Thematic Vision

A well-told story comes with a thematic vision.  Remember, there are common elements to every story.  Plot, character, milieu, and theme are the big ones.  Imagine your story is a circus tent.  If you don’t have the four corners propped up, nobody’s going to be able to see your circus.  If you don’t tell your story well (the center pole), your four corners are just going to collapse inward.

You need a plot, but you don’t need to let the plot drive your story.  You need characters, but you don’t need to follow their every whim.  You need a milieu, but you don’t need to make the story about the milieu.  You need a theme, but you don’t need a soapbox or a pulpit for it to work.

When selecting your thematic vision(s) as a storyteller, you need to pay attention to certain things that might not always be obvious to you.  For one, you need to remember that you’re readers are going to be living with this vision for a while, so you don’t want a theme that’s going to turn your readers’ stomachs—unless that’s what your readers want from you.  Perhaps more importantly, you’ll be living with your thematic vision for even longer, because it takes longer to write a story than to read one—at least, it should—so, you want a theme you can live with.

The theme you choose is going to limit your audience.  Some people love dark themes, but some people don’t.  Some people like heavy themes, but some people don’t.  Some people like themes that challenge them, but some people don’t.  If you have an established base of readers, you probably want to stick to a theme they’ll be comfortable.  If your theme is going to alienate some of those readers (or even most of those readers), then you have to be prepared for the possible consequences.  The choice, of course, is yours.

So, here’s the short list for potential thematic visions:

  • Your thematic vision has to work for your story.  That should be obvious.  You can’t make a serial killer investigation seem like a light, breezy stroll through the park.  The theme doesn’t match the plot or the characters.  So, ask yourself:  Does your theme match your story?
  • Your thematic vision also has to work for you.  You’re going to be living with this story for a long time.  You’re going to be inside it.  It’s going to be inside you.  Can you live with your theme?
  • Your thematic vision also has to work for your readers.  If you’re new, then that’s not much of a problem, because you really don’t have many yet.  If you’re established, and your thematic vision differs too greatly from your past body of work, then that can be a challenge.

The themes you work with say something about what readers can expect from you.  A writer can get stuck in such thematic expectations.  This doesn’t mean you can’t break out of your thematic box, but it does mean that doing so is going to take more marketing effort.

About Stephanie Allen Crist

Stephanie created and produces in answer to a call from God to use her experiences and gifts to help others. Stephanie is also the author of and two books that can be found on that site. Stephanie strives to share her love, faith, and talents in an inclusive manner to help others who know spiritual pain and who know the bitter taste of the dregs of despair.
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7 Responses to Thematic Vision

  1. acflory says:

    I don’t work with themes at a conscious level, but they do inform my writing in a subliminal way. I believe as writers we have to think about big issues and big questions, we have to come to some sort of understanding /for ourselves/. Whether those issues or questions ever pop up in our writing is irrelevant as they will be there in our world view, and that will seep into our writing. I’m not sure how you would go about consciously writing to a theme, and still end up with a good story. The few times I’ve read fiction with an obvious theme it has been… disappointing. But maybe that’s just me.

    • Hm. Perhaps we’re talking about something different with the use of “theme” or “thematic.” Theme is as much a part of the story as character, setting, and plot. Those four elements are the essence of contemporary story, and are even present in many classic stories that have survived. I don’t know how you’d go about writing a full-length story without theme making itself apparent, conscious or not.

      • acflory says:

        Perhaps I really don’t understand what people mean by theme then because if I have it in my stories it’s totally unconscious on my part. 🙂

      • Let me ask you this: When you were writing and re-writing Vokhtah, what helped you to choose what to keep and what to revise?

        I don’t want to put words into your mouth, but as you were struggling (on your blog) with the scope of your project and the desire to get it right, you expressed certain sentiments about why you were making the choices you were making.

        These sentiments weren’t about the plot or the characters, but about why you were attracted to the milieu itself and why it was so important to you to capture the vision you had of that milieu and the plot and characters that came of that vision.

        THAT is your theme for this book.

        In that sense, theme is, for lack of a better way to say it, the author’s intent, the author’s motivation, the chord the whole strikes in the author’s consciousness.

      • acflory says:

        That’s the weird thing though Stephanie. The germ that started the whole process was a desire to explore what life would look like to a psychopath. I know I’ve achieved that to an extent, but that initial goal was very quickly superseded by something I did not recognize until after the book was finished. I discovered that deep down inside I wanted to write a book about gender, or to be more exact, about how unimportant gender could be, if we let it.

        I don’t believe we can bring about detente between the sexes by pushing them further apart. In a very real sense I am a humanist to the core, and that was what came out in my writing. But I could not have made Vokhtah worth reading if I had set out to push that view on life. 😦

      • None of that was what I was talking about, either, though it could be used as the motivational crux of a story. I think, perhaps, you’re overthinking this. Many people do.

        What I remember from our discussions and your blog posts was, as you were revising your manuscript, your expression of a strong desire to capture and communicate the alienness of the world. It is not a human world. It is not a human story. I suspect that I’m paraphrasing here, but that strangeness was important to you.

        That happened after you’d already written a complete draft of the book, and after you had the next smouldering in your mind.

        That strangeness meant something to you, it drove you in ways that imply theme, and there is meaning in its importance. Again, I’m not going to try to put words in your mouth nor does it relly have to be translated into a succint statement.

        Think of it this way: Some writers let character dictate plot. Some writers let plot dictate character. These are common discussions among writers. Personally, I’m more for story-driven stories than either plot- or character-driven stories. (Or milieu- or theme-driven stories for that matter.)

        Your theme doesn’t have to drive your story, but it can, through the drafting of your story, come out as a strong intent in the revision process. It doesn’t have to be easily articulated and it doesn’t have to be something that everyone (or even yourself) readily recognizes as a theme (like hope or good triumphs over evil, ect.), but it is present.

      • acflory says:

        Ah, I think I understand a little better. And I agree with you about story-driven stories. The ones I love the most are finely balanced between all those elements but somehow more than all of them.

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