Theme: The What, the Why, and the How (Gary Medina)

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Salutations, everyone! I hope that your week is productive and your mind is hungry for knowledge. A few weeks ago, we tackled the enigmatic topic of theme at our workshop. While not breaking any new ground, the nice little divot we scratched out unearthed a lot of interesting ideas to delve into. Enough of the pretty preamble, let’s get to the nitty-gritty.

The What

The theme of a story is the underlying idea that permeates throughout. Depending on the writer, it can appear during the planning stages, guiding the narrative in accordance with that idea. It can also be a consistent breeze, unseen but felt through the unconscious usage and formations of any given sentence. Some concrete ways to see this in action run the gamut of different examples. This can include the way your world reacts to the characters that reside in it. Maybe it’s the automatic thoughts that inform many of their desires and goals. Perhaps it’s the social structure that informs that underlying idea. A theme adds that bit of color to your story.

In the workshop, I added that theme can also be a question that you, the writer, are still working out. This is when things got more interactive. To figure out the question, I asked a random assortment of members why they were writing in the first place. Figuring this out can inform the type of stories you write and can help you pinpoint where you might hit a rut.

The How

Holy diversion! I decided to move this up in order to get the facts out quickly. The fact of the matter is, you’re adept at infusing theme into your writing. Your beliefs and trigger-reactions to changes in the world mold how you compose your ideas on paper or screen. While it comes naturally, there are ways to strengthen your awareness and refine your execution.

  1. Consume with purpose. Consume consciously:

    • That extra episode you stayed up to watch can have benefits when you break it down into small pieces. In the visual medium, the theme can be telegraphed by color palette, lighting, dialogue, and even motions of the camera. Finding the bridge between the visual language and the written can give your work that extra spice.

  2. Mind maps:

    • Take a word, particularly one that holds power and meaning to you, and use that as your nest. Next, write about how this single word will affect your characters. A single word can shape the kinds of threats your characters face and even inform the attitudes they show one another. Finally, have it branch out, allowing that word to touch every element in your story.

  3. Just rip the bandage/Pull the trigger:

    • Humans follow patterns. As stated above, you’re already pulling pieces apart and exploring a theme in your own way. Get to work!

  4. And then vs. Therefore

    • What does Pulitzer Prize Winner The Orphan Master’s Son and South Park have in common? The events in their narratives follow a therefore pattern of writing. Therefore takes your theme into account to shape your story. If your theme revolves around loneliness and how it makes long-lasting relationships difficult to develop, a sequence of events can play out like this:

      • Pak Jun Do was never allowed to form a unique identity in the North Korean regime. Therefore, a captain in the boat he served on tattoos a famous actress on his chest, imbuing him with meaning. Enamored with the idea of life outside of duty, Pak Jun Do assumes the identity of a fallen war hero, dissolving his old name entirely.

    • And then is the sizzle without the steak. It’s when the story goes off course without the guiding light of a theme and the writer adds in some conflict to spice up the narrative. While the additions are stimulating at first, it can rob a story of long-lasting impact.

The Why

This is where we took it low and conversational. Theme is the color, the soul of your story. It is the heartbeat that keeps your story alive long after the luster of novelty has worn off. You write what you know and what you know is the human experience. It’s the same experience we all share and it is your job to translate that into the text. That much requires insight on yourself and what events occurring in the world mean to you. Even if you run into questions the deeper you go, those queries can also be fascinating to frame in familiar structure of a story. Understanding the what, the how and the why of theme can give that breath of fresh air that your project needs.


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The Yukon Writers’ Society is an encouraging, supportive group for fiction writers in Yukon, Oklahoma. They meet biweekly on Thursdays to embrace accountability, to learn more about the craft of writing, and to help group members start and finish their books. The Yukon Writers’ Society was founded in 2016 and provides free meetings for its members. Their group anthology, Shivers in the Night, was published in April 2018.