So you’ve got a theme. Fantastic. How do you use it in your story? How does it become your story’s theme? How does it become the lesson that your story teaches? How does your story teach any lesson at all?
First off, know that your theme can’t be told. It cannot be said, spoken, written, read, prophesied or decreed. Your mentor can’t say it to your hero, and the politician can’t print it out on fliers. If you want your theme to be really learned, then it must be shown, not told. Once you’ve said it, it’s too late. Your story is preachy, and the end has come for your story’s impact.
But if you can’t tell your theme to your readers, how are you supposed to communicate it? You’re supposed to show it.
The best way to show your theme is through character, and character change. Your readers (hopefully) relate to your main character throughout your story. They’ll connect with them in the first chapter, and stick through thick and thin until the last chapter. In some sense, they will become your main character. Therefore, as your hero learns and changes, they will learn and change.
So how should your hero change? According to your theme. If the theme is “freedom is dangerous” then he should start the story seeking security, and then learn to throw it off to find freedom. Theme-related character change is the best way to teach your theme to your reader… but it can’t stand alone.
Because it needs a mode of delivery (that doesn’t involve the mentor sitting the hero down and working his way through obligatory moral and religious platitudes.)
Through Dilemmas (and consequences)
Enter, the dilemma. A dilemma is any situation your hero faces which forces him to make a decision. The trick is to set your dilemma in line with your theme. For instance, in our “freedom is dangerous” novel, your hero should have to make a choice between security and danger. Say someone has invented a “Treatment” which will guarantee your hero two-hundred years of life, but he has to live it in solitude, in a small grey cell, interacting remotely with people in the world outside. What does he do? Does he seal himself off from the world to avoid death, or does he live a natural (short) life and get on to dying. When your hero makes that (potentially difficult) decision, he will have shown his values to your readers, and demonstrated your theme without having to say any of it.
Okay, so you’ve demonstrated your theme. Points to you. But it’s hidden. Hard to pick out. Your readers may be flipping through your page-turning book so fast that they miss it. That would be awful. (You’ve worked so hard to put it there.) So now you need to bring it out to the forefront of your story (while still not saying it.)
Here, contrast is your best friend. You want to make your theme (and your hero’s theme-related decisions) stand out from the crowd by using contrast (and actually, two different types of it.)
Your hero needs to stand out from the masses. The best way to explain this is to lean on the ever popular (now cliché) dystopian genre. Imagine “the masses” as all the little grey-clad lemmings of your dystopic civilization. They all do the same thing. The thing that goes against your theme. They all take the two hundred year treatment. It’s what everyone does. “It like doubles your life time,” they say. “You can’t not take advantage of that!”
When your hero decides to live his life outside in the fields and the under the clouds, his decision stands out. Your readers will recognize it as important because it changes the face of your story world. Everyone is doing the same thing.
Except for one guy.
Your readers will respect that. And they’ll want to know why.
Also, your hero needs to contrast with your villain. (Read, “conflict”.) Their contrast needs to be based off of the theme. This means the villain can actually be a fairly decent fellow! He doesn’t have to be the evil Count Scarred-Face. He can be a normal person, who just views life differently than your hero. (Of course, he still has to have the power to cause your hero problems, but almost anyone can do that.)
When your villain and hero are on opposite sides of the theme, the conflict of the story should naturally develop out of that difference. When the theme of the story is at the heart of the hero-villain conflict, there won’t be a chance that your readers will miss it.
Through the Climax
Finally, the ultimate highlighting of your theme should happen during the climactic battle between hero and villain. In fact, your hero should win because of your theme (and it needs to be obvious that that’s why it happened.)
If your story is about love, your hero should defeat the villain because of love. If it’s about forgiveness, then your hero should win because he was forgiving. If it’s about courage, your hero should win because he is courageous.
The climax isn’t actually about your hero’s swordsmanship or wit. It’s about his values, and his heart. It’s about the lessons he’s learned, and the choices he’s made (and will make.)
One great way to highlight your theme during the climax is to bring in some sort of “secret weapon” your hero has earned by staying true to the theme. For example, say in chapter three he captured a pirate ship and found an old enemy of his in the hold. The theme is grace, so he lets his old enemy walk. (Probably, there are some immediate negative consequences of this action.) Then, in chapter seventy-two, right before the climax begins (when your hero is stretched and vulnerable and weak) your hero bumps into this same old enemy, who returns the favor and helps your hero instead of killing him. Your readers will draw the connection between the two events, and they will understand that the hero’s dedication to the theme is paying off. When that happens they, along with your hero, will value the lesson they’ve learned through your story.
And who knows, maybe next time they capture a pirate ship, they’ll treat their prisoners with just a little more kindness than they would have. 😉