I have been revisiting On Thematic Storytelling in my thoughts lately. Part of it is because I’ve been helping a friend story-doctor their writing a little. It’s also because I’ve been dwelling on my own story notes and refining them.
This has led me to questions I had not considered before. First of all, why do we write in symbolic, allegorical ways in the first place? Secondly, how do these themes end up in our stories at all, ready to develop, even if we don’t set out to use those themes at first? I think the answers to these questions are linked.
People have a long history of telling fables and parables to relate messages to one another, using figurative, allusive language. I believe this works because humans are designed to learn by example. We have wiring which internalizes vicarious experiences and reifies them as personal ones.1 Allegorical stories, like fables, adapt our ability to learn through example by employing our imagination.
We respond to fables well because of their indirection. On the one hand, it may be easier just to state the moral of a story outright and not even bother with telling “The Grasshopper and the Ant” or “The Tortoise and the Hare.” However, a moral without its fable is only a command. By telling the stories, the storyteller guides the listener through the journey. Figurative language and characters who represent ideas help to involve the listener and keep them engaged. The moral comes through naturally by the end as a result of the listener following the internal logic of the narrative, so the storyteller’s intended meaning does not need to be inculcated extrinsically.
In this way, indirect stories use symbolic language to draw in listeners. We, listening to the story, relate to the figures and characters because they allow us to involve ourselves. In turn, because we get invested, we take parts of the story and make them about ourselves. We care about what happens and empathize with the characters because we care about ourselves. This is what I actually mean when I say fables work well because of their indirection. We’re not actually interested in grasshoppers and ants, tortoises and hares, but we are interested in representations of our own values, our setbacks, and our triumphs. We put parts of ourselves into the story and get something else back.
And this is why I believe fables and parables have such staying power. Mythologies endure for similar reasons: their pantheons, even if filled with otherworldly gods or spirits, explain the ordinary—the sun, the night, the ocean, the sky—and embody our own better and worser natures—love, anger, and so on. In these myths we see ourselves, our friends, our enemies, and our histories.
So on the one hand, highly figurative language involves the audience in the way that literal language does not. How do we write like this in the first place?
Fables, parables, myths, allegories—they all use symbols that have endured over the centuries and been recapitulated in various ways, but in one way or another, they’re told using a long-lived cultural language. When we tell stories, when we write, we use the basic words of our native language, and with those come the building blocks of our cultural language as well. It is as difficult to avoid using these as it is to write a novel without the letter “e.”2
We may not often think about the kinds of cultural language we use because we’re unaware of where it comes from. This is one of the primary goals of studying literature, to learn about the breadth of prior influences so we can study our “cultural language” (I am not sure what a better word for this is, but I am sure there is one). Even when we don’t intend to dwell on influences and allusions, we write with the language of symbols that surrounds us.
What’s interesting to consider is what we’re saying without always thinking about it. Just as we grew up with stories that drew us in using powerful symbolic language, we imbue our original stories with ourselves, using similar symbols.
I’ve realized that different writers tend to perseverate on different kinds of questions and beliefs as their experiences allow, and these emerge as common themes in their writing, the same way certain stock characters persist in an author’s repertoire. If, for example, I find myself primarily concerned with questions of faith, my stories may spontaneously concenter themselves around themes of faith, through no real intentional process. In the process, I might even embed symbols which convey the theme without meaning it (for example, religious trappings such as lambs, crosses, or even clergy).
I have come to identify themes and symbols which are either inherent to the story itself or accidentally embedded by my execution as part of the planning and editing process in my writing. Once I understand them, then decide whether to keep those and how to refine and harmonize them. For example, if I do have religious symbols within a story, there are unavoidable allusions this implies, and I have to work through how to harmonize those with my story or cut them out. As another example, if I have a character who is alone on a desert island, the themes of isolation and survival are both inherent parts of the story structure which cannot be avoided and will be addressed in some way or another. If I write about political conflict, then cooperation-versus-competition is lurking behind nearly every character’s motivation.
In a practical sense, how do I develop themes and work in symbols? Generally, editing first occurs at a larger scale and then moves to a smaller scale, so I tend to think in similar terms with themes. I identify whether broader themes already exist and ask myself if they carry through the entire narrative. If there is an inchoate message buried in the subtext that I didn’t intend to put there, I should decide if it belongs or not. If I want to keep it, then I need to clarify what it is and how it works as a theme.
I examine the narrative through the point of view of this theme and see which elements fit and which don’t. I see how I can adapt it better to fit the theme—a process I actually love because it often burnishes rough narrative ideas.
To give an idea of what I mean, I’ve been writing a story whose central theme has to do with disintegrity of mind and body—the feeling of being not only under a microscope but flayed open at the same time. I began with a premise that didn’t really involve this theme, but I synthesized ideas from elsewhere that really pushed the story in that direction. When I began considering reworking the style and ending, I realized I needed more narrative disorientation and ambiguity to convey the protagonist’s feeling of disintegrity. The changes I had to make involved researching certain plays and removing dialogue tags to make it uncertain who’s speaking (implying that the protagonist could be speaking when she believes her interrogator to be speaking).
Before I go on, I also ask myself what the theme means for me. If I were making a statement about the theme, what would I want to say? More to the point, what does the story have to say? Sometimes, there are even multiple themes in conflict—hints at determinism here, others at fatalism there—so that the overall picture gets confused. The most important thing is that the narrative contains an internal logic that works at every scale, from the broadest thematic sense to the word-by-word meaning. I consider—at least at some point, even if it’s only after a draft is done—what the overall story is saying and then ensure no smaller element of the story contradicts itself.
After I’ve made some large-scale changes, there may be smaller narrative gaps to fill, and I find I can also add certain ornamentations to settings or characters based on theme. This is where I can use the language of symbolism. I try to be somewhat coy. Like I said, indirect, allegorical language allows for stories that are more interesting because they’re more relatable and let the reader insert themselves. The illusion falls apart if the allegory is naked and obvious.
I don’t mean that I necessarily want to make symbols which are obscure allusions, either. I personally like symbols which have a logic within the narrative. I believe it’s possible both ways. The Lord of the Flies is an example of an highly allegorical novel which uses symbols this way. The conch shell symbolizes civilization because it’s used as a rallying point for the boys who remain faithful to the rules. Golding embeds its symbolism completely within the narrative logic—expressed in terms of the story—and the idea it represents erodes as the physical item is neglected and then destroyed.
Sometimes I’m not working with a story but just a premise, and it’s one to which many themes could attach. I could choose a theme, and that choice would influence the direction in which I take the premise. A lot of the ideas I decide to develop end up being conglomerations of ideas, and I’m never quite sure which ones should go together. Themes can sometimes be links which join disparate ideas into a framework, allowing me to decide what to synthesize and how. This way, a premise and a theme determines how a story grows and what characters, settings, and events I place into it.
It may seem like a lot of effort to run through this exercise for a story which is purely fanciful entertainment, which sets out not to say anything in the first place. Not everyone sets out to write an allegory. However, like I said, I think to some extent it’s not possible to avoid planting some subtextual themes because we all speak with a shared cultural language. My goal is to consider what I say between the lines and harmonize that thematic content. Hopefully, I end up with a story with a wider meaning running through it, giving it some backbone. I never set out to make a moral—maybe at most a statement?—but I do at least try to structure my narrative ideas to make the most impact.
I am extraordinarily grateful to Zuzu O. for the time and care she put into editing this post.