The “Why” Behind Our Writing

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

We’ve been talking a lot about literary themes here at DIY MFA. And while we’ve developed a better understanding of what themes are and how they emerge in our work, we’ve never touched on why certain themes creep into our stories. The reason for that “why” might be more simple than we think: The themes in our stories are often important to us, the writers.

So, today we’re getting personal on Theme: A Story’s Soul. We’ll discuss three sources of inspiration – passions, curiosities, and values – that can infuse our work with literary themes. I’ll also share how I unearthed the “why” behind my own writing through these sources. Because thanks to books I’ve read recently and ongoing current events, that “why” is something I’ve been contemplating a bit lately.

Passion Is Oxygen for the Soul – and for Themes

Most writers have other passions besides writing. Drawing, music, education, travel – the list goes on. And quite often, those other passions surface in our writing and help shape what our stories are about.

Think of it this way: When we’re passionate about something, it excites us and becomes an integral part of our lives. For writers, that enthusiasm and knowledge makes that passion an enjoyable topic to write about. It might surface through the protagonist’s occupation or favorite hobby, an important plot device, or a meaningful activity that allows characters to bond.

But how does passion influence theme? Let’s check our working definition of “theme” and see what it would need to accomplish:

  1. The topic must appear repeatedly throughout a story.
  2. It must be central to the protagonist’s internal journey through the external conflict (e.g., story goal, setting, interactions with supporting characters or the world at large).
  3. It has the ability to resonate with the story’s audience, either by endearing the protagonist to the reader or by reminding readers of their own passions.

thebookthief_2In other words, our passions can strengthen our audience’s connection with our stories. The right passions allow readers to relate to or admire characters who pursue that activity, or inspire them to try it on their own. But in order for passion-related themes to emerge, they must present themselves in significant ways so they can sink into the reader’s subconscious.

Maybe it’s no surprise that Markus Zusak’s love of literature shines through in The Book Thief. In an interview with The Guardian, Zusak credits his German-born parents for stressing the importance of reading in English. That love for reading then fueled his desire to pursue a writing career and later imbued into The Book Thief. Sure, it’s about a German girl named Liesel who steals books during World War II so she can learn how to read. But Liesel’s life in general revolves around literature, from her readings to neighbors as they hide in bomb shelters to her decision to write her own stories. Thus, the power of literature becomes a major theme in The Book Thief, and one influenced by Zusak’s own passions.

Curiosity Leads Us Down New Paths, Including in Our Writing

But what about the things we don’t know much about? Sometimes a topic piques our interest, and we follow the itch to learn more about it. These curiosities, like our passions, can be excellent sparks for story ideas. And while sources of curiosity aren’t themes themselves, the underlying ideas we find when exploring them can be.

inkandboneFor example, Rachel Caine researched the history of libraries so she could write Ink and Bone, the first book in her Great Library series. As sh
e told BookPage here, she learned that “… the Great Library of Alexandria had been built from some humble (and not altogether legal) beginnings. The idea of collected libraries that allowed the general public to enter them wasn’t always either a common or accepted thing.” This helped Caine realize how she should tell her story, and how the power (and danger) of knowledge would be its soul.

I made a similar discovery while researching for my own WIP. One of the supporting characters is a healer, so I’ve read as much as I can on natural medicine and herbal remedies. Oddly enough, nature is central not only to the healer’s work, but also to his and the protagonist’s religion (nature worship) and the obstacles (weather, wild animals) they face during their quest. Since the environment matters to the characters and the plot, the idea of “man and the natural world” has evolved into one of the story’s themes.

Notice anything in both instances? They adhere to our three criteria for our definition of “theme”:

  1. Both topics (knowledge and the natural world) recur throughout their respective stories.
  2. Both are central to the protagonist’s internal journey and the external plot.
  3. Both have the ability to resonate with readers through the lessons that the protagonists learn or observations they make in relation to those themes.

So, when we inform ourselves on subjects that we’re curious about and are important to our stories, we’re also nurturing themes. As long as we ensure those ideas are portrayed through the right literary devices and the right amount of repetition, they’ll likely impact readers as much as they’ve impacted us.

The Values We Stand For and Their Impact on Our Writing

If one thing shapes our writing more than our passions and curiosities, it’s our personal values. Fundamental beliefs such as “family comes first,” “do what you love,” and “treat others with kindness” determine our priorities in life and influence our behavior and way of thinking. Why? Because they matter to us. And whether we intend it or not, those values frequently manifest through our stories.

Consider your values for a moment. What matters to you? What tangibles or intangibles make you happy, proud, or fulfilled? What beliefs do you stick with despite opposition from others? Then, reflect on your WIP and its characters. Do your values matter to the protagonist and/or supporting characters? You’ll know they do if those values are threatened by the story’s events, or if the characters live in a world where they struggle to achieve those values.

51lktqmvkxl-_sx329_bo1204203200_Ryan Graudin took this approach in her YA alternate history Wolf By Wolf, where a Jewish girl who develops skinshifting abilities during concentration camp experiments is tasked to kill Adolf Hitler. In her Author’s Note, Graudin explains the historical facts (including the racism in Hitler’s policies) and creative liberties she incorporated into the story. She then says, “I gave Yael the ability to skinshift to address [questions of identity], as well as to highlight the absurdity of racial superiority… It’s my hope that Yael’s story will not only remind readers that all people are created equal, but also challenge people to educate themselves on the history behind the fiction and to use this knowledge to examine our present world.”

It’s clear from this quote that Graudin believes in racial equality, a concept that’s one of Wolf By Wolf’s strongest themes. And like our passion and curiosity examples, it’s achieved through repetition, reflection of the protagonist’s internal journey, and emotional resonance. Yet there’s something distinctly poignant about value-based themes. They tend to bring more delicate issues to the table and add more gravity to a story. They may not be as fun or intriguing as passion- or curiosity-inspired themes, but addressing them in our writing can make the process incredibly rewarding.

How I Found the “Why” Behind My WIP

When I started writing my WIP (a YA fantasy), I knew most of the “what,” such as characters, plot, setting, and genre. I also understood the protagonist’s motivations and what she learns – especially about herself – during her journey. But I had no idea why I was writing this story or what its themes were. I simply knew I had to write it.

Now I’m editing the WIP’s third draft, and I know its soul like a dear friend. Anyone who reads the blurb or hears the pitch might think it’s about vengeance, secrets, and adventure, and that’s an accurate guess. But it’s also about compassion, family, and friendship. It’s about moving on from the past, doing what you believe is right, and redeeming ourselves after poor choices. And believe it or not, these more positive themes are all things I believe in or hold close.

Those ideas have also been on my mind outside the story. Whenever I watch the news and hear about more terrorist attacks, racial tensions, mass shootings, and the mounting discord from the U.S. presidential election, I can’t help but feel disheartened. Then I work on my WIP – and it hits me. What’s happening in our world conflicts with so many of my values. And while similar social and moral problems plague my story’s universe, I want to tell a story about how one young woman learns to overcome those problems and not contribute to them further.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned. Or, maybe I’m an idealist. I’m not sure, but I know I’m not the only one. Like Samwise Gamgee said in the film The Two Towers, there’s still some good in this world – and not only is it worth fighting for, but it’s worth writing about.

How about you? Have your passions, curiosities, or values shaped your story or nurtured its themes? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer.

Sara 2015Sara Letourneau is a Massachusetts-based writer who practices joy and versatility in her work. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she’s working a YA fantasy novel and has previously been a tea reviewer and freelance music journalist. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. Learn more about Sara at her personal blogTwitter, and Goodreads.

  • sjhigbee

    Yes! I completely agree with you – themes and ideas that run through the spine of the best-told stories (and they are always there in any writing of quality) appear because they matter to the author.
    Of course, there is a potential bearpit awaiting authors down the road… Established writers with a canon of work have to take care that their work doesn’t continually run in the same groove – what may have appeared as thoughtful and profound in book 1 of the first series may simply seem tired and played-out come book 1 of the third or fourth series… And successful authors occasionally feel entitled to use their books to propound their passions and ‘educate their readers’ rather than concentrate on telling a cracking story.
    As ever, though, an intelligent, well-structed article full of good advice:))

    • Sara Letourneau

      Thanks, Sarah! And I agree with your points about “preachiness” of theme and repeating ourselves in future works. As writers, it’s important for us to focus on the story, characters, etc. first, then see what themes emerge as a result. If we focus too much on theme early on, it can sound forced and didactic – and most writers don’t want their work to come across that way. (I don’t want mine to, either.) So you really have to concentrate on storytelling first, then discover its themes later, almost as if “by accident.” And now that I think about it, this might be a good topic for a future Theme: A Story’s Soul post. 🙂

      As for the “repeating ourselves” bit: I think it’s fine for certain themes to crop up in multiple books over our careers, but we definitely should avoid telling the same story more than once. If writers want to avoid that pitfall, they can do so by writing about different kinds of characters, settings, conflicts, and so forth, or experimenting with different types of plots. I already know my future stories will feature different protagonists and struggles than my current WIP – not only because they call for those differences, but because I want variety to be a big part of my career. And as a result, different themes might emerge in each story… But I wouldn’t be surprised if other themes reappear from time to time, either.

      Does that make sense, on either front?

      • sjhigbee

        Yes! And I was thinking about myself… I seem to have a bit of a ‘thing’ about voices in the heads of my main protagonists. They all get there in a variety of ways and the end result is quite different. But I’ve promised myself that I’m NOT starting any more new series with that particular issue for a while. And you’re right about particular themes appearing in an author’s work – I’m very interested in inter-generational relationships, rather than love stories, so while I do have a splash of romance, it generally doesn’t take centre-stage. The relationships that do hog the limelight are between parents and children – both good and ill…

  • The “why” behind my writing is something I’ve been thinking about. It’s the themes in my WIP that answer my “why” and push me to keep writing. This is a great post, Sara. I appreciate how it made me consider more closely the reasons behind my writing.

    “Do your values matter to the protagonist and/or supporting characters? You’ll know they do if those values are threatened by the story’s events, or if the characters live in a world where they struggle to achieve those values.”
    –I hadn’t quite thought of it that way before, but it’s true. I now see more values that have weaved their way into my WIP without me realizing why. But it makes sense that an author’s values and the themes they cherish most would make it into the works they write.

    • Sara Letourneau

      Funny what we see when we take a look at stories we’ve been working on for a while, isn’t it? 🙂

      Thanks for commenting, E.!

  • Faith Rivens

    An inspiring article! Thanks for sharing Sara! I know that when I look at my stories they are driven by my beliefs and values too. I write because there’s a passion in me to. There’s a story I need to tell. That’s been my why! It’s good to know what your why is <3

    • Sara Letourneau

      Thank you, Faith. 🙂

      I think all writers have a passion for storytelling and the written word, so that wasn’t necessarily the “passion” I was talking about here, but the other things we’re passionate about. Example: I wouldn’t be surprised if I write about a musically inclined protagonist one day. I’m not a musician, but I’ve been such a fan of music for a long time that it’s bound to creep in through my characters someday. That’s what I meant in the passions section.

  • Great post! A lot of my themes weave their ways into my character’s conflicts and goals. I have lots of strong themes I love to include. It’s one of my favorite parts of writing. ^ ^ Great use of Sam’s quote!

    • Sara Letourneau

      Thank you, Tori! And I’m glad to hear you already recognize some of your stories’ themes in that way. 🙂

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