What’s it all about? Thematic development in story

6.2 Theme and story

Let’s begin by discussing the divide between action and theme by looking at a specific example:

Frank is an ambitious fraudster who uses all his ingenuity and intelligence to crack the internet banking systems. But he hides his riches, and lives the life of a simple family man in his local community – no one suspects his crimes. However, the police are tracking him down, and as the net tightens he is set to lose everything he cares about … unless he can find a way of getting rid of the money trail and frame someone else.

The frenetic action of this piece would follow the battle of wits and the risks taken by Frank the fraudster and police. The theme of the piece would be an examination of wealth: emotional riches versus material riches. It could also be a study of identity: which is the ‘real’ Frank – the bank robber in the virtual world, or the loving family man? The interesting thing, as a writer, is that theme tends to emerge as the plot develops. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that you shouldn’t begin writing with a fixed theme in mind that you are not prepared to deviate from. As with genre, if you abstract the story too much at the start then you run the risk of limiting your plot and forcing characters to take unrealistic action in order to serve your ideas.

Individual activity: Erica Wagner

Listen to an audio interview with Erica Wagner, discussing thematic development across different genres.

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As always, make a note of anything that strikes you.

So the time to start looking at the thematic relevance of any piece is after that all-important first draft is completed.

As always, the starting point for this should be your own personal reaction to the text.

  • What interests you, the writer?
  • What surprises you about what you have written?
  • What feels to be the emotional truth at the heart of the story?

The temptation, at this stage is to over-think it, and to abstract the issue too much.

Go back to basics.

Ask yourself some simple questions:

  • Why does what happens in this story matter?
  • What does your main character learn as a result of the story action?
  • What is the ultimate moral choice that is made in the Act 3 crisis?
  • How do these elements combine?

Optional activity: Theme in your own fiction

If you are already working on your own private piece of fiction, write down your answers to the questions given above … and then put this to one side until you have finished the first draft.