I’ve been trying to look at themes in stories from a different angle lately. Instead of just thinking about whether I agree with the moral of what I just watched or read, I’ve been thinking about how the idea was presented. Regardless of whether I consciously agreed, how did my heart react? Did the ideas seem well supported by the story, or were they awkwardly wedged in?
In the process, I’ve noticed three basic things that help a story’s theme not only sound true, but feel right.
1. Complexity. The story shouldn’t be populated by straw men. The utopia shouldn’t have gaps that the writer has conveniently overlooked. The world should feel multi-dimensional and complicated, just like the one we really live in. It’s seeing high-minded ideals interact with a messy world that makes stories so interesting. That’s the reason we forget the PSAs we saw in our teens but remember the gangster films.
2. Continuity. In music, the theme is an arrangement of notes that recurs throughout the piece. They tie the whole piece together. In a story, images, situations, phrases and dilemmas that occur over and over again create a sense of coherence. When, in the last fifteen minutes of a story, a character blurts out an aphorism and everyone nods at how profoundly it fits the moment, it feels clunky. We roll our eyes and think, “oh, right, they’ve gotta have a moral. Whatever.” But if that idea has come up before, and been examined by different characters from different angles, depending on their personality and what is going on at the time, the theme feels integrated with the story, not tacked on to check an item off a list.
3. Intersectionality. Contrary to the common idea that you need a single theme, stories are most interesting when they explore the overlap of a few values and ideas. The theme can’t just be love. What about love? That it conquers all? Well, you can’t literally have it conquer everything. The story has to end sometime. So maybe all in this case is represented by families who object because the two belong to different religious castes. Great! But now you’ve got a society with a religion and family obligations, and you’ve got to develop those things to flesh the story out. Now there are themes involving love, religion and family. The author might think its about love conquering all, but someone else could write a whole paper on how well it demonstrates religion stifling free expression of love.
These three aspects, complexity, continuity and intersectionality, combine to create a story that feels like its definitely about something, but still leaves the readers freedom to figure that out for themselves.