Friday, March 23, 2018

Weaving Theme Into Your Story

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

Today, Jill and I (and author Paul Regnier) are kicking off our Teen Writers Track at Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference! We are so excited and hope to see some of you today. If you ARE there (here?), please say "hello!"

This week, we're picking up where we left off last Friday. We were talking about theme and how we can dig it out of our stories. Assuming we've pinpointed a few of our themes, I want to give you five simple ways to weave theme into your story.


William Shakespeare uses a lot of imagery to reinforce his themes in his tragedy, Hamlet. One of the themes he vigorously explores is the idea that the world is a decaying garden. Throughout the play, various characters and actions and dialogue reinforce Hamlet's early observation: "'Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely."


As you create your world, consider which elements will reinforce the message of your story. In Disney's Beauty and the Beast, they do this so well with the Beast's castle. While it suffers beneath the curse, the castle is dark and gloomy, Gothic even. It is perpetually winter, a cold and numbing place to be. But when the curse is broken! Spring again! Sunlight and happy colors everywhere. The world itself helps us see the message of the story.

Character/Creature Traits

I've talked about this before, recently even. But as you create your characters, consider their traits and how their own make-up and journey contribute to the ideas you want conveyed. In Broken Wings, I created the Sabres, a rank of angel, after I had completed my first draft. Their creation highlights the idea of worship as warfare: " . . . it's his wings that so separate him from any other angel I've seen . . . Where I expect to see rows and rows of snowy white feathers, one blade lies on top of another--thousands of them--sharp and glistening silver . . . they rub one against the other, trembling, sending music far and wide."

Common or Repeated Sentiment

Consider the scenes that make up your story. Do they share a repeated sentiment? When you read them individually, are the various characters sharing a common feeling? One of my favorite historical fiction writers is Kate Morton. In several (maybe all) of her books, certainly in The Distant Hours, she introduces several generations of women. In each mother-daughter relationship, there is a reluctance for the daughter to view her mother as having a life before she was born. It's a relationship, an idea, a real-life stumbling block many people can relate to, and she doesn't sermonize about it; she simply shows you the commonality of this belief and then she shows you just how wrong it is.

Similar Takeaways from Individual Scenes

In the WWII novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the authors tell the entire story as letters to and from a variety of characters. It's delightful and they've done well to capture each voice uniquely and with varying points of view on similar moments. But as different as each character is, a theme begins to emerge. In a letter from Dawsey to Juliet, he says, "But sometimes I think of {the author} Charles Lamb and marvel that a man born in 1775 enabled me to make two such friends as you and Christian."

Dawsey is a farmer on the isle of Guernsey. Juliet is an author in London. And Christian? A Nazi soldier stationed at Guernsey as part of an occupying force. With every letter we read, we understand what Dawsey says so plainly. Love of the written word connects people from all different walks of life.

Tell me, do you have a difficult time weaving theme into your stories? Do you have a favorite method for doing so? Which of the above ideas would you like to give a try?


  1. Theme can be tough for me, because once I define what it is based on the plot (which sometimes takes a u-turn and disrupts my theme completely), then it can be difficult for me to know if I am being too preachy or subtle about it. That's my struggle.
    I have a couple of themes in my current novel, I think, and both will continue throughout the series it is part of. One is the healing and forgiving power of God. The title, Antivenin, and the special role that medicine plays in working against the villain's snake venom symbolizes God's power to heal (plus God heals beyond what the antivenin can do). So I use imagery for that one. My other main message is that God uses evil for good. I express that through repeated sentiment.
    Have fun at Mount Hermon! I really wish I could be there.

    1. That sounds cool! Are you writing a science fiction book perhaps? I think that theme can come off as preachy if it is forced. It is hard to find balance between a theme that is so subtle that it is nonexistent and a theme that is so forced it smacks you in the face. I like your themes though, good luck with them.
      - Book Dragon

  2. I try to keep one theme per a book, but I sometimes end up with several themes and then I change my mind... I think I do it fairly well, but being consistent with a book the length of mine can be tricky when I have different versions of everything all in the same document... Oh well, great post!!!

  3. I never thought about theme in the context of these subjects before (ie. world building, imagery, etc.). Thank you for posting, I wish I was up at Mount Hermon with you guys, but I'm not. Oh well... As for theme, I never really think about it. For me it happens naturally, which probably means it doesn't have much of an impact as it could have. I am very much a pantser. Right now my main themes are "You're never too far gone", "What you are doesn't define you", and "God uses what society thinks of as insignificant". I just realized that each of these themes corresponds with my three main characters and their personal struggle.
    - Book Dragon

    1. Those sound like excellent themes, Book Dragon! It's probably pretty useful that they correspond to your characters, because that should make it easier to define each of them separately.

  4. Oh gosh, it took me years for the concept of theme to finally click. I'm not sure why it was so elusive, but now it seems so obvious, haha.

    Anyway, in my sci-fi series, the strongest theme regards logic and emotion. The thing is, sometimes emotion can disguise itself in logic, sometimes there is a certain logic to emotion, and sometimes the line between the two is rather fuzzy, but in any case, there needs to be a balance between heart and mind. My MC starts off on the side of logic, and through the series, she's come to realize that emotion isn't always a weakness, and that sometimes, logic isn't really logical at all, sometimes, it's a way of avoiding our fears, and sometimes, it can be disguised in a form of cold, calculating anger that drives us to do horrible things. Even scarier though, the horrible things we're driven to do? In that moment, they're only logical.

    1. Ooo, that's a fantastic theme, Gwen! I'm planning to write a sci-fi trilogy once I finish my current novel, and the battle between logic and emotion is definitely a question for the characters. I think it fits very well with sci-fi since machines usually play a strong role in that genre.

  5. I think something really important is to not allow the theme to be preachy. This can be a hard balance, especially when most writers have a theme that causes them to want to write a book.

    These tips are extremely helpful!

    ~Ivie| Ivie Writes

  6. Thanks for the tips! Truth be told, I didn't really think all that much about working theme into my WIP; by the time I finished the first draft, I knew I wanted it to point to the idea that God has a plan and that it'll all work out. Funnily enough, I've been told by people who read it that they thought the other themes I'd put in were good too (e.g. friendship/working through conflict).
    Thing is, I didn't know those were in there until they told me.
    But I have really enjoyed seeing what things crop up even though I'm just telling my story. I'm hoping to be a little more intentional with theme as I start transitioning into work on the sequel; I'm excited to use some special character traits/abilities as well as some repeated sentiment.
    Thanks again for your advice!