The Craft: Articles on Writing

Exploring Story Themes & Symbols

Another element of a story is its Theme

Simply put, the Theme is why the plot happens.

Theme can take a story from the commonplace to the extraordinary.

Theme is the exploration and understanding of emotions that impact both the characters and the reader on a universal level.

Breaking down Themes: Beyond the personal, emotional level.

Theme as defined by Fiction First Aid, Raymond Obstfeld

  • Plot is what happens
  • Character is whom the plot happens to
  • Theme is why the plot happens

A Universal Theme impacts the reader on an intellectual level which may stimulate the reader to examine his/her own view of self or the world at large.

A Universal Theme patterns the plot in a way that has something in common with readers: love, desire, hope, relationships, fear and death.

→Stories that arouse only emotion are Melodramas which tend to be superficial, not memorable. The reader may feel manipulated.

Exploring Story Symbols

Symbolism is a method by which the writer weaves the thread of the theme throughout the story by using one or more symbols. Sometimes writers refer to a reoccurring symbol as a ferryman, something that carries the writer through the story.

Symbols, used effectively, raise the level of a theme. Symbols can infuse the story with nuance and texture. However, the overuse of symbols can become problematic. Again, the reader may feel manipulated.

Breaking down Symbols:

  • Environmental Symbols: The writer uses, or references weather, terrain or geographical symbols to show chaos, upheaval, serenity, etc.
  • Animal Symbols: The writer uses animal behaviors to relate to human instincts and behaviors.
  • Homage: Here the writer openly references a well-known plot. The reader is informed the structure will be similar as the writer overlays a different story but in the same vein: satire, mythical, comedic etc.
  • Character Names: The writer references the obvious by using Biblical names, Literary names, or names from Greek and Roman mythology.
  • Title: The writer may use quotes from important literary works, the Bible, songs or art.
  • Settings: Big or small bodies of water, rivers, streams. Wooded areas, mountains, forests, Deserts, etc. Places of business, educational, governmental or geographical or even picket fences.
  • Objects: Household items, foods, clothing, vehicles, books, etc.

An artfully incorporated theme unifies the plot elements.

The depth of the story is enhanced by its theme and its symbols

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