What they are and how not to kill your story with them

A.P. Atkinson
For some reason, people generally tend to be very bad at spotting themes. Although it involves complex abstract philosophical concepts, these are in essence just simple basic ideas that resonate with all human beings at some level. For this reason, themes will always make an impression on you, whether you’re aware of them or not.

All stories, to some degree, have themes. Admittedly, this is somewhat questionable when it comes to some modern movies and books, as some of the writing these days is so bad that it seems the only theme is the strong desire to make money.

The interesting thing about modern Hollywood offerings is the rapidly increasing use of identity politics in almost every production. The problem with this is that it actively sucks out any real thematic story elements, since it has to revolve, almost entirely, around the agenda it’s trying to push. It fails because it’s placed front and centre and lacks nuance and subtelty. The layman immediately spots it being shoved in his face, and openly rejects it, along with the entire movie.

In essence, the louder you broadcast your theme, the less value it holds. The best themes are so subtle that you don’t even consciously notice them. They creep into your mind when you’re not looking and wrap themselves around your identity, subtly modifying who you are. Luckily, most movies these days are so terrible that the only thing they modify is your desire to watch any more of them.

Movies, books and media with nothing but themes usually fail. They only appeal to those who agree with you and everyone else finds them annoying. Hollywood isn’t smart enough to learn this.

If you read enough hollow, empty stories, you simply adjust to them. A part of your brain accepts the low quality as the norm, and you start looking for other things in your books and films, like cheap thrills, half naked women, overt sexuality, violence and unbelievable special effects. That goes some way towards explaining the rise of the blockbuster movie, and the decline of quality film, and why books such as 50 shades of Grey are taken seriously and highly plagiarised children’s books, like Harry Potter are read by adults. If you read and consume only this, then cognitive dissonance does the work of convincing you that the more complex stories are rubbish anyway.

To understand how this works, we have to first accept that the theme is the idea behind the story, it’s the concept it’s based on. It is a message, usually something the author of the story believes in, or a lesson they want to express. Stories are written to share ideas, and the theme is the idea they’re sharing.

If you don’t see the theme, if you don’t understand the message, it creeps into your mind unnoticed. If you don’t think for yourself, someone will do your thinking for you.

I can’t imagine that you would want that, but again, it explains why so many people are so easily swayed by media campaigns, and why people are so easily taken in by blatantly illogical ideologies and make lethally terrible choices out of fear.

So, to make a point, let me take a story you all know, and we’ll look into the themes of it.

You probably remember the story of the three little pigs.

In the story there are three piglets. They each build a house, one of straw, one of sticks and one of bricks. Then, the wolf come for them. Now, there are various versions of the story, in some, the piggies are eaten by the wolf, in others, they escape to the last house. We’ll examine the original version, where the wolf huffs and puffs and blows down the house, and then mercilessly devours the pigs. Stories like this lose some important elements when we soften them down for a modern, easily-offended audience.

So, the wolf brutally murders the first little pig. It had built a straw house and it had no chance of surviving against an attack. It was doomed and it faces the consequences of its ill-advised actions.

The second one built a better house out of sticks but the wolf still managed to get in, and the pig’s days were ended.

Finally, the wolf tries the same thing with the brick house and nothing happens, the wolf goes away hungry.

A pig

But what’s the theme of this story? Well, you see, it’s not really about three pigs, it’s about one pig, and that one pig is all of us. This story is aimed at children, and teaches them a valuable lesson about life, and about growing up.

You see, the first little piggy represents you as a small child. You don’t do things properly, and the things you do fail. You need your parents to look after you, to guide you.

Later, you grow up a bit and start to build your houses out of sticks. It’s more effort, but the results are better. They’re still not good enough and you learn that when life comes along and teaches it to you the hard way.

Finally, you grow up. You start to realise that things have to be done properly, and you build your house out of bricks. You see, laziness doesn’t really work, you just end up trapped by it, and suffer for it later.

And that’s the theme, and the message of the story. Every child unconsciously understands that the wolf is a scary thing. It’s coming to get you, just like life is coming to get you. And who survives? The little pig who did the thing in the right way, not the lazy or stupid ones.

That’s a worthwhile message for a story to put across, and that’s how themes work. They impart wisdom in a smart, intelligent way while also delivering an amusing story that the audience appreciates.

Nobody goes to the trouble of writing a story without having something they want to say. At least, nobody who wants to create a story worth reading. So themes are the ideas that drive the story. It’s as simple, or as hard as that.

When you write, start with the themes and work outwards. The ideas and messages are the heart of your story, and a great place to begin.

Write with themes in mind. If you write to broadcast your feelings as an activist, you won’t find an audience, people aren’t as stupid as you think. People who see themselves as activists are arrogant, they think that they’ve found some wonderful new way to look at the world and have to explain it to all those who aren’t smart enough to have found it themselves. They often find that everyone else, who they thought were too stupid to understand, had already rejected their ideas as being irrational.

If you can’t work out how to get your themes into your story in subtle, smart ways then perhaps writing isn’t for you?

Remember, the most important thing about becoming a writer is that your audience is your customer and they deserve to be treated with respect. Your plot is the mind of your book, the themes are the heart. Write accordingly and let the reader choose how to discover your message.

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