Today’s fiction writing exercise is an excerpt from my book, Story Drills: Fiction Writing Exercises. This one focuses on theme, the central message and deeper meaning of a story. Enjoy!
Theme is often described as the message of a story, but this description doesn’t do it justice. Theme is also the central meaning of a story, its moral core, its subtext. It’s what a story is about beyond the plot and characters. To Kill a Mockingbird (aff link) is the story of a girl named Scout and her father, Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who defends an innocent black man in 1950s Alabama—that’s the plot. But the story is about racial injustice—that’s the theme.
The mockingbird is a symbol in To Kill a Mockingbird:
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
This dialogue uses a mockingbird to explain why it’s wrong to convict, harm, or punish someone who’s innocent; the allegory of the mockingbird speaks to the novel’s theme. The story includes multiple innocent characters who are treated unfairly by their community—a motif that underscores and buttresses the theme of social and systemic injustice.
Theme goes beyond motif, exploring deeper meanings and asking questions about topics that are raised by motifs; when a story’s theme and motifs are linked in meaningful ways, a story becomes richer and deeper.
When evaluating a story’s theme, there is often no absolute or objectively correct analysis; a story’s theme could be subjective, depending on how a reader interprets the narrative. Any of the following statements about the theme of To Kill a Mockingbird would be correct:
- It’s about racial injustice in the American South during the 1950s.
- It’s about bringing change to a community.
- It’s about taking a moral stance that flies in the face of tradition, conventional thinking, and popular culture.
Taking a few moments to contemplate a story’s motifs and themes is a good exercise to do with any book, movie, or television show. You don’t always need to write down your findings, but doing so will help you clarify your thoughts and better understand the story and its inner workings.
Choose one book, one film, and one television show you’re familiar with. Identify one central theme in each story. Write a detailed sentence describing the theme, starting with the words “It’s about…” Then write a paragraph to support your argument as to why this is the correct theme.
Make a list of three to five motifs, each expressed in a single word. Then develop a theme from your list of motifs, expressed as a sentence. Revise your motifs and themes until they are all nicely interconnected. Finally, write a few paragraphs describing a story that would encapsulate the motifs and theme you’ve chosen.
For example, motifs could be money, career, and love, and the theme could be making personal sacrifice for love. Your story might be about a parent who gives up a high-profile career and a big salary to spend more time with their children.
When reading a book, watching a movie, or viewing a television show, do you ever contemplate the motifs and themes that are presented? Has a theme ever jumped out at you as too obvious? Have you ever realized months or even years after reading a book that it contained motifs or themes that you didn’t initially notice? When developing a story, how often do you think about theme? Do you think theme is present in all stories? Can you think of any stories with no theme?