Thematic Rewriting

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. 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.”

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.

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 Cujo 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.