Have you ever loved a book or TV series as a child, re-watched it as an adult, and realized how terrible it actually is? Several stories fall into this category for me—many of which are Christian and contain heavy-handed messages. But Adventures in Odyssey is one of those rare Christian stories that stands up to the test of time. Here’s why.
The task of fiction writing is complicated. We make up people, places, and situations that are supposed to inspire readers to care and relate. We’re not trying to enchant anyone to the extent that they lose sight of the line between fiction and reality, but we are hoping to lift the veil of disbelief so that their imagination can run through the lush grass or the chipped pavement of worlds that don’t exist.
Theme is a hot topic among writers. From elementary school to university courses, teachers ask students to identify the messages that literature tries to communicate. Writing blogs discuss how to incorporate and strengthen themes. And fans relish debating the major themes of popular novels and films. While all of these exercises can reap beneficial insights, the assumption behind each one is that the theme was in the forefront of the author’s mind from the first draft onward. But that’s not always the case.
For years, short stories remained cloaked in mystery for me. I hadn’t the slightest idea how to write one, much less imbue a theme into it. I stumbled in the dark, creating tales and hoping themes would magically appear. Shocker: that didn’t happen. But working on themes in my stories wasn’t important, right?
When we get too desperate to make an impact, we risk building messages without biblical foundations. We’ll preach against conventional wisdom simply to set off debates in readers’ minds. But opposing current trends doesn’t automatically transform us into revolutionaries. When we revolve a story around unpopular ideas, we’re playing hit or miss with the truth. A compelling message requires more than going against the grain.
One of the downloadable worksheets here at Story Embers defines theme as “the broad moral topic or idea that your story addresses.” In general, you should be able to capture it with a single word, such as love, peace, kindness, courage, gratitude, or hope. If your manuscript is crafted well, anyone who picks it up will find clues in the title, word choices, plot, and symbolism to help them recognize the underlying meaning. But developing a relevant theme can be intimidating. How do you weave it into your novel in a way that’s both natural and impactful?
All of us are experts at sad stories. We’ve read novels that schooled us in death scenes, betrayals, fractured relationships, and harrowing pasts. These examples taught us that tormenting the protagonist is easy: just thwart his deepest longings. Then we can type “the end” and congratulate ourselves for accurately reflecting our fallen world. But the real sad story is how untrained we are in the art of weaving meaning into tragedy.
Since the rebellion in the garden of Eden, our souls have longed for wrongs to be righted and life to be whole. Happy stories aren’t heaven on earth because they ignore our brokenness. One of the most challenging aspects of the human condition is when we fall into hardship, where we begin to question who we are and why God has seemingly forsaken us.
A non-writer friend once told me that I seem to enjoy making my characters suffer. I disagree. Sure, portraying pain can be an exciting challenge, but I don’t relish putting my characters through trials. If their hearts are breaking, so is mine. Despite this, I realize that characters, like people, grow through adversity, and oftentimes they experience the greatest change when their circumstances can’t get any worse. In storytelling terminology, this hopeless moment is known as the low point, and it happens shortly before the climax.