This week I've been blessed to have E.B. Dawson, the author of the Lost Empire series and the Creation of Jack series. I have the pleasure of being one of Dawson's Critique partners and have loved her writing. One of her best skills is infusing meaning into her words. Because of that I asked her to write for you about how she adds themes to her work and why. This is what she sent me. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Every story has a message. Or should I say, readers will always pull a message out of your story? This is because humans find meaning in everything. When provided with random sets of data, we group them into meaningful arrangements.
Here’s another secret: every writer has a worldview. And their worldview will inevitably creep into their writing unless they have meticulously eradicated it completely (and that is a message in itself). So what’s an author to do?
Messages and themes aren’t bad. Oh, contraire. The world is chaotic and senseless and that’s why people get discouraged. They are looking for meaning and understanding. Now, I’m not implying that you can answer all their questions and explain the meaning of life to them. What you can do is give them a context to answer those questions for themselves. But to give a reader space to do clear thinking, you need clear boundaries. Just like if you want viewers to evaluate your painting, they need a clear understanding of what falls within the frame. If your painting is as expansive as a nebula, they’ll get lost.
The good news is (as I said before), that you’re likely to incorporate your messages into your work naturally. It’s kind of like an accent—you may not realize you have it, but other people pick up on it. Sometimes the best strategy for your story is to spice up that accent and bring it out to its full potential. Other times it’s best to leave it subtle.
So the question becomes what are readers getting out of your story and what do you want them to get out of your story? I do not claim to be the master of themes and messages. But if this is new to you, I’m going to give you a few tips and hints.
Think about setting. Setting can be the most important factor in your story. It can contrast your characters or compliment them. It can be a character of its own. It can be the antagonist. But there is no doubt that the setting contributes to the tone. And tone nearly always contributes to message. The dystopian world of “Fahrenheit 451” was no accident. It was the foundation Ray Bradbury laid to craft the messages in his story. His setting and world-building arguably did most of the work for him.
Think about characters. You can spread messages around in the lives of multiple characters, or you can have one character represent your theme as a foil to the others. In “The Lord of the Rings” there are many good characters who have different strengths, face different obstacles, and many of them have their own little shining moments. In C.S. Lewis’ book “Out of the Silent Planet,” several humans travel to another planet with strange lifeforms. But his main character, Ransom, is good while the other two men have mixed motives. So Ransom becomes a symbol and representation, and the only character the reader relates to.
Think about plot. The amazing thing about stories is that people love to project themselves into them. When your characters make choices, I guarantee some part of your reader is going to ask themselves whether or not they would have made the same choices. You can use this to evoke their sympathy, stir up their anger, or challenge their assumptions. But it is very important to maintain some sort of balance. Most readers don’t want to read material that is all one tone. You will hook their emotions more effectively if you put some ups in with the downs and some downs in with the ups. Contrast almost always works in your favor.
And most importantly, think about your ending. Whether you realize it or not, your ending is going to leave an impression in your reader’s mind, like an aftertaste. This is where any themes or messages can be solidified, set free in the reader’s mind as questions, or completely contradicted. That last one is very frustrating to readers. You can add in surprises and twists at the end of your story, but be careful not to completely invalidate the journey the reader just went through; you’re the one who crafted it. A lot of fans were outraged by the end of Veronica Roth’s dystopian series “Divergent.” She had built up an interesting world with likable characters who faced real problems. The twist she put in at the end may have been interesting and plausible. But the fact that it came at the end with little to no warning, made all the struggles and triumphs of the characters seem artificial. So, in the end, she undermined her own work.
I encourage you to take a look at your work and figure out what messages (blatant or subtle) are already there.
If you want to read more by E.B. Dawson you can check out her website here where you will also find links to her published works and information on her future releases. You can also follow her on Twitter as well. Be sure to comment below to share your thoughts on theme and what books you've read have themes that effect you the most.