Theme and Symbol as Writing Tools

Cindy Skaggs
Building Blocks for Writers
9 min readJul 30, 2020

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How to add depth in your stories using theme, symbol, and metaphor.

Stock photo licensed from Deposit Photo © 2015

What’s your book about?

What’s your book about? is one of those questions that brings sweat to the brow of neophyte writers who feel as if they’re in an oral exam for literature class, and they forgot to do the reading.

At writers conferences and in creative writing classes, students are often taught the concept of the elevator pitch, which is a 30 second pitch that encapsulates a book’s plot, so when writers hear this question, the impulse is to tell the listener the plot line, because that’s what we think our story is about. Theme, however, is what the story is really about, but in those same conferences and classes, we spend endless time teaching plot development using methods like the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, or some other form of plotting, but seldom do we discuss theme development.

Conversely, in literature classes, we discuss theme and symbolism, metaphor and simile, yet we seldom bridge these two sides of reading and writing. In short, we expect books to have a theme as readers, yet we do a pretty poor job of explaining it to writers.

In my undergraduate composition class, students often ask me “What’s my thesis?” to which I answer, “If you don’t know, how do you expect me to?” Because the thesis is the glue that holds their papers together. If they don’t know their thesis, they probably wrote a convoluted and disconnected essay.

Theme is similar to the thesis statement in some respects, because it is the glue that holds your story together…or at least the one that resonates with readers, so what do you do if you don’t know what your theme is? Today we’re going to find out.

What theme is not?

  • The plot of your book
  • The moral of the story
  • The logline
  • The elevator pitch
  • The synopsis or anything directly related to plot.

What is theme, then?

One of my favorite discussions on theme is from Ron Capps who wrote the book Writing War. I like it because it’s written from a writer’s perspective rather than literary criticism, but it’s also common everyday language. Capps writes that

Theme “is the principal idea you the author are trying to get across to the reader. It is the real reason you’re writing the story in the first place: You have something worth saying about the human experience. The story is the vehicle you use to expose what you want to say about the human condition, the theme” (Capps 69).

Theme, then, is a universal truth about the human condition, and it can often be stated in a word or short phrase, such as love conquers all, revenge, coming of age, etc.

Writers often have common themes they write about, often, particularly in the beginning, without conscious thought. I discovered a few repetitive themes in my work, even though my book series are very different in plot line and characterization.

One series is the world of the mafia and FBI, and the other series is military special operations. They are tremendously different worlds, yet the theme that ties many of these books together is the idea that family is the people we choose (rather than a group we are born into).

What are some examples?

I often choose examples from movies, because most of us read in vastly different genres, but we have greater odds of having seen the same movies.

  • Harry Potter: Plot: A boy discovers he’s a wizard and moves to a boarding school for wizards where he defeats an evil villain. Theme: Coming of Age.
  • The Princess Bride: A beautiful woman falls in love with a farm boy who is thought to have been killed after leaving to seek his fortune which leads her to get engaged to an evil prince before she realizes her true love is alive. Theme: Love Conquers All
  • Star Wars: A farm boy joins forces with a princess and a smuggler to overcome the establishment. Theme: Good Overcomes Evil.

What are some literary examples?

For today, I’ll use the short story “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien as we look deeper into theme, because this particular story has many themes intertwined with the story of a U.S. platoon in Vietnam who endure hardships, injuries, and death. The characters carry guns, gear, photos, letters, and other tangible things, yet they also carry emotional burdens.

“They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing-these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight” (O’Brien 20).

One of the themes in O’Brien’s story is the burdens we all carry. I honestly think that’s why I go back to this story repeatedly: It reveals something of the human condition that resonates with me, in this case, the idea that none of us escape the human condition without burdens or regrets. Other themes are truth, guilt and shame, friendship, and to get to these universal truths, he often employs symbols and metaphors.

Wait, what are symbol and metaphor?

In literature, a symbol is a “person, object, image, word, or event that evokes a range of additional meaning beyond and usually more abstract than it’s literal significance… [Symbols] evok[e] complex ideas without having to resort to painstaking explanations that would make a story more like an essay than an experience” (Meyer 1451).

Common symbols we see are the Christian cross, the Star of David, a national flag. Albert Einstein is often used to symbolize intelligence or genius.

Stock Image licensed from Deposit Photos © 2015

A metaphor compares two dissimilar things, while a simile does the same thing using the words like or as.

“Metaphors can be subtle and powerful, and can transform people, places, objects, and ideas into whatever the writer imagines them to be” (Meyer 1441).

In one of my first creative nonfiction pieces, I use fire as a metaphor for all the things that burn or tear apart our lives, like death, divorce, and other acts of destruction.

In “The Things They Carried,” one recurring symbol is the young Vietnamese man the narrator (possibly O’Brien) killed while in Vietnam. This recurring symbol adds to the theme of the burdens we carry, but a symbol can also be, and usually is, an inanimate object. For instance, the letter from Martha that the narrator obsesses over is symbolic of his past life that distracts him from the realities of war.

Within the story, each character carries something that acts as a symbol:

“As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother’s distrust of the white man, his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet” (O’Brien 3).

The hatchet as a symbol for the distrust of the white man helps us to further understand the character of Kiowa. Other characters carry dope, tranquilizers, food, pantyhose, and other artifacts that seem random but work as symbols to develop our understanding of that particular character or idea.

What is my story’s theme and how do I find it?

Much like my composition students who can’t identify their thesis statement, some writers struggle with theme, so I’ll follow up with a few writing prompts to get started, however, let’s look at some ideas on writing and developing theme.

Not all writers know their theme going into the story. Writers of memoir, for instance, struggle to find a thematic element to connect to their lived experiences.

Writers who are plotters (who pre-plot or pre-outline) can build the theme into their plot before they put a word to the page, while those who write by the seat of their pants (pantsers) want to write the story first, and that’s okay.

Pantsers can start with other elements of the story, like an interesting hook, intriguing character, or real world event, then, once a pantster has completed the story, they can discover the theme like a first time reader, and then go back in revisions to make that theme more consistent and apparent throughout.

This, by the way, is often the way I write. When a story is running hot, I think straight plot line, but as I revise, I undercover the themes and add symbolism and other literary devices to strengthen the theme throughout.

Whether you find your theme before you start writing, as some writers do, or after the first draft is complete, here are a few suggestions for “finding” your thematic elements:

  • Choose a theme that resonates with your reader, such as O’Brien’s theme of the burdens we all carry that resonates with me. Readers tend to read certain thematic elements over others. Some prefer the Love Conquers All stories while others prefer Revenge stories. Who is your reader and what resonates with them?
  • Choose a theme that resonates with you, the writer. Families of choice resonates with me, particularly post-divorce. I often unconsciously include an element of this theme in many stories, and other times, I deal with issues of identity or women in jeopardy.
  • Choose a universal theme. What thematic elements describe a universal truth or universal experience? For example, coming of age or the inevitability of death.
  • Choose multiple themes, just as O’Brien discusses death, grief, burdens, friendship, and a myriad other themes within his short story and the larger collection.

Theme doesn’t have to be complicated, in fact, the more you write, the more likely you’ll discover new and interesting themes in your existing work. If, however, you struggle to find your theme, try the following prompt.

Stock image licensed from Deposit Photo © 2015

Prompts for discovering theme.

  1. Brainstorm for 15 minutes. Turn off your internal editor and write down every single thing that might be a thematic element of your story (memoir, essay, short story, or novel). Don’t let the editor get engaged. Don’t worry about punctuation or grammar or logic. Don’t prejudge. Just write as many themes as you can think of that might be a part of your story.
  2. Once you have a healthy list, go back and choose 3 themes that get you the most excited.
  3. Now, spend another 15 minutes writing about each of these themes, starting with your favorite. Write a paragraph about that theme and how it might work in your story. This should help you refine your theme.
  4. Once you have whittled your theme down to 1–3 top themes, pick 1 . Figure out three places in your story where you can incorporate this theme. Just as your story has a beginning, middle, and end, your theme should show similar growth.

If you’re more of a visual learner, use a bubble map to find your connections visually.

  1. Using a bubble map, start the process much as you in the previous series of prompts, only using the bubbles. Circle the word “theme” in the center. Now, for the bubbles the theme connects to, ask yourself the following:
  2. Why did you write the story,
  3. What do you want readers to take away from your story,
  4. What did you take away from the story,
  5. Which scenes resonate with you (or beta readers) most,
  6. What symbols (or props) are used throughout and how can they illuminate your theme?

Sources:

  • Capps, Ron. Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story. The Veteran’s Writing Project, 2014.
  • Meyer, Michael. The COMPACT Bedford Introduction to Literature, eleventh edition. Bedford/St. Martins, 2017.
  • O’Brien, Tim. “The Things They Carried.” The Things They Carried, First Mariner Books Edition, 2009.
  • This post includes affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Cindy Skaggs grew up on stories of mob bosses, horse thieves, cold-blooded killers, and the last honest man. Those mostly true stories gave her a lifelong love of storytelling that enables her writing addiction. She is the author of seven published romantic suspense novels, including The Untouchables series for Entangled Publishing, plus the Team Fear series.

Cindy is a writer, public speaker, college professor, and military veteran who holds an Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (Fiction) and Master of Arts in Creative Writing (Creative Nonfiction). She is an advocate for military and veteran issues, mom to two humans, and a reluctant wrangler of too many critters.

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Cindy Skaggs
Building Blocks for Writers

Writer 🖊 | Veteran | Professor | Complex and flawed human | Booklist https://www.cskaggs.com/books.html and newsletter signup → https://www.cskaggs.com