Over the previous three posts, we’ve looked at the many ways themes can be employed in the stories we write. Themes exist in every story but can be difficult to identify if we have no plan to write to.
When you are pantsing it (writing-by-the-seat-of-your-pants), themes are like your drunk uncle. They hang out at the local pub until closing time and then weave their way home through dark alleys. Sometimes, as you are leaving for work in the morning, you find them under the neighbor’s shrubs. Other times they make it home.
If you still haven’t identified the defining theme when you have finished your first draft, look in the first chapters of your story. You may find clues sprinkled throughout the story, hints to point the reader toward the theme.
If you still haven’t identified the theme, you may be trying too hard. Often, the theme can be found in the things and events that are hindrances to happiness.
Allegory is an excellent tool to use when we want to emphasize a theme without beating our readers over the head. Allegories are objects within a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning,
A well-crafted 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 number of words. But it requires intention when you first begin creating the story arc. Words, phrases, and settings must be chosen, and the narrative’s prose must be purposefully crafted.
At the surface level, each genre looks widely different. But when you go deeper, you find that all literary genres have one thing in common: they have protagonists and side characters who all must deal with and react to the book’s underlying theme.
Highlighting a strong theme can be a challenge if you begin without an outline. A plan is not always required because, in some stories, the flash of inspiration we start with is a strong theme. The theme develops as you write, and immediately, you see what it is.
Personally, I need an outline most of the time.
Whatever the case, once you have identified the central theme, you can write the story in such a way that it is shown through:
- Symbolic settings/places
- Allegorical objects deliberately placed within the setting
It can be difficult to decide the underlying theme, making the story weak. It has no legs and won’t ring true until you find what that unifying idea-thread is. This requires a little mind-wandering on your part.
I often sit on my back porch and just let my thoughts roam, thinking about nothing in particular. Usually, I will end up considering the character’s quest or dilemma. I ask myself what the root cause of the issue is—if it is a crime, why is crime rampant? Is it a societal problem, such as poverty or war? If the core dilemma is unrequited love, what are the roadblocks to a resolution?
Once I identify the root cause of the problem, I can see the themes. If the problem is poverty, dealing with and overcoming it becomes the theme throughout the story. You don’t have to say “they were dirt-poor” every scene. Yes, many of the poorest people are homeless. However, most people whose incomes are near or below the poverty line have homes and jobs.
People are not cliches. Most poor people work one or two jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over their family’s heads. They don’t have the time or money to be drunks or drug abusers—their wages go to providing as good a life as they can for their families. People can be shown as being basically happy in an environment that isn’t wealthy. Life has subtleties, and a strong theme can reinforce those nuances when it is shown through the use of allegories.
Poverty can be represented through many symbolic objects in their home or neighborhood:
- Cracks in sidewalks
- Cracks in mirrors
- Chips in crockery
- Peeling wallpaper
- Broken-down vehicles
Whenever I talk about allegory, I like to use the movie, The Matrix as my example. Most people are familiar with the movie but aren’t consciously aware of the amount of symbolism and allegory that is laced into it. The films of The Matrix franchise pit man against machine in a clearly drawn battle, but they also reveal that the humans are more machinelike than they think and that the machines possess human qualities as well.
These are the prominent themes, but there are several simultaneous underlying concepts.
In the movie’s opening scenes, symbolism is used to underscore Neo’s unacknowledged dissatisfaction, a discontent he is unaware of. This unspoken unhappiness is shown in many ways. Allegory is built into their androgynous costumes and in the screenwriters/authors’ choice of words used in every conversation.
The symbolism continues in the way the setting is so sparsely dressed. Every object that is shown onscreen has a purpose and a meaning. Even the characters’ names are symbolic.
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 filmed 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.
These layers offer us an incredible amount of subliminal information about that surreal world and what is going on in reality, what the Matrix truly is.
I try to picture conversations, clothing, setting, and the broader environment as if I were creating a scene in a movie. How can I use allegory to support my story arc?
When we are immersed in reading a book or watching a movie, we don’t notice the heavy symbolism on a conscious level. However, it is all there on closer examination, making the imaginary real, solid, and concrete.
This post winds up our four-part dip into theme. Thank you for sticking with me! Below are the links to the previous posts in this series.
Exploring Theme part 1 – Henry James
Exploring Theme part 2 – Jane Austen
Exploring Theme part 3 – Learning from poetry