3 Ways to Use Theme to Deepen Your Story | Jane Friedman

3 Ways to Use Theme to Deepen Your Story | Jane Friedman

Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

Today’s post is by author, editor and book coach Sharon Skinner.

Theme is a critical element of story, but it is more than just the point you are making. Theme can be used to deepen reader experience, add subplots, increase conflict, ramp up tension, and heighten the overall narrative. It is the sweet syrup that drips and runs into all the nooks and crannies of a deeply layered story.

By staying mindful of your overall theme and thematic topics when writing and revising, you can develop a layered narrative that will resonate with readers both on a conscious and subconscious level and stay with them long after the book (or curtain) closes.

Firs, identify your theme

Theme is foundational. It supports the plot and story like an iceberg, where the majority of it sits beneath the surface. The thematic foundation upon which the story is written drives much of what you can do with story. Having a solid theme—thematic topics and a thematic statement—will help you deliver a story with depth.

You can have more than one theme in your story. However, a single thematic statement is keeps your story on track.

Thematic topics versus thematic statement

Thematic topics can be expressed with single words like love, hate, greed, fear, etc. A single story can touch on multiple thematic topics. A great example of this is Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton touches on a multitude of topics, including power, love, hate, arrogance, loyalty, betrayal, loss, forgiveness…and more.

A thematic statement is what your book is about. Every book is about something. Every writer, whether they initially realize it or not, is making a point. A great way to get at theme is by asking yourself, “What’s the point?”

A thematic statement should be a complete sentence. Broken down to its most succinct, it can read like a line or a meme, but needs to be a complete independent phrase or sentence.

Examples include:

  • Love conquers all.
  • To err is human.
  • Money is the root of all evil.
  • Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, ambition is a key topic. Getting from there to the thematic statement is as simple as giving Hamilton a clear line of dialogue: “I’m not gonna give up my shot.” This statement is a complete sentence that not only expresses the goal of the protagonist, Hamilton, it provides a thematic statement for the story. Alexander Hamilton is a man bound and determined to make something of himself by refusing to take no for an answer and taking his shot at greatness.

While Hamilton is a musical, it is also a great story—one that Miranda had to write and develop before bringing it to the stage—and provides some excellent examples for using theme to deepen story.

What is gloriously delicious about the thematic statement in Hamilton, what fills up the subconscious nooks and crannies and deepens the layers of this story, is how this statement is repeated and reflected upon. In the end (spoiler alert) the protagonist does give up his shot. This is the reason for his demise.

Once you have identified your thematic topics and developed a thematic statement, you can use them to deepen the reader experience. Here are three ways to do that.

1. Using theme to add conflict and barriers

Your story’s thematic topics are a great source for developing conflict and obstacles for your characters.

When raising the stakes, you want to make it personal, not just the what, but why it matters to the character, not just what’s happening but why it’s meaningful to them.

  • Use your theme to create conflicts and barriers that bump up against your protagonist’s traits, push their buttons, test them, and strengthen and hone them to be able to face the final challenge that awaits them at the climax of the story. When the characters’ values, beliefs, and growth are at stake, the tension escalates, drawing readers into the story even further.
  • Develop character relationships that are shaped by the thematic topics. How characters interact, clash, or collaborate can highlight the nuances of the theme and contribute to the story’s emotional impact.

In Hamilton, Alexander isn’t the only one with great ambitions. However, the ways the characters pursue those ambitions differ drastically. Even allies can have conflicting viewpoints that stem from different interpretations of the theme.

Or, for example, if your theme centers around trust, pit your characters’ ideas and feelings around trust and/or breaking that trust against one another.

2. Using theme to develop subplots and parallel storylines

Subplots can serve as microcosms that mirror or contrast the main plot, allowing you to explore different facets of the theme. These subplots can also involve secondary characters who embody different perspectives on the thematic statement. Your subplots can argue for or against your thematic statement.

In Hamilton, one of the subplots is the duel that his son is involved in. His advice to his son, which is to fire into the air—literally giving up his shot—goes horribly wrong. This foreshadows what is to come. Hamilton’s grief and guilt over his son’s death becomes something he carries with him through the rest of the narrative. and so does the audience.

Which brings us to foreshadowing.

3. Using theme to foreshadow

You can easily integrate thematic elements into your story early on, foreshadowing the events and character developments yet to be revealed. This adds depth and resonance when readers reflect on earlier hints and realize their significance in hindsight.

Hamilton carries with him the guilt of his son’s death, an event that directly foreshadows what is yet to occur. One might think that Hamilton’s future action would be modified based on his son’s death. Yet, when the time comes, Hamilton follows his own advice, resulting in his tragic death. The audience is left reeling, wondering if he did it on purpose, or to prove a point, or…who knows what else?

“I’m not gonna give up my shot. I’m not gonna give up my shot.” He was not gonna give up. and Lin-Manuel Miranda knows exactly what he’s doing when the word shot is repeated over and over.

That’s good stuff. and you don’t consciously see it coming but, subconsciously, it’s layered in there for you. It elevates the story and deepens the experience.

With a story like that, you think about it long afterward. and isn’t that exactly what we want to give our readers? A long-lasting delicious story they can savor long after the final page.

Sharon Skinner

Sharon Skinner holds an MA in creative Writing and is an author, freelance editor, and Author Accelerator certified book coach, who helps writers weave their words into stories that shine. She writes speculative fiction across age categories. Her body of work includes nine published novels, two collections of short stories and poetry, two picture books, and other assorted writings. Her latest book, Blood From a Rose, is a collection of dark fantasy and light horror with a touch of humor.

She has served as an Arizona State Library writer in Residence four times, and serves as the Regional Advisor for SCBWI AZ (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Arizona). She also served aboard the USS Jason, the first US Navy vessel to take women to sea. But that’s another story. To learn more, visit https://sharonskinner.com/ or https://bookcoachingbysharon.com/ or Sharon’s Word Nerd Haven on Substack

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