Using theme in writing – custard to the rescue!

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When we talk about theme in fiction, it’s often as something the writer should work into their story. But yesterday I had the interesting experience of being rescued by my theme.

A story with a strong theme can be powerful for a reader. It creates a sense of consistency and subtle connections within the story for them to pick up on. It can make for a richer, more rewarding experience as they notice the many ways the story explores love, or revenge, or custard, or whatever the theme is. And so we try to use themes in our stories.

Tasty, tasty theme
Tasty, tasty theme

Yesterday I wasn’t thinking about theme. The story I’m working on has power and its negotiation built into its bones. It’s in the way I designed the characters, the way I structured the plot. And so, for better or worse, I don’t think about it much as I write. But today I got stuck on a scene. A debate between two characters had reached an impasse. I knew what I wanted to happen next, but I couldn’t find a way to do it that didn’t feel too easy, like the characters weren’t sticking to their guns. Any attempt to get out of this just led me back round in circles, going over the same points again and again. I was clutching my head in my hands, trying not to scream in front of the staff of my lovely local cafe, as I was driven nuts by the corner I had stuck myself in.

And then it occured to me to go back to the themes. The theme of the story. The themes of the characters, and how these connected into the main theme. Even to contemplate something I hadn’t consciously created, the emerging theme of this scene, which because of my planning connected nicely into the main thread. I thought about how these themes could be further explored in this scene, how they related to that stuck debate. Ideas started to bubble up in my brain, half formed and not yet the solutions I need, but full of promise. They were leading me out of that hole.

This is where theme becomes a tool for writing. It’s a way to focus you, to move on through the blocks, to throw in new elements while remaining consistent. It’s a source of inspiration when you get stuck and all your other ideas have failed.

Or all my other ideas, at least.

Readers, how does theme shape your reading experience? Do you often notice it or think about it as you’re reading a book? And writers, how do you use theme? Is it something you struggle to work with, or a spark that inspires your every writing moment? Has it helped you through the blocks? Leave a comment below, I’m curious to know.