In literature, a theme can refer to an issue being explored (homelessness, coming out, racism, post-imperialism) but it can also be a metaphor or series of connected metaphors, this is normally known as a leitmotif.
What’s the point? Well, themes will show up in all stories, whether because it’s a genre story (Romance: love is a theme. Science fiction: is technology dangerous? Thriller: does power always corrupt?) or because the author decided they wanted to write about a particular issue (ie. Abuse of power, war).
But leitmotifs or thematic metaphors can be consciously worked into a story. Most writers will include recurring themes in the form of:
In-jokes between the characters or between writer and reader at the expense of characters
References (to other works in the genre)
Repeated phrasing/stylistic choices
The term leitmotif is originally used in music and that’s a good way of understanding it, it’s a short sequence of notes that will repeat throughout a melody/song. Because as humans we love patterns and we love meaning, these repetitions (in moderation) can really bring a scene to the next level.
Leitmotifs or thematic images are also fantastic to find a title!
How can you use this to improve your writing?
Think about your themes/issues and what metaphors you will use to refer to them when you’re not explicitly talking about them.
In my recent short, I had a main character who did paper sculpture, he also decorated his classroom with paper hearts, which led to the other MC complaining (St Valentine’s grouchy daddy) and one of my betas pointed out there was a lot of paper all over the story so that led to a brainstorming session and the title Paper Kisses.
In Cracking Ice¸ the title itself is a double reference to the ice hockey at the centre of the plot and the barriers between the two main characters, I also used it throughout to talk about both how strong and how fragile people are emotionally. Because it’s an omegaverse story, I combined the concept with ‘heat’ and had a progression from Ice, Thaw, Heat, Warmth, Fire, Cracking, Light. ‘Light’ might seem like an odd choice but it’s a reference to the song the title comes from ‘There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’. Light is also often used to refer to truth (ie. Seeing the light), another theme in the book. I also included temperature in my metaphors both for sex and emotional closeness.
If you are working on a story, try to identify what metaphors or elements you have already used that can be repeated or subtly mentioned again to create an ongoing atmosphere or theme.
Great elements to use:
Places (home = save haven, water = freedom)
Smells (great to trigger memories)
Significant objects (car = independence, keys = trust)
Weather (either by matching or contrasting with the MC’s feelings they can interrupt inner thought)
Significant people who aren’t very active in the story but can represent something to the MC (the past, the future, a safe place)
These are some good ideas I like to keep in mind and play with, besides trying to write them into your books, see if you can find them in your favourite stories!
Do you consciously use thematic metaphors or do you just let it flow straight from your unconscious and notice them during editing? I'd love to know more about your process!