“To my mind the master is the one who can simultaneously give the effect of simplicity and restraint–yet you can go right up to it and explore it endlessly with the greatest joy.” -Andrew Wyeth
Let’s talk theme in storytelling.
As I’ve been on another dragon kick in the wake of Fort Fest, I recently sat down to rewatch one of my favorite dragon movies, How to Train Your Dragon 2. I love both the movies in this franchise, and I’m looking forward to the third, the trailer for which just recently dropped.
And while I’m aware that movies and books tell stories differently (and there are some ways movies do this that shouldn’t be used to guide the writing of books), there are some universal lessons that can translate over. Theme is one of them, so that’s what we’re going to look at.
At this point in my life, I’ve read enough books and seen enough movies to have seen the same plots and character archetypes over and over again. So often, what makes a story stand out to me is what it does differently: how it plays with and subverts my expectations, how it pushes against cliches. How it blows me away with sheer technical mastery, or provides me with extra “meat” to chew on in the form of a story working on multiple levels.
It’s this latter one I want to talk about, because that’s where theme lives. Theme goes deeper than a surface-level “message” or moral. Theme is the idea behind the story, the concept that it’s exploring. In a masterfully told story, this theme will be reflected in almost everything that happens. Plot points shouldn’t occur in a vacuum, as discrete events. Plot points stem from everything that’s happened before, and if you’re doing it right, each of them will speak to or react against the same core conflict or idea.
For example, in the HTTYD movies, it’s a straightforward coming of age/boy and his dog story (though in this case, the “dog” is actually a cross between a cat, a bat, the alien Stitch, and a B-2 stealth bomber). But go deeper, and it’s really a story about masculinity and leadership. It’s a story that looks at the emotional and physical crippling that occurs when violence and brutal competition is considered the only “proper” way to achieve manhood. It looks at how a boy who is intelligent, inventive, and gentle grows up desperate to prove he’s a man by performing toxic masculinity, because the society he’s born into has not given him a place to thrive as he is. Over the course of the story, he brings about positive change by presenting a different way to “be a man,” one that leaves room for peace, friendship, and the strength to own up to your mistakes and try to fix them.
And the second movie again comes back to this theme, with its own visions of positive and negative (male) leaders: empathy vs. coersion, strength used to protect all vs. strength used to conquer and subdue the Other.
Go through the movies, and see how they come back again and again to this theme. The characters and relationships we focus on, the events that move the plot: everything reflects, explores, and supports the theme.
So, how do we as storytellers go about creating a story that has a strong theme? It’s not necessarily something that needs to be focused on in the first draft; in fact, sometimes you just want to tell a story, and that’s fine! As you work on it, as you go back for later drafts, a theme might emerge that can guide your editing.
Can you use theme as a starting point? Sure, but I’d give a word of caution. On one hand, a theme can be a guide to help you figure out where the story should go. But on the other hand, if you’re not careful, using theme as a starting point can lend itself to a story that’s too pedantic or obviously leading with a message.
The key, I think, is to keep it fairly broad. “Broccoli is the most morally upright vegetable” might be too narrow a starting point; “Vegetables” might be a better starting theme, or “Food and Morality”. And then if you get stuck, thinking “I want my hero to confront the villain but I don’t know how to make that happen,” you go back to your theme, and decide that they should run into one another in a grocery store.
This is an incredibly reductive and silly example, but hopefully you get my drift.
My husband actually uses this technique when writing the plot for the LARPs we run. It will always be a (usually) single word that encompasses what our focus is. That way, if we ever get stuck, we come back to the theme and decide what to do based around that. So, as a writing prompt/example, I’ll give you some of our past years’ themes:
Greed – Normalcy – Harmony – Insurance – Robots – the Breakdown of Friendship
Try writing a story guided by one of these themes. See what happens! You might end up in some interesting places.