Category Archives: Theme

The Power of Story and Theme

I’ve known for a long time that I listen to, read, write, watch and tell stories for fun, yes, but also to help figure out what I think, to mash out how I believe I should live, to discover what it’s like, at least partially, to be someone else with different life experiences, to express things I feel that can’t be described in mere recitations of facts and statistics.

As a teacher, a student, a writer, I am always wowed by the power of story to create understanding, convey meaning, show relationships, and provoke thought. It’s not that I agree with every idea a story puts forth or even think agreeing is the point. The point of stories—what makes them so important and valuable—is how they provide glimpses into how people arrive at the places they do, how events shape other events, how life is perceived and experienced by another.

If you tell me war is damaging or that prejudice hurts generations of people, I’ll nod thoughtfully, because intellectually I know those are truths. If put me in a war via story or subject me to cruel indifference (or worse) because of prejudice via a character, I will know the truth on a whole different level, because I will have gotten just a bit of taste of what it must be like to suffer those things.

If you tell me that constant bullying can create a monster, I might or might not believe you (or I might start framing an argument for how people can’t just blame their circumstances on people around them). If I’m put in the situation as a fly on the wall, made to see the effects of one person of constant abuse over time, I’m probably going to be a rash of more elaborate things: a) less likely to bully b) more likely to recognize when something is mean c) more intent on being kind to people I perceived as being picked on d) less wishy-washy and permissive of mistreatment of others . . .

My own kids have shown me the power of even “little” stories. I was uptown with my son the other day and he was playing with a novelty pen that had a big rubber head with googly-eyes that bulged out, as if on springs, when you squeezed it. He was making it make weird faces, kind of chuckling. Then he stopped laughing and said, “Just like a hamster, right, Mom?”

Gack! I thought and got ready to launch into a momesque lecture. “That’s not a funny way to joke.”

“I’m not joking,” he said quickly. “It just made me think of about Uncle Wilfie’s birthday party and his poor hamster baby. I still use that story to scare little kids, you know.”

Just as I started an inner monologue, berating myself for telling that story where the intrinsic message was so obviously lost, he went on.

“You know, show them, especially – – – – , he doesn’t have very good control, the danger of giving into that I love you so much I wanna squeeze you feeling.”

Awww, I wanted to squeeze him. So I did, but just a little, cause hey, he’s 13 and I’m pretty fortunate that he allows me to be seen with him in public, let alone give him a half-hug—and besides, as established, hard squeezing can be dangerous.

Where am I going with all this?

Do I think every story should have a conceived lesson on behalf of the writer? Gah, no! (But I also don’t mind if there is one, so long as it’s done well and is integral to the story, and the story isn’t just some pale, whinging thing tacked on to try to disguise a lecture.)

Do I think fiction writers have a job to inform, reform and educate? Not in any calculated way, no. Do I think writers must have deep reaching themes that they set out to tackle? Absolutely not—not intentionally, that is.

I do think the best stories—the ones that stick with us, that we ask to hear again, that get reread and reread—contain ideas and situations that affect us in a far deeper way than being merely entertaining. They are about far more than escalating action, a wacky offbeat laugh-a-minute MC (or a deep, brooding one), the gruesome, vivid details, the ahh of perfect romantic love . . . They resonate—Yes, this is what it means to be human. Or they challenge us—This is what it could (or should!) be like to be human. They speak to us somehow about how we live, have lived, or want to live.

The trick to writing these “best stories” then—actually, that’s badly worded. It’s no trick—it’s the one aspect of writing where craft books and technique can’t help us, where the only “skill” lies in just being ourselves. We have to allow what we really care about, fear, ponder, hate, love, question to well up in our stories. Our characters are not us (usually), they’re not even based on us (again, usually), but they are people and people have universal wants, needs, fears, questions . . . Let yourself (and your characters) tackle those things and you will not only have a book that the reader won’t put down, you will have written a book with the power to affect, transform, challenge, affirm and encourage—

Intimidating, isn’t it? Yes, but I don’t know if it needs to be. If we write whatever story currently yelling in our heads, the best we can, letting ourselves “go there” (those places we want to shy away from because they feel too personally revealing), I suspect, without any intention at all, when we reread our first draft, we’ll see our theme emerging. We’ll be intrigued by, maybe even a little awed and challenged by, the emerging power in our story.

I know I was a little long-winded this post, sorry–I had no Internet for eight days, so I had lots of time for my words to build up! I’d love to hear about your thoughts on theme and how you approach, consciously or not . . .


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