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.