In writing, theme is the backbone of your story. It is an idea thread that connects disparate events that would otherwise appear random. Themes are often polarized, and multiple themes can appear, creating opportunities for adding depth.
Polarity is a fundamental aspect of the inferential layer of the word-pond.
For example, a large theme that drives the action can be be something as common and subtle as family dynamics across generations. Those subtle tensions and interactions may not look like they are the story, but beneath the surface, families are fraught with emotions that create conflict.
In any story that explores the relationships within a family as part of the larger narrative, we begin with the circle of life – a theme that explores birth, growth, degeneration, and death.
Consider the first three installments in the epic film series, “Star Wars.” It’s an ambitious action adventure set in a science fiction universe, and Luke Skywalker must save the world. But fundamentally, it’s the story of a family.
George Lucas conceived the tale by exploring the circle of life in the fractured relationship of Luke and Anakin Skywalker, and how each man affected those people whom they came into contact with. Luke was a catalyst—his presence made things happen. Anakin embodied self-deception.
The same is true of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones book. It begins with a family and follows the circle of life and death.
If we learn anything from comparing these two epic series, it is that inside that overarching theme of the circle of life lies many common polarities.
Nowhere do we find more opportunities for conflict than within a family. Both sides of this age-old conflict tend to be arrogant and sure of their position in each skirmish.
Sub-themes in the family saga will be:
Good vs. evil
Illusions vs. reality
Jealous vs. trusting
Justice vs. injustice
Love vs. hate
Order vs. chaos
Truth vs. falsehoods
Wealth vs. poverty
Young vs. old
These same themes that we employ in the small story of one family can easily be applied to a larger, more epic saga, such as in Tolstoy’s War and Peace – the “family” is an entire nation.
Looking beyond the obvious, we find the subtle polarities to instill into our work. Small subliminal conflicts highlight and support the theme. When you add texture to the narrative, you add depth.
Take pain—in my personal experience, the absence of pain was only appreciated once I had experienced true physical pain.
It’s like everything else we take for granted: we don’t think about pain if we have never felt it.
I find inspiration in the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. When I am looking for a way to add a particular emotion to a scene, I look up the word I want to convey and see what the opposites are. This is an affordable resource for the cash-strapped author because it can be purchased in paperback for between $9.00 and $12.00 USD.
Here are some polarities we can apply when fleshing out a character:
- courage – cowardice
- crooked – honorable
- cruel – kind
Consider a scene where you want to convey a sense of danger. Go to the “D” section of the Synonyms and Antonyms and look up danger:
- danger – safety
Just past danger we find
- dark – light
And just beyond dark, we find
- despair – hope
Those are three “D” words that have great opposites. In one dark scene, we can convey peril, and the feeling of hopelessness a character might feel. The light and hope we offer at the end of the story shine brighter when they are contrasted against darkness and despair.
Think of Frodo and Sam on Mt. Doom after Gollum and the ring are destroyed. Darkness and sure peril are followed by light and salvation.
Polarity is an essential tool of world building. Small polarities in the interactions your characters have with each other add to the atmosphere and serve to show their world in subtle ways.
If you can’t afford to buy the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms, the internet is your friend. A large, comprehensive list of common antonyms can be found at Enchanted Learning. This is a free resource.
I try to find ways to add depth by employing polarity. Each small polarity creates conflict, pushes my characters a bit further.
If I’m smart with the way I write it, small polarities will support and define my larger theme without beating the reader over the head.
As I say, this requires me to be skillful in the writing process, which is sometimes easier said than done.
4 responses to “Theme and Depth Through Polarity #amwriting”
You just had to shine the light on this during the holidays, didn’t you?!? LOL. “a large theme that drives the action can be be something as common and subtle as family dynamics across generations . . . beneath the surface, families are fraught with emotions that create conflict.” A good hook for a good read, Connie!
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Well – my family puts the “fun” in dysfunctional, lol!
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Excellent article. When my stories fall flat, it’s usually due to a lack of conflict, and being aware of polarity is a great way to avoid this. Thanks so much for suggesting the resources for synonyms and antonyms. What a great tip for when you get stuck!
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Beyond the obvious quest in a story, I have struggled to give the smaller conflicts a logical purpose. In the beginning, I don’t always know why my characters can’t work together!