Universal themes in story can start out as statements. Love conquers all. Order leads to harmony. Heroes are always right. Loyalty to family is absolute. Universal themes are understood in any culture. They are assumed to be straightforward. Correct. Concrete. But in the writer’s hands, themes become human. They become specific. In other words, writers deepen these general themes and give them power by creating compelling stories.
By building stories around themes, writers personify them. Think of any romance where “love conquers all,” Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, many wonderful present day romance stories, and the ever-present Chicken Soup for the Soul books. What they all contain is the human side of the theme. The writer shows through actions and characters how this theme holds up in the real life of a story.
But showing the theme to be true or false is only the surface of the story. The difficult job for the writer in creating a memorable story is to add tension. Tension drives the story. Conflict, both internal and external, shows the deeper meaning of theme. Conflict should be specific to one character or a small group of characters in the form of a belief. If we think about the theme of family loyalty, we can see how easily it can become misguided; abused spouses staying with their abuser for family reasons; children believing it is their fault they are being abused. Of course the theme of loyalty can be political or faith-based too.
The struggles you show in the story branch off your main theme. They show the inner conflict and why the character behaves as he or she does. Story events show the literal obstacles the character faces in life that are hampered by that internal, often misguided belief of the theme.
If I use my college memoir as an example with a main theme of believing in oneself, through backstory, the reader learns that Victoria had struggled through elementary school and finally makes the honor roll [good grades] by eighth grade. But when she comes to her father, a man who has always shown her love, to have him sign off on her choice of college prep courses for high school, he wouldn’t do it. Instead, he told her college wouldn’t work for her. She wasn’t smart enough.
It comes to the power of words from someone you trust and love. Because her father didn’t believe she could survive college, Victoria becomes locked in a vicious cycle of not believing in herself, in what she could accomplish. What Victoria comes to realize in this memoir story is that the power to believe in oneself comes from within. This power to believe in oneself, to obtain it and keep it, is a constant struggle for many people of all cultures.
Well, what do you think? Please feel free to offer any insight or ask any questions regarding the universal theme of believing in oneself for my college memoir. It would be truly appreciated.
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