blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Finding themes in your writing

and using them to drive creativity

shells-sand_pasja1000
pasja1000 via pixabay

I’m back on the beach again, metaphorically rather than literally. Beaches and the sea feature prominently in my writing, and I didn’t even know.

It all started with a chance remark from a writer friend. She read a short story of mine and commented, “Be careful what you wish for seems to be a theme in your stories.”
“Huh,” I replied.

That got me thinking. I’ve contributed two stories to anthologies based on a deal with the devil, another about a wish come horribly true, and just completed a ghost story with an implied wish embedded in the protagonist’s motivation.

Then in my IRL poetry group, another poet asked if I deliberately included the sea in my poems, because beaches often came up in them.
“Huh,” I replied again.

Beaches inspired my prize winning story All the sands that touch the sea. Beaches and the sea inspired poems like All love in a day and blog posts like Forever summer and Flying free and many more. I realised that the ocean figured in about a third of my works that year.

Hiding in plain sight are ideas or beliefs that underpin some if not all of my work. The question is, what does the sea or beaches mean to me? And how can I use it to my advantage?

Theme in writing

The theme of a story is what the author is trying to convey — in other words, the central idea of the story. Short stories often have just one theme, whereas novels usually have multiple themes. The theme of a story is woven all the way through the story, and the characters’ actions, interactions, and motivations all reflect the story’s theme.
Cliff’s notes

In well written stories, theme gives a satisfying sense of ‘I know what that was all about’ in terms of universal ideas like love conquers all or family comes first. Theme is separate to plot or what happens and where. Love can conquer all in any number of different settings.

Conversely, a story without a theme, even if well written with engaging characters, leaves the reader wondering ‘so what?’ And a story written to a specific theme can come over as preachy, especially when political or religious. The reader feels they’ve been beaten over the head with a blunt instrument.

Discovering your values

Most of us don’t examine our core beliefs on a regular basis, if ever. As writers hoping to illuminate the human condition through stories, it might be useful to our selves and to our readers to dig a little deeper into the beliefs that drive our behaviour. We might ask ourselves questions like

  • what makes me happy
  • is my life the result of luck or choice
  • what is the strongest emotion
  • is ‘blood thicker than water’
  • are people essentially good or essentially sinful
  • are rules made to be broken

Looking a little deeper at the answers will help you understand yourself and what guides your choices. And of course in fiction, you can use values to build a compelling character who behaves like a real person in the story. A list of useful questions to ask and a summary of values can be found here at mindtools.com.

Using theme to your advantage

Sometimes the theme is only seen when looking back at a work. During the first draft our job is to tell ourselves the story, as Terry Pratchett said. After a break, re-reading the story should reveal its point, if you didn’t write with one in mind. It might be something unexpected. Your job then is to strengthen the theme using subtle hints in characterisation and dialogue, so that the narrative hangs together. On the other hand, if theme is too obvious, it may need toning down so that it fades into the background.

If genre is an ocean and plot is the wind steering the boat of characters, they can change course by their actions. But the theme is like a deep ocean current that will bring them to a particular destination, even though they can’t see it.

There’s the sea again

Why does the sea reappear in my work? The beach is a boundary combining air, earth and water aspects of nature. It represents transformation, endings and beginnings, awe and fear at the power of the sea, creation/birth vs. destruction/death. For me it also represents time, childhood, escape. All this and more, before even considering the symbology of water itself.

I use my sea theme to help me with new works. A new story takes shape more easily once I have a setting. I might set the story on the beach or at sea; or use the idea of a liminal space to come up with a supernatural tale. I have woven memories into beach stories.

Whether it is romance, SFF, magic realism or anything else, be careful what you wish for is another goal to work towards. This is especially good for short stories or poems with a single theme. There are many different ways in which this might play out. Not all involve a deal with a devil, but that does make for a good tale.

New directions

I don’t want to keep writing the same story though. So periodically I have a look at my values again. They change in importance and evolve as my life does, and my art should reflect that. And that is one of my personal values.

If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.
Gail Sheehy

Look at your works, or better yet ask someone else to read them, and see if a recurring idea or value reveals itself. You may be surprised. Then have a go at a new piece, keeping your theme in mind.

Let theme inspire you.