“[T]he imagination loves symbol because it recognizes that inner divinity can only find expression in symbolic form. The symbol never gives itself completely to the light.”
– John O’ Donohue
Themes are all around us. Whether the theme be heartbreak, regret, mortality, war, hunger, joy, companionship, destruction, change, reconciliation or letting go—each theme carries with it certain symbols, and each symbol can guide us in understanding what each theme is trying to tell us, and what lesson we are expected to master in that particular moment of time.
My job as narrator and storyteller is to observe and point out the themes that are currently being experienced by humanity. I take each theme and apply symbols to it—symbols are images or physical representations that help to illuminate the abstract truths being taught through the theme and which, in turn, help guide us to mastering the theme of the moment.
Themes are not just for writing, they are for life too. Often, when I am confused as to what the chaos of life is trying to teach me, I will return to this universal concept of themes. I know that in order to have a great theme in a story, it must be hinted at with powerful symbols that represent abstract lessons and ideas that the author is trying to convey. I see myself as being in a story being told by The Author Himself, and I know that since He is the best storyteller there ever was, He has a theme that He is trying to convey through me at this particular moment in my life. Therefore, I can rest assured that He has left me hints, clues, and symbols that will direct me to understanding my lesson at this particular moment in time.
Understanding these symbols is not hard. We simply must pay attention to the feeling that these symbols evoke with in us in order to unravel their secret meaning.
How To Develop A Good Theme For Your Story
In your creative work, you must understand that your ability to be an excellent storyteller will depend largely on developing a strong theme for your story. A theme is an idea that is contained within the progression of events in a story and in which it can better express itself by the unfolding of the story—rather than through blunt, straightforward explanation.
A theme cannot be understood at first glance: it must be understood through the process of reading and digesting the story itself. This is similar to the difference between tasting your food and digesting your food. The theme of a story is not how the story “tastes” (or the general plot line) but it is how the story feels as it enters your consciousness and is processed by your brain’s “digestive system.”
A plot is linear and 2-dimensional (you can literally write down a plot and observe it on a graph). A theme develops in a spiral (it is an idea that repeats itself several times in a story, but every time it repeats itself, it widens in its scope and deepens in its depth). A theme is also 4-dimensional (such that you could never actually write it down, but could only ever sense it, and you can never observe it on a graph, you can only grasp it partially through symbols and metaphors.)
Who we are in this life is a story that is developing, and when we become confused as to what our purpose is in this particular moment, we will only confuse ourselves by focusing on the “plot lines” such as stating that: “this happened to me, then this happened to me, then this happened etc.” What would help us more in life is if we focused on our themes by stating that: “this happened to me and I grew in this way, this happened to me and it made me feel this way, this happened to me and I learned this lesson, then this happened to me and it led me to this realization.”
Seeing our lives through themes can help us better understand what the events and people in our lives are trying to teach us and emphasize their profound meaning and importance. For no event or person in your life is there by mere coincidence. (Even my role in your life is no accident.)
When we focus on the themes of our lives, we can be a whole lot more clear about our journey. We can actually map out in our souls where we have been and were we need to go. We can finally wrap our head around why a certain crisis is being experienced or why certain miracles have occurred. We can judge whether an action or person is right for us in this moment by judging whether it is congruent with the theme of the moment, or whether it runs against it. We can judge whether we are in the “right” place by whether this place serves as a clear symbol of what spiritual lesson we are meant to tackle at this moment in time, or whether it represents a shadow aspect of that lesson that we are actually meant to avoid at all costs.
If the theme currently in our lives is growth, then we can easily make the decisions to remove that which does not help us grow, and keep that which does help us grow. If the theme currently in our lives is forgiveness, we can easily make the decision to speak with the people we need to forgive and engage in activities that further increase our compassion. If the theme currently in our lives is mourning the past, we can easily make the decision to talk about the people, things, events, or experiences we have lost and engage in activities that honor these people, things, events or experiences well into the future.
Some themes are self-evident: a string of deaths is clearly asking you to face your fears, discomfort, and questions about the afterlife and the way in which you are currently living; a trip to the hospital due to an illness created by an unhealthy lifestyle, is clearly asking you to observe if you are truly taking care of your body’s needs; an encounter with an old friend who you never forgave for betraying you, but whom you sorely miss, is an event that is clearly asking you to learn the lessons of forgiveness; a sudden windfall of resources and support that you’ve been wishing and praying for, but which is making you feel uneasy instead of happy, is clearly asking you to learn how to open yourself to receive the wonderful gifts of this world without guilt.
No matter where we go, no matter what happens to us, no matter whom we meet, rest assured that there is always a theme involved. Remember that the theme can be deciphered by recognizing the symbols. Symbols are physical manifestations of deep spiritual truths which invoke in us certain feelings and thoughts that reveal their hidden meanings if meditated upon.
The best themes are the ones that come from digesting the unfolding of events as a whole: they can be understood but not fully explained; they can be touched upon but not fully grasped; they can be glimpsed but not fully seen.
A theme can also serve as the final stepping stone (or a treasure map so to speak) guiding you to the realization of your dream.
Today’s Courage Exercise
Add a good theme to your story. Use symbols to guide your reader to understanding and relating to that theme.
Finally: recognize the themes currently unfolding in your life. If you are not sure what theme is currently being expressed, you might want to ponder on the symbols that you keep seeing repeated over and over again. What hidden feelings, thoughts, or deep spiritual truths do these repeated symbols invoke in you? Let these symbols serve as guideposts to uncovering your life’s current theme—and the lessons this theme is currently trying to teach you.
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