to live, while sacrifice and service and friendship and love are stronger in the end.

Symbolism, character development, a winning worldview all serve to embed a theme into a story. You might have other ways. If so, I’d love to hear your ideas.

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2 Comments

Filed under Character Developmet, Symbolism, Theme

2 responses to “Weaving Themes Into Stories

  1. In his autobiography, Dean Jones told a story of how he once went “hill-climbing” – an attempt to drive his car to the top of a very steep hill. He was a daredevil and, at the time, drunk.

    The car hit a ditch and porpoised. After veering wildly, it finally stalled, pointed up the hill at an almost perpendicular grade.

    Shocked back into sanity, and facing the task of getting down without dying, Jones asked himself, “Why am I obsessed with reaching the top when nothing is there?”

    That moment was about his whole life. His pointless, death-risking drive up the hill mirrored all the futility and stupidity and self-destruction of his drive to the top of the world.

    That’s another sort of symbolism: Little things that embody big things, secondary things that become analogous to primary ones. You don’t need to bring home the emptiness of a man gaining the world and steadily losing his soul by sending him to hell, or even divorce court; you can do it by sending him on a drunken drive up a bare hill.

  2. Great add, Shannon. Yes, a microcosm of a deeper, wider, greater whatever is a great way to communicate theme. Excellent story to illustrate the point.

    Becky

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