One question I hear often when I am giving seminars is “How do I identify the theme of my story?”
Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, a thread that is woven through the entire story, and often it’s a moral. Love, honor, family, redemption, and revenge are all common, underlying themes. Theme is an idea-thread that winds through the story and supports the plot.
A question was asked in an online group for writers “How do I emphasize my theme without bludgeoning my reader with it?”
Making good use of allegory can subtly underscore your themes to drive home your point without resorting to an info dump.
Using symbolism and allegory allows an author to pack the most information into the least amount of words, but it requires intention when you first begin creating the story arc. Words, phrases, and setting must be chosen, and the narrative’s prose must be purposefully crafted.
Whenever I talk about allegory, I like to use the movie, The Matrix, as my example: In this movie, you see lean dialogue, conversations that are spare and to the point. The symbolism continues in the way the setting is so sparsely portrayed, and even the characters’ names are symbolic. Allegory is built into their androgynous costumes, and in the screenwriters/authors’ choice of words used in every conversation. All these layers offer us an incredible amount of subliminal information about that world and what is really going on.
The themes are represented with heavy symbolism in the lighting used on the movie set:
>Inside The Matrix the world is bathed in a green light, as if through a green-tinted lens.
>In the real world, the lighting is harsher, unfiltered.
In the movie, everything that appears or is said onscreen is symbolic and supports one of the underlying concepts. When Morpheus later asks Neo to choose between a red pill and a blue pill, he essentially offers the choice between fate and free will.
>Neo chooses the red pill—real life—and learns that free will can be unpleasant. Cypher regrets choosing the red pill and ultimately chooses to return to the Matrix.
In one of my favorite scenes, when Neo answers the door and is invited to the party, he at first declines. But then he notices that Du Jour, the woman with Choi, bears a tattoo of a white rabbit. He remembers seeing the words: follow the white rabbit, on his computer. Curious and slightly fearful of what it all means, he changes his mind and goes to the party, setting a sequence of events in motion. The white rabbit tattoo is an allegorical reference to Alice in Wonderland, a subliminal clue that things are not what they seem.
In my stories, I try to picture conversations, clothing, settings, and wider environments as if they were scenes in a movie. This is where I consider how I could use allegory to support and underscore my theme. I’m not as adept at this as I hope to become, but I try to consider the books that really moved me as a reader. All were allegorical in some way.
When we are immersed in reading a story laden with allegory, many times we don’t notice the symbolism on a conscious level. But on closer examination it is all there, making what is imaginary into something real, solid, and concrete.
This is what I hope to achieve in my current work.
Credits and Attributions:
Quote from the Matrix, screenplay written by Larry and Andy Wachowski © 1999 Warner Bros. Pictures