Planning a Story Part 1 – Themes (and Premises)
March 07, 2022 | By: Blaize
When I start a book or story, it usually starts one of two ways. First, it might start as an interesting premise that translates into a rather engaging idea for a plot. Second, the story begins as a theme that I want to explore, and the story’s central conflict emerges from that theme. Regardless of how a story comes about, ultimately, I strive to consider the story’s theme before plotting the details because a theme is ultimately the heart or message of the story.
So, what is a theme anyways? A theme is to a story what a thesis is to an essay. The thesis statement tells a reader what the essay is about and what the reader can expect to explore in an essay. Similarly, a theme in a story is the message the story is trying to convey. What makes stories so engaging, though, as opposed to something like an essay, is that themes are not outright stated. They are parabolic, so the reader is left to extract the themes from the book by experiencing them through the characters, conflict, and plot of the story. This can create some ambiguity but ultimately makes storytelling engaging and thought-provoking for readers.
Themes are different from a premise, though. A premise helps frame the story’s plot and is more apparent when reading the book. For instance, the premise of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis is four children being teleported to a magical world. For the Harry Potter series, the premise centers around a boarding school for magic practitioners. A good premise will entice a reader to read the book and get a story moving. However, a theme will develop the characters, improve conflict and enable readers to remember the story.
Because of the importance of themes, it’s imperative to nail these down at the beginning of a story so that these things are not lost when crafting the story. For me, it’s often harder to incorporate themes into a story that starts as a premise than it is to build a story around a theme. I see themes birthing conflict, conflict birthing plots, and plots birthing premises. In my stories, the central conflict almost always centers around a theme of some kind. The external and internal conflicts of a character can also deal with other themes. In many cases, these themes are layered and support the central conflict and theme of the story.
There are several different types of themes, and broadly speaking, here are four different categories one might want to think about when choosing themes.
Life Lessons – Life lesson themes are one of the easiest and most relatable themes that one can write about in a book. Most children’s literature and young adult literature will choose to write about these sorts of themes because they are, generally speaking, “safe.” They don’t polarize readers, but at the same time, can create exciting conflicts for characters in the story. Some common examples of life lessons are courage, hard work, love, loss, good vs. evil, coming of age, parenting, citizenship, duty, and many others.
These try to convey a lesson about the themes through the lens of the characters while not being on the nose. Writers can weave these themes with other, more nuanced themes like making hard choices considering moral ambiguity or finding that one needs the courage to stand up for what is right and good in the world. If nothing else, these can be the baseline for any story’s themes if other kinds of themes are not present.
One example is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This story explores themes around health and growth, both physically and spiritually, in the two main characters. The book encourages its readers to find time to be outside and enjoy the natural world.
Moral Themes – A moral theme typically revolves around a moral value, or in many more nuanced cases, competing moral values that come to light in the story. Moral values compete when two moral values conflict with one another. A character must choose between the greater of two goods or the lesser of two evils. Some examples may be something like having a character struggle with telling the truth at the risk of losing one’s job, lying about something to protect innocence, or participating in evil to get closer to the antagonist to take the antagonist down. These sorts of moral dilemmas are not always easy to resolve, and there are risks and rewards associated with them. Having characters struggle through this provides interpersonal and internal conflict for the characters alike and presented as life lessons.
Authors should avoid one thing: getting preachy or moralistic about moral values. Exploring these through the lens of the characters and showing the struggle one has with the moral issues is infinitely better than having a character pontificate about it (or worse, simply telling about it) without any struggle.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a classic example of a story with strong moral themes. This story uses moral themes to develop the character of Scrooge. He faces the ethical implications of his actions around his greed, selfishness, and loss. He vows to become a better man because of it. In doing so, he struggles personally but overcomes his character deficiencies by becoming generous.
Political Themes – Political themes provide a platform for making political statements in fiction. If done well, it can make a lasting impression on the readers. Many works of literary fiction incorporate political themes because it enables the author to explore the theme in a less on-the-nose fashion than speeches, essays, or other more formal prose. Examples may be war, censorship, women’s rights, martial law, and mass surveillance.
Generally speaking, moral themes underscore political themes. Political themes will use the story’s setting to establish the political theme as part of the story’s fabric. Political themes create political factions that can create group conflict between the factions in the story. It may also be that a protagonist is alone in the quest to stand against a particular faction in the story on moral grounds but do so politically. These presentations can create personal and interpersonal conflict and even serve as the story’s central conflict. And like moral themes, these can undergird life lessons as well.
Like moral themes, a story should not be moralistic or preachy about political themes. Additionally, political themes can be a turnoff for some readers who are not interested in the book. Most readers probably appreciate these sorts of themes so long as they are nuanced enough to not detract from the story where it becomes more about the political statement at the expense of telling the story. The best authors have a way of avoiding pontification and incorporating themes that make them feel like a natural part of the story.
One novel that stands out for exploring political themes is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. This book looks at racism in the American south. It uses bravery and other themes to develop the characters in dealing with moral issues. She wrote it in 1960, when the Civil Rights movement was just getting started. She made some strong political statements stemming from the moral evils of racism that permeated much of the thinking of that time.
Philosophical Themes – Philosophical themes can be one of the most challenging themes to write. At the same time, they can be the most engaging to read at the same time because it gets the reader thinking about what is being experienced in the novel. Examples may be existentialism, meta-ethics, identity, critical theory, free will, or objectivity.
There are a few reasons that philosophical themes can be hard to write. First, a philosophical theme may be hard to explain in a way that makes it easy enough to be understood by a casual reader because they can be quite nuanced and technical. Second, the conflict in philosophical themes may not be relatable to the reader—at least in an obvious sense like political or moral themes. Third, authors may have a hard time showing the theme rather than just outright telling it.
Still, two different ways have worked well for talking about philosophical themes. The first is to use an extended metaphor—it seeds discussion as a parabolic way to talk about the philosophical theme. As a way of illustrating the point, characters can talk about the theme as a metaphor or it can be a plot device used to communicate the theme through the character’s experiences. This works well for realistic fiction, such as historical fiction, but the second way is to use a created world. A created world allows the setting to be a backdrop for much of the story to unfold wherein the characters experience the theme rather than just think about it.
Science fiction has been a goldmine for philosophical inquiry because it allows the world to embody the philosophical idea. The Matrix is a fantastic example of using a created world for thematic purposes. This story uses the very essence of the Matrix to think about what is “real” and explore concepts like identity, free will, and existentialism. The jump scene in the film is a direct manifestation of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith. The Matrix construct itself represents Plato’s Cave and the idea of cheap substitutes for reality.
Of all these sorts of themes, philosophical themes are my personal preference. I have used other moral, political, and life lesson themes for the character development in my stories. Regardless, once I have a theme with a premise for the story, I’ll start to think about plot points, characters, and how the plot points and characters will interact with one another to create conflicts that drive the story forward. In part two of this series, we’ll look at the aspects of conflict and how conflict can drive plots forward.