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Understanding Your Project’s Themes

Okay, we get it, you’ve already figured out what you’re trying to say with your story. So why are we going on about themes like your middle school English teacher? Well, if all you cared about was a simple message, you could just come out and say it in a few sentences. Obviously, you want to do more than that.

Photo: George Romney

So how does what you want to say relate to your story and its characters? The main conflict could, and probably should, relate to the themes you want to explore with your project. Maybe a character’s actions or quirks reflect the statement you’re trying to make. A story also allows you to examine issues from multiple perspectives. For example, if we think money corrupts everyone, why do some people give in to greed while others manage to resist? Maybe your character starts out believing that money corrupts, changes his or her mind, then realizes he or she was right in the first place (or wrong, if like Gordon Gekko you think greed is good). Maybe one character thinks money is evil, the other thinks it’s great and a third wants to strike a middle ground. The themes in your story also don’t all have to relate to your central message. They can grow organically from characters and the writing process. Just don’t force anything that doesn’t fit your story!

Main Themes

The main theme most likely relates to the primary conflict and characters in your story. In fact, it’s probably the reason why you chose your subject in the first place, because you had some thought or opinion you wanted to get out there. Even with that in mind, it’s useful to consider how a story also allows you to examine your theme from multiple perspectives. After all, if you simply had this one simple notion, you would save a lot of time by just posting a quick, straightforward vlog instead of crafting layers of story around it. For example, maybe you’ve had this inkling that money corrupts almost everyone, so your story intends to show how this happens. Still, why do some people give in to greed while a select few manage to resist? Maybe your character starts out believing that money corrupts, changes his/her mind, then realizes he/she was right in the first place (or wrong, if, like Gordon Gekko, you think greed is good). Maybe one character thinks money is evil, another thinks it’s great, and a third wants to strike a middle ground – three people who disagree can be a lot more interesting than two. And if you don’t know the answers to the questions raised by your themes, think of your story as a way to help you, and your audience, consider them in a unique way.

Sub-Themes

Because you’re choosing to tell a story instead of simply posting your unfiltered opinions in a comment box, you can also allow for a little complexity. This is where sub-themes come in to play. Let’s stick with greed and corruption as our main theme. Can you tell this story without thinking about social class? The American dream (assuming your story is set in the good ol’ U.S. of A.)? Power, lust, love, family, friendship – these are all sub-themes that might come up in any story like this. Or there could be some completely unrelated emotion, concept, or side-thought that somehow fits into your story. You can take time to explore this, maybe even in a sub-plot. In general, sub-themes are the ideas that grow organically from characters and the storytelling process.

Motifs

How do storytellers express their themes and sub-themes? By telling their @&#!-ing story already. But going back to that whole “what makes a good story” debate, how do good storytellers make the ideas in their story resonate? Recurring images, objects, or actions that suggest the main theme of the story often leave a more lasting impression than preachy dialogue or overly obvious symbols. The motifs you choose to help convey the main ideas of your story can help set it apart from every other project out there. And since you’re working in a visual medium, these will also help create the atmosphere and style of your project as well. If you’re dealing with dark subject matter and themes, you probably want images and colors that support this. Or maybe not! Maybe your story deals with disturbing themes, but features toys as the dominant imagery, looks like a children’s coloring book, and has characters playing classic board games. Using an action or situation as a motif can also be a nice path out of writers’ block – whenever you get stuck, you can insert a scene that fits the pattern.

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