There are a few magic ingredients that we have to bake into our storytelling to keep readers engaged. We need a compelling plot, of course. One that pulls the reader along and moves toward a satisfying end. We need interesting, fully realized characters, characters who readers will care enough about to follow along on a journey. Those characters need agency. Read more about that here: Is Your Character a Driver or Passenger? And, they need to grow and change over time. Read more about that here: Deep Dive into Characters. There’s also something deeper at work in many of our stories, something I consider the secret sauce of storytelling – and that’s theme.
Explore the ‘Why’
At a workshop I attended years ago, one panelist said she though most writers played with a question in their work, one (or more) they were grappling with either in their own lives or in society at large. I’ve thought a lot about how true this is in my own writing. Often, the seed of my story begins with a question. For my HORIZON science fiction series, I wanted to play with a couple of questions. Under what circumstances would an ordinary person step up and fight for the good. Who would stay silent? Who would turn on their neighbors? Why?
We all understand the very basic formula for mapping out our story. Our protagonist wants x. Someone or something prevents her from achieving x. A journey, struggle, battle, or misunderstanding complicates things. Resolution of some sort completes the arc. During all this, our characters evolve. Why your character wants x to begin with adds insight into their makeup. This ‘why’ also offers fertile ground for exploration of theme.
Questions Illuminate Theme
As a writer, you may be intimidated by the thought of having to weave a theme into your writing. But, consider that your theme may emerge simply by the questions you are exploring through your narrative. You can pose more than one question in your story at a time. Your question can be a jumping off point, or it can float to the surface many times during your tale.
The answers to these questions, in a sense, illuminate your theme. Consider that these answers don’t have to be neat and tidy. They might be multi-layered and complex. Sometimes they may not feel like answers at all, but it is the act of exploring the question that makes for interesting storytelling. If I were to identify the theme that emerged in my own story through the questions I posed to my characters, it would be that heroism is sacrificial in nature – the hero always pays a price.
Tell a Story, Don’t Lecture
Your underlying theme, illuminated by the questions you pose through your narrative, shouldn’t feel like proselytizing. There’s a fine line between lecturing your readers and inviting them into a complex narrative which explores complicated or emotional issues. Your storytelling should come first. The theme will rise to the surface naturally, through your characters’ journey and evolution.
The theme in your narrative may be easily discernible or subtly woven in, but either way, it will add flavor to your narrative.