Our story’s themes—our messages to readers of what to value or believe—can add depth and meaning to our writing, but to avoid being too on-the-nose, our themes are usually developed in the story’s subtext. Unfortunately, working in subtext means we can accidentally create unintentional themes—sometimes the opposite of what we intend.
What Creates a Theme?
To understand how we might create unintentional themes, we first have to understand what creates themes within our story—what impressions we’ve created:
- Story Themes: What’s the premise of the story? Who’s supposed to win or lose—and why?
- Character Themes: How does the protagonist change over the course of the story? What do they learn?
- Plot Themes: During the story’s turning points, what do the characters attempt? Do they succeed or fail—and why?
- Choices Themes: What choices are the characters making? Do the results match the Story or Character Themes (choices that agree with the themes should succeed and vice versa)?
- Villain Themes: Are the villain’s beliefs reinforced or disproved by plot events?
What Are Unintended Themes?
Unintended themes undermine our message. As an example, with a theme of “Friends help us succeed,” we might accidentally weaken our message in the following ways:
- Story Themes: Our protagonist succeeds because of luck rather than help from friends.
- Character Themes: Our protagonist never learns to value friendship.
- Plot Themes: Our characters succeed at tasks when even friends aren’t around to help or fail despite the help of friends.
- Choices Themes: Our protagonist succeeds despite making choices that dismisses or disrespects friends.
- Villain Themes: Our villain isn’t defeated due to our hero’s friends or our villain’s lack of friends.
Those story points could create an unintentional message to readers: Luck helps us more than friends. Probably not what we meant. *smile*
Potential Unintended Themes Lurk Everywhere
Every choice our characters make, every plot point, every obstacle—in other words, every cause and effect—can potentially create the wrong message.
- If our “hero” succeeds even when incompetent, we’re sending a message about what heroism looks like in our story world—and it’s not pretty.
- If our romance hero’s interest focuses on a superficial or temporary status (such as virginity or “innocence”), we’re implying their relationship will end when the innocence is gone.
- If our “chosen one” protagonist “earns” the label of hero solely due to right-place-right-time or a certain genealogy rather than heroic acts or sacrifices, we’re saying greatness is a matter of circumstance and not action.
- If our villain’s eventual failure isn’t related to their “wrong” beliefs, we might create the impression that our hero wins simply due to luck.
How Can We Fix Unintended Themes?
It’s often difficult to recognize unintentional themes in our writing, so feedback from others can be crucial. Once we’re aware, we need to identify what’s creating the wrong impression:
- Do we have plot events developing the wrong theme?
- Is the climax (or other emotional turning points) the source of the problem (often the case)?
- Is a plot event itself a problem, or just the results/decisions for the event or scene?
- Would changing earlier scenes improve the theme arc by showing a “trying and failing” approach until they learn to do it right?
- Is it a characterization problem (how they’re shown) or a word choice problem (too harsh of words)?
- Do minor characters tell one theme but character actions show another?
In essence, we need to pay attention to the cause-and-effect chain in our story—especially the why: Why is the character experiencing each success or failure?
The answer to that question—as well as any results or responses to events—should follow the lead of our theme. Otherwise, we need to refine the theme to fit the realities of our story. A single scene or reaction can be the cause of problems, and the right tweaking can fix the theme for the whole story.
How Can We Vary Results without Breaking the Theme?
That’s not to say that our protagonist should never succeed unless they’re perfectly in line with the theme. In fact, an exception often occurs during our story’s Black Moment, as the purpose of that turning point can be to make characters question their efforts to improve when they fail despite trying to do the “right” thing.
To avoid unintended themes in those cases, we could ensure the character wasn’t doing the “right” thing completely enough yet, or they were doing the “right” thing for the wrong reasons, or we could show how they’ve “lost faith.” Whatever our story’s situation, if we write with purpose, we’re less likely to create unintended themes. *smile*
Do you have any questions about themes—intentional or unintentional?
Jami Gold put her talent for making up stuff to good use, such as by winning the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for her novel Ironclad Devotion.
To help others reach their creative potential, she’s developed a massive collection of resources for writers. Explore her site to find worksheets—including the popular Romance Beat Sheet with 80,000+ downloads—workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing. Her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest. Find out more about our RWC team here and connect with Jami below.