Themes that Resonate: Writing for Impact
Patrick W. Carr
There’s this movie that I can’t help but watch. It’s sentimental and manipulative and if I’m channel surfing and it’s on, I’ll watch it even though I’ve seen it at least a dozen times before. I wouldn’t even say it’s my favorite, but the ending always makes me cry. Surprisingly enough, it’s not “Lord of the Rings.” Everyone who knows me will be shocked. No, the movie is “Field of Dreams.” That last scene where Kevin Costner gets to meet his dad and redeem their relationship busts me up every time. Those kinds of scenes, the ones that make us cry, and the ones we write that make our readers cry, are what turns a book from an exercise in diction and vocabulary into an experience.
For those of you who are trying to write for a more emotional impact, I would suggest reading “How to Read Literature Like a Professor,” by Thomas C. Foster. The author expounds on the themes, and their origins, that create powerful stories. There are too many to list, but I’d like to point out three of my favorites.
Redemption. This one is my favorite. You might have guessed that by the lead in to this article. As a Christian, you would expect this theme to permeate my writing, but the concept of redemption, be it salvation, relationships, or kingdoms is part of our culture. Didn’t Luke Skywalker redeem his father, Darth Vader (Anakin) in the end? In “Field of Dreams” we’re led to believe that the point is to redeem “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s expulsion from baseball for gambling. In the end we discover something much more powerful: Ray Kinsella has built the field to redeem his the relationship with his father.
Sacrifice. There seems to be a trend here. Many of our strongest themes come from the Bible. In the first Star Wars movie, which was actually the fourth in the series once all the prequels were made, Obi Wan (played to perfection by Alec Guiness) sacrifices himself so that Luke and the rest can escape. As the still voice later that helps Luke defeat death in the form of the death star, Obi Wan becomes a type for the Holy Spirit, sent to us once Jesus died and ascended. I didn’t hesitate to use this as a them in my own writing though I usually boil it down to this: The sacrifice of the innocent to save the guilty.
Orphan. Who could forget the scene in the musical of Oliver Twist, “Boy for Sale.” This theme, especially in epic fantasy, often hearkens back to our Arthurian legends. One of my favorite retellings of this story occurs in the wonderfully written series, The Belgariad, by David Eddings. Like many themes it is utterly predictable, but the retelling is deftly handled with enough twists to keep us hooked until the last page. In many cases, our protagonist is orphaned symbolically. For example, he or she may be rejected by the rest of their family, or perhaps discover that they were adopted.
These are the themes common to epic fantasy, but you will often find them interspersed in other genres. Romance, a genre with incredible reach, has its own set of themes. If you write Romance, you betray them at your peril. Every reader knows before they pick up the book that the guy and the girl will get together in the end and that love will conquer all. The requirements of the genre require skill in order to bring a fresh story to the marketplace. I attend a writer’s group that is predominantly populated with romance writers. I have nothing but admiration and respect for the skill and effort they bring to their craft and owe much of my writing success to their instruction.
Pick up a well-told fantasy and you will find very strong elements of romance contained within it. In Lord of the Rings, Eowyn falls in love with the unattainable (for her) Aragorn, who is destined to marry Arwen Evenstar. Eowyn’s heart is rescued by the attentions of Faramir in the house of healing. There are almost too many themes to count going on.
Look at your writing. Does it resonate? Are you working the themes that make up the mythos of your audience? We write because we have something to say. It may be a complicated story of redemption or a simple tale of triumphant love. Keep your theme(s) in mind and by the time you get to the last page, you’ll discover you’ve written a more powerful story. In many cases you’ll discover themes woven into your story you were unaware of at the time.
About the author:
Patrick Carr was born on an Air Force base in West Germany at the height of the cold war. He has been told this was not his fault. As an Air Force brat, he experienced a change in locale every three years until his father retired to Tennessee. Patrick saw more of the world on his own through a varied and somewhat eclectic education and work history. He graduated from Georgia Tech in 1984 and has worked as a draftsman at a nuclear plant, did design work for the Air Force, worked for a printing company, and consulted as an engineer. Patrick’s day gig for the last five years has been teaching high school math in Nashville, TN. He currently makes his home in Nashville with his wonderfully patient wife, Mary, and four sons he thinks are amazing: Patrick, Connor, Daniel, and Ethan. Sometime in the future he would like to be a jazz pianist. Patrick thinks writing about himself in the third person is kind of weird.
About the book:
In the backwater village of Callowford, Errol Stone’s search for a drink is interrupted by a church messenger who arrives with urgent missives for the hermit priest in the hills. Desperate for coin, Errol volunteers to deliver them but soon finds himself hunted by deadly assassins. Forced to flee with the priest and a small band of travelers, Errol soon learns he’s joined a quest that could change the fate of his kingdom.
Protected for millennia by the heirs of the first king, the kingdom’s dynasty is near an end and a new king must be selected. As tension and danger mount, Errol must leave behind his drunkenness and grief, learn to fight, and come to know his God in order to survive a journey to discover his destiny.
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