Using theme in writing – custard to the rescue!

Posted: August 28, 2013 in writing
Tags: , , , ,

When we talk about theme in fiction, it’s often as something the writer should work into their story. But yesterday I had the interesting experience of being rescued by my theme.

A story with a strong theme can be powerful for a reader. It creates a sense of consistency and subtle connections within the story for them to pick up on. It can make for a richer, more rewarding experience as they notice the many ways the story explores love, or revenge, or custard, or whatever the theme is. And so we try to use themes in our stories.

Tasty, tasty theme

Tasty, tasty theme

Yesterday I wasn’t thinking about theme. The story I’m working on has power and its negotiation built into its bones. It’s in the way I designed the characters, the way I structured the plot. And so, for better or worse, I don’t think about it much as I write. But today I got stuck on a scene. A debate between two characters had reached an impasse. I knew what I wanted to happen next, but I couldn’t find a way to do it that didn’t feel too easy, like the characters weren’t sticking to their guns. Any attempt to get out of this just led me back round in circles, going over the same points again and again. I was clutching my head in my hands, trying not to scream in front of the staff of my lovely local cafe, as I was driven nuts by the corner I had stuck myself in.

And then it occured to me to go back to the themes. The theme of the story. The themes of the characters, and how these connected into the main theme. Even to contemplate something I hadn’t consciously created, the emerging theme of this scene, which because of my planning connected nicely into the main thread. I thought about how these themes could be further explored in this scene, how they related to that stuck debate. Ideas started to bubble up in my brain, half formed and not yet the solutions I need, but full of promise. They were leading me out of that hole.

This is where theme becomes a tool for writing. It’s a way to focus you, to move on through the blocks, to throw in new elements while remaining consistent. It’s a source of inspiration when you get stuck and all your other ideas have failed.

Or all my other ideas, at least.

Readers, how does theme shape your reading experience? Do you often notice it or think about it as you’re reading a book? And writers, how do you use theme? Is it something you struggle to work with, or a spark that inspires your every writing moment? Has it helped you through the blocks? Leave a comment below, I’m curious to know.

  1. everwalker says:

    I usually don’t notice themes until I’ve finished the book, because I tend to get so immersed in the story that it takes some post-reading reflection to join the dots. If that doesn’t happen, I actually take it to be a bad sign, because I wasn’t immersed enough to turn off the analytical part of my brain.

    That kind of spills into my attitude as a writer. I always start with an overarching theme, but I want it to be subtle. Something the reader really has to think about to pick up on. As subtlety is not one of my natural strengths, that is also my writing challenge.

    • I often don’t notice the theme until afterwards as well. In fact, I used to not notice at all. I wonder if it’s one of those things that I’m mostly picking up on because of writing.

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