There’s much more to a story than what happens. Theme, for example, can simply be described as what a story means. This post isn’t to describe theme, so for that you can visit an excellent post over at Writers Digest that defines it wonderfully. Or you can review your English composition notes. Instead, this discussion will address assembling story elements when you already know what larger meaning you want to explore.
Narrative has always allowed people to approach topics that have no easy answer. Crafting a story allows an issue to be explored with sympathetic characters and challenging situational questions rather than be explained with only one set of answers. We love this quote from Novel Writing Help: “[I]t isn’t necessarily your job as a writer to provide answers, but merely to ask questions.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to have firm opinions about your theme. You should. Strong themes require a lot of passion and interest to keep them both strong and tightly woven into the story because you’ll be sitting with them for the duration of the project. George Orwell’s book 1984 is an example how a political theme can be driven by an already strong opinion. No one reading this book can say Orwell supported this extreme government. He did, however, go in-depth on several methods of oppression and found ample material to incite people to question their current relationship with government. Whether you start with a theme or approach this in revision, consider these methods for raising stronger questions in your audience.
One technique for writing from theme involves creating situations that challenge the central question. Most thematic pieces use a combination of techniques, but consider the film version of the story, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. For anyone who hasn’t seen this movie and wishes to be surprised as to what happens, consider this your spoiler alert. Skip to the character creation section later on.
The first situation in this movie is no secret as it is set in World War II, and the prevailing cultural narrative about this war enforces that genocide is morally wrong. The theme of the movie builds on this with a deliberately assembled situation for characters who believe their actions are right, noble, predestined, and acceptable to suddenly have their belief crushed by the wide-reaching and deeply personal pain of mass murder.
Aside from the time setting, the first real motion in the story involves the central family, who are firmly German, moving to Auschwitz where the father is stationed as commandant. Audiences are supposed to know and be aware of the horrific nature of the camp, but the family makes deliberate attempts to block this out of their day-to-day lives and remain in ignorance as long as possible. If any other camp served in this capacity, the force of this dramatic irony would not be nearly so strong, and the family’s rejection of reality would not be as negative.
The last major action, the twist that few ever want to give away, has the main character, the youngest son of the family, inside the camp on an innocent mission and herded into the gas chambers and killed with a large group of prisoners. As far as situational theme goes, this is marvelously straightforward though heavily dependent on dramatic irony. The boy doesn’t believe in the philosophy behind these murders and is as undeserving of death as the prisoners. This comes at the end of a story formed by scenes specifically created to show blind hatred is wrong, racism is damaging, and genocide cannot be ignored.
Turning this around to writing practice, consider a cause or a question that you feel strongly about. Look at how you feel about it and why. What made you feel this way and how could that be a scene? Now look at the other side and why someone would feel that way. Write a scene that at least demonstrates how someone could believe that way. Ask someone else what they believe about it, then write yet another scene demonstrating that perspective. This won’t produce a full story, but it should get the juices flowing.
Another approach for structuring according to a theme involves characters. As characters are people, they’re entitled to hold differing opinions and they can be placed in positions to see many sides of difficult conflicts. A general example would be placing a character on opposing sides of a war. To further investigate the effects of intense conflict, other characters could be placed in different ranks within the involved armies, some as bystanders, maybe another as a negotiator or protester. The show M.A.S.H., especially in its later seasons, uses the unique position of medics in a controversial war to make clear life is too valuable to be thrown away.
An excellent example for theme development through characters can be found in The Help. There are a huge number of characters in this book, and the movie does a great job of juggling them too. Each character says something about the society that’s being scrutinized. Insiders and outsiders of both the white and black communities are shown, as are prejudices of age, sex, race, and belief. Many potent scenes involve indirect and completely unfair harm inflicted because of these prejudices, social standards, and desire for acceptance.
To construct characters with theme in mind, consider listing the people directly involved with the topic you want to explore. Who creates the problem, who changes the issue, who is at fault or who is victimized? Spreading out from that center, consider who is indirectly harmed, benefited, involved, or separate. The more unique characters often spring from those who are often overlooked, so make a special effort to identify a place for a character that is interesting, deeply entangled in the issue, and uniquely connected to those in a position of power in the situation at hand. Consider, in the example of The Help, Constantine Bates, the aging maid who all but raised the main character, and who was dismissed and humiliated all at once then purposefully forgotten out of shame. If you haven’t read/watched this, do. It’s a powerful thematic piece.