Creating Complex Themes

7:00 AM

Well, it's the last week of my four week series on the four parts of a complex story, and hopefully it's been helpful! I've covered Complex Characters, Complex Settings, Complex Plots, and now we're going to talk about the hardest one for me, Complex Themes. 

The theme or message of your story is more important than you think. It's the heart of your story, what it's really truly about, and it's your job to make it show. This is difficult, since you want to avoid being preachy but don't want people to totally miss it. If you're anything like me, maybe you have a theme in mind, but it kind of gets lost during that first draft. I'm still figuring this out, so as usual I'll make my case using examples from stories that I thought did this successfully. 

Common themes include: 
  • Hope
  • Love
  • Redemption 
  • Growing up 
  • Friendship 
  • A religious theme 
  • Acceptance 
and so on. It can even be more complicated than that, something more specific and complex. However you do it, it should be more woven into the story than shoved down the reader's throat. Too much obvious theme can be stifling; you want just enough to make them feel something for it - and that's a really difficult balance! Some things you can do include: 

Show the theme through multiple characters. The major themes in Les Miserables, my favorite story of all time, are hope and redemption and forgiveness, and so on. All of these themes are shown repeatedly, through multiple characters. Jean Valjean forgives Javert, just like he himself was forgiven by the bishop in the beginning of the story. It isn't ever stated outright, but multiple characters are affected by and then making a point of showing incredible forgiveness to others. Even in the midst of suffering, there's always a little ray of hope - and this isn't overstated, either; just shown subtly but managing to shine through. 


Use symbolism. An object can easily symbolize a theme or message if you do it right. In The Fault In Our Stars, Augustus uses an unlit cigarette as a metaphor, a symbol. In this case he explains it right out, but you don't have to go that far - letting the object be there in some significant way can sometimes do just as much. 

Be sure to show it through actions, not just words. You don't need to spend a lot of time at all explaining a theme. I just finished Animal Farm (which I loved) which is about the dangers of Communism. It doesn't ever say that outright, just spells it out through actions and lets you put the pieces together without having to think too hard about it.

This is a really, really great book, by the way. 

Well, that's all I've got on that. So why don't you tell me. What story theme is your favorite? Why? What book has your favorite theme? What are your thoughts on theme in stories in general? Comment away.


  1. Awesome blog post!!

    I'm typically very bad at identifying the theme of stories, but I agree that they're very important. Themes are the sort of thing you don't always outright realize, but still stick with you long after you've read the book.

    1. That's exactly right...sometimes it's more obvious than others, but good books (in my opinion) are ones that have you thinking about it after and you're not exactly sure why.

  2. I'm a big fan of religious themes, because I understand them, although usually they're executed sloppily so they're also hard to appreciate. (It's one of the reasons why I enjoy Twilight so much, which is also a weird thought itself.)

    Also, Les Mis is awesome and I'm so happy to see it here ohohoho if I wasn't watching my favorite TV show I might consider watching that silly excuse of a movie production. Because I do so love that musical. AND THEMES OF FORGIVENESS AND MERCY I LIKE THOSE TOO.

    Anyway, I think themes are sometimes really hard to pin down in writing and so I'm glad that you simplified it like this, just because I think they're important ideas that we sometimes think are way out there, and you excellently define a few of the ways we can accomplish complex themes in our writing. You're not even confusing. Way to go, you.

    1. I'm with you there...I'd love to see more well-done religious themes, really. I think there's definitely more room for that.

      Huzzah! Les Mis is my most favoritest story of all time, so of course it's going to show up a lot :D I happen to love the movie, and the musical, and the music in general and the book and ALL THE LES MIS THINGS. Gah.

      I'm glad I did it right! I was hoping I could get my thoughts across in a coherent way. xD It's definitely something that's hard to pin down...


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