Before I get started on the main topic of this blog post, I want to make a quick announcement. As of today, I will be reducing the frequency of my blog posts from twice a month (every other Sunday) to once a month (the first Sunday of the month). This is so I can keep up with it without struggling or it getting in the way of other things I’m working on.
So, let’s jump into this post’s topic: themes and messages. When I say “themes” I’m not talking about robots or time travel or those sorts of themes. In this post, I’m specifically touching on emotional themes such as forgiveness or finding hope. Tied in with these themes is the message you are trying to convey. In other words, what is the overall thing you are trying to say with your story?
Some people don’t like to think about that as they write. Some people don’t believe in including any kind of overall messages or anything in their work. That’s fine. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I’m a firm believer in there being no one-size-fits-all approach to writing. But I am also a believer in readers interpreting stories and trying to find meaning in them, and if you don’t intentionally include a meaning in your work then your readers will probably find one for you. And that could be good or bad.
Anyway, I think including an overall emotional theme or message is something I have done in the past subconsciously, but recently I’ve been giving it a lot more deliberate thought. And the thing is, it’s actually not all that hard of a concept. Your overall message can be one that’s super simple. Let’s take a look at my book Ternary (coming March 2021: no spoilers in this post).
A major emotional theme in Ternary is trusting others. Conversely, another major theme that highlights that theme is ambiguity. The reason why these two themes go well together is because people naturally don’t trust ambiguity. They like certainty. Can I trust this person or not? Well, if the answer is “absolutely yes” is there even really trust at all? Trust is a risk. If you absolutely know for sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that you can trust someone… Are you really trusting them? Or does trust come from the idea that a person may be perfectly capable of wronging you, but you believe that they won’t?
To that end, Ternary not only features a main character who, due to her past circumstances, finds it difficult to trust others—but is also faced with the tremendous challenge of having to learn to trust them in the face of ambiguity. There are many things in this story that are not absolutely certain. Is Elora (who is a cyborg) a human or a machine? Does the Aidos crew (who is assigned to transport her to where she’s going) want to help her or are they using her? Is the Captain a good person or a manipulative one?
Many of these questions don’t have actually have 100% solid answers because it’s not about solid answers. It’s about whether or not Elora can learn to accept things the way they are and trust that they’ll either work out…or they won’t. These things all build up and come together to ask the biggest question of the story: Is Elora capable of trusting someone enough to love them?
The message here is simple. You can’t always know things with absolute certainty. You have to learn to trust.
Figuring out what you’re trying to say in a story can help with other elements of writing too. For example, character needs. Often what your main character needs is something on an emotional level, be it trust, or love, or forgiveness, or to move on, or whatever it is. If you already know what theme or message you’re trying to convey in your story, you likely already know what that need is.
On the flip side, you absolutely don’t want to smash your reader over your head with your theme or message. This is especially true of books written for older teens and adults. People generally don’t like feeling like they’re being spoon fed a moral. Personally, I find it helps just to keep your theme in mind while you’re writing and letting it come out naturally, as opposed to planning how you’re going to convey your theme or message to a reader. Over-planning can sometimes make it feel forced or obvious. Of course, I’m not typically as much of a planner as others are and “letting things come naturally” is a pretty regular part of my writing routine.
Additionally, you don’t have to have just one overall theme or message throughout the entire thing. You can, and probably should, have many. Perhaps you have some for each character arc. Perhaps your theme or message evolves or changes with the story. Perhaps your theme or message is layered with others. Whatever works best for your story, your style, your intentions, etc.
So, themes and messages. Something to think about even if you decide you’d rather let your reader take away whatever they want (which they will regardless).