On Thematic Storytelling

Note: Clarifications and minor additions were incorporated into this post on 28 May 2018.

When I reached ninth grade, I was dumped briefly in Honors AP English, and my teacher initiated us into the secret mysteries of literary symbolism. Writing was (and remains) important to me, so that class made a deep impression.

It was life-changing to find that many of the things I had already read or had yet to read contained hidden meanings. Throughout the next several years, my intellectual and spiritual development involved understanding their layers of meaning, their connections, and their implications—not only in the stories I enjoyed reading and writing, but also for my life and in my comprehension of my existence and of God. I awakened to the fact that works of art and literature contained meaning both in their own internal worlds but also in the broader world in which I exist.

That class tied symbolism into overarching themes, and themes are really what I want to talk about here. Themes were like secret messages; symbolism, the vocabulary; and stories were like the paper on which the messages were written. We learned about themes with an emphasis on connections to ancient mythology, the Bible, and sweeping philosophical concerns such as fatalism versus determinism. For me, this skewed the significance of thematic content above all other literary content. I took away the idea that these stories had such powerful and important existential lessons to impart that all other elements of the story only were included to support them. Everything had been reduced to ornate fables.

Unfortunately, that misapprehension stunted my development as a reader and writer for years after. When reading, I searched for symbolism in order to analyze the thematic content, and I regarded books or stories without them as pulp unworthy of attention. When writing, I didn’t feel creative anymore. I considered everything besides the theme—all the descriptions, characters, suspense, drama—as secondary fluff. The only way I could imagine writing a story this way was to start with the theme, which would inform everything else, but I didn’t know how to do that because I didn’t draw inspiration that way. I couldn’t figure out how to trace my way back from symbolism to the original inspirations to which I related—moments of tension or emotion, fascinating characters, vivid settings, compelling premises—and I figured doing anything else was frivolous.

What I described about my English class—mining literature for symbolism that may or may not even be there—seems to be a rite of passage. It’s probably an attractive curriculum because it reduces reading comprehension into something rather mechanistic and testable. For whatever reason, I know a lot of people who had an experience in high school like mine.

I don’t think I’m the only person for whom this approach to storytelling presented a dilemma. The problem, as I saw it during the time I struggled with it, is that writers either started with a story and later forced in symbolism, or they began with the symbolism and tried to wring a story out of it. Both paths felt inappropriate. I wasn’t sure how to break out of this dilemma.

I first began to break free of the false dilemma after reading On Writing, by Stephen King, several years ago. I remember King writing about precisely this issue. King said he tended to write the story first, and if he saw the potential to develop a theme, he would elaborate on that as he wrote and rewrote, polishing the theme until it shone through. The biggest takeaway I got from On Writing is that thematic aspects of a story are sometimes already there naturally, waiting to be developed.

He’s prolific and has taken lots of approaches to writing fiction on a theme. Some of his books, especially in the middle of his career, didn’t bother. It’s difficult to come away from Christine or Cujo1 feeling like you missed a deeper meaning.

Other books of his swung in the other direction, incorporating lots of symbolism. Insomnia is the one that stands out for me. In On Writing, King describes struggling with the amount of planning he did in that book, and it shows. It’s full of allusions, symbols, and outright literal descriptions of the protagonist defying deities and struggling against fatalism. The Waste Lands directly describes symbolism via an English class, itself makes heavy allusion to T. S. Eliot, and uses nonsensical jokes (among other things) to symbolize a world losing its coherency and sanity.

After several years, I finally realized this approach made sense when I considered themes as an element of storytelling on the same level as other elements such as setting, plot, or characterization. Any story entails decisions about how to include and involve them and to what extent. Just as with other stories, those elements evolve over the time of its composition in their salience, elaboration, and importance.

One example which springs to mind right away is Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question,” which contains almost no characterization whatsoever but whose plot and theme concern itself with nothing less than the nature of the universe, sweeping its entire breadth in space and time. In the same way, some stories naturally require elaborating on setting (think of worldbuilding in high-fantasy); others never allude to their setting at all.

This way of thinking about theme feels so right to me. It frees me from the problematic dilemma I described earlier, if only I apply the same kind of thinking about theme as I apply regarding, say, plot. For example, it feels natural to me to sketch out a story plot to begin with, letting each storytelling ingredient interact and complement one another, and then proceed to work out the details as I move along. The wholeness of the plot emerges as the work continues. Why can’t theme and symbolism manifest the same way? After all, it never occurred to me to let decisions about plot or setting paralyze me this way.

I also think it would be really interesting if high school English classes gave as much consideration to characterization, setting, or even lyricism the way they do to theme. Maybe the thinking is that those things are written in an obvious way and theme is much more tied into the context and history of the writer. On the other hand, it’s easy to say that Stephen King writes about Maine because he’s from there without further examination, but does this efface a deeper conversation we could be having about why such a familiar and detailed setting makes his books work so well?

If we have to read Catcher in the Rye in high school, is it more important to talk about what the ducks in winter represent, or should we be talking about what kind of trauma Holden holds onto? Does Slaughterhouse-Five teach us as much about the historical Dresden bombing as it does about how pointless war is? Does Romeo and Juliet deserve mention for its beautiful soliloquies on dual opposites, its neologisms, Mercutio’s virtuosic wordplay—or even its lurid, innovative 1997 Romeo + Juliet adaptation?

I guess my breakthrough is to realize all these questions hold equal consideration in my mind now and broadens the kinds of stories I enjoy and the way in which I appreciate them. I feel free to initiate stories devoid of thematic or symbolic content, knowing that as I go, I can incorporate elements of theme into them later.