Hey there readers!
Yes, once again this post is falling on a Tuesday. I’ve taken a larger than normal load of shifts during the Christmas rush to help keep myself afloat (and maybe afford a little advertising on the side), so my schedule has been in a bit more of a time crunch than usual.
Alctually, make that a lot more of a time crunch, since I’m still working on finishing Jungle. The bad news is that I’m still working on it despite all of last month. The good news, however, is that I’m on the last five chapters. No joke. The end is all plotted out, everything is wrapping itself up, characters are dying …
I mean … no one is dying. It’s all sunshine and happiness with micro-missile launching rifles! Oh, and yes, those are a thing. For when you absolutely know you’re going to be facing exosuits.
Right, enough beating around the bush, though. I’ve got a Being a Better Writer post to write! And you to read!
So, today’s topic is another request from Topic List X. It’s also a pretty good one. The question given was roughly ‘How does one go about adding meaning, such as theme or symbology, to their story?’
Like I said, that’s a good question. The thing is, I’ll bet my answer is going to shock them.
You probably shouldn’t.
Okay, now let me clarify. You probably shouldn’t add things like that to your story. Not assuming that this is “adding” in the way that most of the time we do it. I mean, you can. You can get to the end, look back over it, and decide “Hey, this would work better if …” and get to work. But adding that into your story is a bit like adding an addition to your house: It’s going to take a lot of time and effort, as well as rebuilding part of the house to make it fit. If you don’t do that work well enough, you’ll end up with something that’s tacked on, like the moral of the day in most early 90s-era cartoons. Something that’s jarring, oddly placed, and would have worked a bit better had it been part of the house from the very beginning.
Granted, that isn’t to say that it can’t work. We’ve all been in houses where the addition that came after the fact have been fine. But in those cases, it has usually required a lot of work. Crud, sometimes it means that the house has to be practically rebuilt to keep the new addition from sticking out like a sore thumb.
Effectively, this analogy extends to your work as well. If you finish a story and decide to add in a theme or a meaning … well, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. It has to look and feel just like the rest of the story. Worse for you, theme and meaning are often foundational parts of a story rather than window dressing (or at least, they are in a good one). Think back on that home analogy, and think about how much work it is to change the framework and the foundation after the house is complete. Can it be done? Yes. Is it easy?
No. No it is not. You can do it, and you can stick theme and meaning into your story after the fact, but … It’s not easy. Not easy at all.
It’s far, far easier, to start with it, much as you’d start with something like that when planning a house.
Earlier I alluded to early-90s era television. Specifically cartoons. If you remember cartoons of this period, they were kind of infamous for shoehorning morals in (a term, which if you’re not familiar with, means shoving in awkwardly and ill-fitting). These “morals” were a by-product of creators effectively being forced to stick something into a story that didn’t really belong, either in the planning phase or after the story was done.
Infamous? You bet. This preoccupation with shoving theme and meaning into stories where it didn’t really fit is … Well, let’s just say it’s not fondly remembered and leave it at that.
Now, why I am I talking about this again? Because I want to point out that even in the planning phase, when you start with your theme or meaning, some themes and meanings simply won’t fit. Again, this is why you should start thinking about them in the planning phase, before your story is halfway done and your “house” halfway built. For that matter, it’s a good case for why you should have a plan or blueprint if you really want to drive home a certain idea or concept. To go back to our building analogy, if you want to create a building with a spectacular set of stained glass windows, planning things out beforehand can make sure that you give said building a place to display that stained glass—a large atrium or lobby that people will be drawn to. Because you know from the very beginning that you want people to see the stained glass, so there needs to be a central focus put on it.
But even if you can do that, you may find that this spectacular stained glass atrium is distracting from some other part of your building. It might be pulling attention or focus away.
All right, at this point, I feel like I’ve spent enough time on the cautionary warning end of things. How about we switch gears now, and rather than talk about “Hey, here’s what you need to watch out for,” let’s talk about what the question asked and dive into looking at putting theme and meaning in your story.
This doesn’t mean I’m going to ditch the analogy with the building, by the way. It works far too nicely for that.
So, you’ve sat down and you’re starting to put together a story in your head. You’ve got some ideas, some concepts … you’re brainstorming. When does theme come into it?
Well, in this period, though it can come in multiple ways. For example, if you want a story that is dedicated to a certain theme or meaning, you’re going to want to have that idea fairly fixed in your mind up front. Again, going back to the stained-glass windows mentioned above. You’ll want to sit there and ask yourself questions like “Well, if this is the theme, what elements of what I have will work to support that theme, amplify it, or allow the characters and reader to explore it?” For example, if your theme was going to be that the love of money is the root of all evil, then you would need to identify story elements you have in mind that best support and build on this idea. Characters, settings, plot points, etc, which all will work to make this theme come to life. And depending on the angle with which you approach this theme, some characters, plot ideas, and other elements may not be applicable, or at least wouldn’t make the meaning you’re going for quite as strong.
Effectively, you’re still brainstorming, it’s just that you’re brainstorming with a clear direction in mind, a focus that makes the rest of the story a lens, and you need to determine during this brainstorming period what elements will work best to bring everything into a sharp relief.
However, there is a caution with this: All things need to have a balance. In other words, while you want to tell a story with theme and meaning, don’t let that be all that there is! Everyone’s seen, read, or heard a story that’s such an obvious allegory or vehicle simply to present a point that there isn’t anything else to it. Often this happens because the creator simply wanted to beat the audience over the head with the hammer of their theme, but it can also happen when a story is too laser-focused, when a creator narrowed in too far.
In other words, while theme and meaning are important parts of a good story, even when brainstorming, don’t let them take over the story to the detriment of the story as a whole. Remember that theme and meaning, while elements that can be foundational, are not the whole sum of what you’re presenting. They’re pieces of a greater whole. So yes, you can craft a story that has elements that amplify and present a meaning without the story being consumed by it.
If this sounds like a balancing act, well, like many other things with writing, that’s because it is. That lens I mentioned earlier? It’s up to you to decide how wide or narrow of a focus you want it to have.
Okay, we’re going to stop there, now, and take a different approach. We were just talking about starting with theme and meaning from the basics of our brainstorming, right? Well, that’s not the only way we can feed them into our story. Another method (which is one I sometimes use) is to start looking for theme and meaning that will fit into the story after I’ve got the basic components already figured out.
Like I said, this is a different approach. Where the example above was “I want a structure that shows off these big, stained-glass windows” (I’m really getting my money’s worth out of this analogy, I feel), this is more of a case of a builder having their cement, their drywall, etc etc and a basic idea of what they want to create already in mind and then looking at it and asking “Okay, what theme should this building follow?”
Okay, perhaps that analogy is a bit more difficult to extend in this case, so let me pull out a real-life example of this kind of approach in action. In The Dusk Guard: Rise, one of the themes that the story follows from various perspectives is the idea of coming together to form (and find) a sort of family. When I sat down to create the story, however, that wasn’t one of my goals. No, the goal was to tell an “origin” story for a special operations team in a fantasy universe, a sort of set-up adventure that detailed how they all came together and their initial experiences and first operation as a team.
Once I’d figured that out, once I’d figured out some of the characters, some of the setting, and the overall arc of the first story, but before I started writing it or cementing that foundation, I looked over what I had and asked what themes or meanings would work best with what I had prepared.
This is a less “vision-focused” experience, but then that was never the goal with Rise. I wanted theme and meaning, yes, but not at the expense of the story nor the concepts. However, once I’d narrowed my options down to this theme of family (along with a few others that were well-suited to specific character arcs), I was able to work those themes into the story in a way that complimented what I’d already created.
As I said, this is a less “focused” path, but it’s one I personally enjoy, partially because it also allows me a little bit more flexibility as a creator. While I don’t know quite as much about where I’m going with things at the onset, that same slight lack of direction gives the story freedom to build its own meaning and theme inside the ideas I already had, which for me creates a much more natural experience.
Note though, that this still reinforces what I said at the beginning about not trying to add the theme into things after the story was created. With Rise, I still had some directions for the themes in mind before I started writing. And once writing, I was able to fine-tune the story as it progressed so that the themes came out.
All right, one last bit of advice then, on adding theme and meaning, then: letting it happen.
No, really. All stories are going to have theme and meaning … even if you don’t intend them to. Which is why it’s generally advised that you figure out what that’s going to be before you start. If you don’t, you might find yourself completely shocked by what your story’s meaning is.
There’s an upside to this, though. You creative, pantser types who just want to freewrite? Your story won’t be empty of theme simply because you didn’t brainstorm. Sure, it might be a bit out-of-place or at odds if things don’t go your way, but you’re going to have a theme. And then if you feel inclined, you can do a little remodeling or a lot of it to get the result you want.
Okay, let’s recap. Theme and meaning are foundational to your story, which is why you if you want them in your story, you need to be thinking about them before you’ve written it and not afterwards. The you can create a story that serves to deliver on a theme or you can look at the elements you’ve collected to write a story and find the themes that work best with it.
Alternatively, you can dive ahead and see what themes develop as you free-write, but be aware that these may not always be the themes you wanted out a story that grows in this manner, and that changing them—in any fashion—will mean more work later.
Lastly, no matter what, all stories have theme and meaning. So no matter what you’re writing, theme will happen. It’s up to you which path you take to control things.
So, good luck. Now get writing.
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