The following is an unedited excerpt from the “Laying the Groundwork” section of the ReadWriteRoll manuscript: Pick a Theme
Theme is what your story is about on an emotional, intellectual, or philosophical level. On the surface it might be a swashbuckling action story set in 17th century France, but it’s really about how love is the worthiest pursuit. Your crime drama set in 1930s Chicago might really be about man’s struggles with societal pressures. Your science fiction story set on a starship in the 23rd century might actual be about the needs of society versus the needs of the individual. Let the story be the story, though. Theme is color. Theme is detail. Theme is a unifying concept. Theme is the subtle nudge. It’s not a blunt weapon to be wielded with a heavy hand.
As if mixing up genre, time, and place weren’t enough to make things interesting, theme can really give you some good twists to work with. It provides an opportunity to have a message, add a moral to the story, or communicate an idea. It doesn’t mean that it’s lofty or pretentious. A theme just gives you a little more direction, a bit more focus, and helps you narrow down the elements you should be playing around with. Theme can happen on an individual story level, or on a campaign level, or both. The campaign might have a single overarching theme, with individual sessions and adventures having different themes.
Themes are universal, and can help to make it possible for everyone to relate to the story. I don’t know what it’s like to live in space, but I know that heartbreak will drive a person to do strange things. I have no idea what living in a magical city filled with unicorns and talking bunnies would be like, but I know the power of making sacrifices to protect your family.
The theme isn’t a question, it’s your answer to a question expressed as a clear statement. For example, a common theme in literature and film is “crime does not pay”. Period. Not a question, does crime pay? No. It does not. The story will show you, clearly, in brutal detail, all of the reasons why and how is does not. When someone tries their hand it crime, it will end badly.
There are a handful of common themes found repeatedly in literature, film, and television. You’ll probably recognize most of them, although sometimes you may need to tilt your head and squint a little. These themes are ripe for use in your own stories.
Mankind Versus Nature
Nature is a huge topic, so this them could pit man against the wilderness in a tale of survival, man versus extreme weather, man versus the inevitability of aging, and any number of other iterations.
Mankind Versus Society
Societal pressure always tries to drive the way we behave, and often limits what we are able to do. The struggle against this might make one a pariah, a revolutionary, a criminal, or a hero. There are a million causes to rebel against, or take a stand for.
Mankind Versus the Universe
Throughout the ages mankind has tried to determine its place in the universe. This theme is the struggle of comprehension, of developing and understanding religion and philosophy and science.
Crime Does Not Pay
Honesty is the best policy. Good and honorable people will always succeed and thrive in the end. Criminals will eventually be caught and punished. The crimes don’t have to be major, and may only be metaphorical. Moral and ethical lapses will have consequences, and selfish choices with come back around to bite characters in the behind.
Everyone loves characters that care able to rise about a tough situation to find success. It may be the standard “rags to riches” tale, or someone who starts out high, falls low, and find their way back or learns what really matters in life.
Friendship Requires Sacrifice
The way to gain and keep friends is to be a true friend. If you don’t treat your friends well, they won’t be there for you when you need them. If you make personal sacrifices, people will rally to help you in your time of greatest need.
Family is the Most Important Thing
No matter what happens, family will always be there. They might be crazy, they might create problems, but whether things are going well or have taken a turn for worse, they’ll be there for you. Taking care of family is more important than personal goals and dreams.
The Universe Seeks Balance
When things are going too well to be true, something bad will happen. Just when things seem their darkest, something good will happen. Extremes seem to have a way of balancing themselves out, or possibly fate just likes screwing with people.
Love Conquers All
Working together, believing in each other, and providing each other with support, romantic partners can overcome adversity, survive hard times, and even achieve greatness. Unconditional love is the most powerful force of all.
The Circle of Life
All things end, but new things behind. People die, literally or metaphorically, but new people are born. Similar to The Universe Seeks Balance, but with the idea that all lives have meaning and life will go on no matter what.
Sacrifices Bring Reward
Anything worthwhile requires hard work. No matter how many obstacles appear, or how insurmountable those obstacles may seem, in the end the dedicated and diligent who are willing to make sacrifices and persevere will succeed.
The Human Experience is Universal
Rich or poor, powerful or humble, educated or simple, all people have the same hopes, dreams, desires, and needs. Through numerous obstacles dissimilar people are thrown together, and have to work together and learn about each other, and in the end discover they’re not so different after all.
Those aren’t the only themes available, of course. You’ll find many others, and can make up your own based on the story you want to tell. Themes do follow certain patterns, which you can use to find something that’s just right.
Compare and Contrast
You’ll notice that many of the common themes had forces inconflict. A variation is to highlight the differences between two things. This might take a neutral stance, not judging one thing to be better than another, only different. It might promote one idea over another, by demonstrating the relative virtue of one against the relative failings of the other.
Examples: darkness versus light, faith versus doubt, good versus evil , individual versus society, life versus death, man versus nature, pain versus pleasure
Crafting a Theme
From the lists below, select an Exploratory Statement, a Focus Element, and an Area of Impact. Combine them to create an infinite number of theme examples that you can use in your story. Add your own words. This is just here to give you ideas as to the possiblities.
- Dangers of technology on society
- Role of virtue on relationships
- Effects of totalitarianism on women
- The necessity of hope on the will to survive
Beauty of, Blessings of, Complications of, Complications of, Crisis of, Curse of, Dangers of, Downfall of, Effects of, Illusion of, Necessity of, Oppression of, Power of, Quest for, Rise of, Role of, Significance of, Vulnerability of
Aging, Betrayal, Capitalism, Change, Communication, Companionship, Conformity, Corruption, desire, Destruction, Discovery, Disillusionment, Displacement, Empowerment, Establishment, Experience, facing reality, Failure, Family, Fatherhood, Fear, free will, Fulfillment, Greed, growing up, Honor, Hope, Hypocrisy, identity, Ignorance, Innocence, Isolation, Judgment, Justice, Knowledge, Loneliness, Love, Materialism, Men, Motherhood, names, Nationalism, nature, Optimism, Patriotism, Poverty, Power, Pride, Progress, Racism, Rebellion, Rebirth, Reunion, Sacrifice, Salvation, Self-awareness, Self-preservation, Self-reliance, Silence, Simplicity, Sin, social mobility, Technology, Temptation, Totalitarianism, Tradition, Tragedy, Vanity, Vice, Virtue, war, Weakness, Wealth, Wisdom, Women, Words, Work, youth
Areas of Impact
on children, on government, on happiness, on individuals, on men, on minorities, on relationships, on religion, on society, on the will to survive, on the working class, on women
Plot Twist: Motif
A motif is a repeated element that conveys some sort of symbolic meaning, usually used to help set the mood or reinforce a theme. Image, words, and phrases can all be motifs.
As an example, if the theme of the story is that sacrifice brings reward, a recurring motif might be supporting characters giving things up to get something else in return. A man might be remodeling his home gym into a nursery, because he’s excited by the impending arrival of his first child. A woman might sell a prized possession to help pay for a beloved relative’s medical costs. A character might get hit by a car saving a child from getting run down. At the end of the story, the protagonist should then have to sacrifice something in order to accomplish the story goal.
Plot Twist: Symbolism
Symbolism is using an image to metaphorically communicate a concept. It may or may not be related to the theme, and can also be used as a foreshadowing technique. A symbol can be obvious, but should never be presented in a heavy-handed manner. They work best when they’re just part of the description of the characters’ surroundings.
For example, if the protagonists are lost in a barren desert with no water or shelter, but find a single flower growing in the wasteland, that’s a symbol that they’re going to survive. When characters are walking into deadly danger, they may see a crow flying in the direction of their next obstacle.