Themes, tropes, motifs --- you've probably heard all of these words in your English class at school and been asked a question or two about them on a quizz or test. But have you ever thought about how an author goes about weaving important themes into his or her work? The answer isn't quite as easy as you may expect. Below, Merrie Destefano, author of LOST GIRLS --- a gritty and unpredictable thriller about a normal girl who wakes up in a ditch, missing a year of her life --- discusses how she worked several popular themes into her book.
I’m one of those people who writes more on instinct than "instruction." For instance, if someone asks me what tropes are in a book, I wonder, what is a trope? Then I have to go research the term, turn my brain inside out (because I don’t think logically, I guess) and try to find the answer. That said, I read a lot. And I’ve always preferred books with characters that feel real and stories that deal with deep subject matter.
My favorite books seem to contain another story, layered beneath the plot that everyone else sees. This is sometimes called the "big idea" or the "underlying message." Blink and you miss it. Think about, long and hard, and the story suddenly blossoms to life in a new way.
As much as I love this aspect of writing, it’s not something I do on a conscious level. Not at first, anyway. It’s one of things that kind of slips into my stories. But there always comes a point, usually during my daily edits and re-reading of what I’ve written so far, that I begin to see it. It’s like a quiet pulse beneath the steady heartbeat of the story. Once I see it, I do my best to strengthen it.
The Black Swan element of Lost Girls was one of these themes. I hadn’t planned it. But once I saw it emerging, I thought, ooh, this is dark and twisty and will help to show to the reader what my character is feeling. The Fight Club element also came as a surprise to me. I knew my main character had a dark, scary past. I just wasn’t exactly sure what it was. Once I stumbled on that, it gave me a lot to work with.
The Fight Club theme worked more in the plot arena, while the Black Swan elements worked more in the arena of character. The really interesting thing to me was, because of the dark nature of the teen fighting rings, I was able to organically include something near and dear to my heart: the horror of human trafficking. This is a real problem, even in our country. But it’s almost invisible. So, in the midst of an action-packed novel, I got the opportunity to raise awareness of something that breaks my heart.
This is the big picture stuff. It has to fit into your story organically, it can’t be forced, and it comes almost naturally from the things that mean the most to the writer.
Another theme in this book --- one that I tried to reinforce later, once I realized it was there --- was the story of a prodigal daughter. A girl who has made many mistakes and is tempted to return to those very same things that almost killed her. A girl who thinks she can solve her problems, but she realizes --- almost too late --- that some problems are too big for her to fix on her own. This is one reason why the family structure is so strong in this book. It was necessary and, to me, it was beautiful.
Working with themes can make your novel stronger, bigger, more powerful and, if done properly, it can help readers to connect with the story you’re telling. It’s a bit tricky, so my best recommendation is to read. A lot. Read the classics. Read outside of your genre. Read the best-selling books. Read the indie books.
In my opinion, reading is the best thing you can do to make your writing stronger.