How to Surprise Readers with Your Story’s Theme

March 1, 2021

If readers can predict a story’s moral, it’s more likely to disengage them than it is to influence them. This presents us with an imposing ultimatum: either spring a message on readers unexpectedly, or leave them unchanged.


The pressure is on. If our stories aren’t comforting, inspiring, or convicting, are they worth anything? We want our words to coax readers toward the light, but without the right guidance, we’re more prone to head in the wrong direction.


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. If we feel that the world’s version of Christianity is too loose, we’ll promote characters with strict, unbending values. If we feel that people talk about God’s love too much, we’ll dwell on His unswerving judgment, and vice versa.


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.


Cue the existential panic.


A compelling message requires more than going against the grain. We can explore the most basic themes like love, forgiveness, consequences, and coming of age, yet still overturn readers’ assumptions. The secret to achieving that result is stealth.


Misdirect Readers with the Wrong Thematic Answer

Essentially, a theme is an answer to the protagonist’s need. Not the answer he desires, but one that will heal him. In The Promise of Jesse Woods (the focus of our 2020 book study), Matt is determined to save the world—or at least his small part of it. His need could be framed as a question: “How can I help the people I love?” He believes he must jump at every chance to lend a hand. He tries so hard that, when he realizes God’s ways are not his ways, he’s shocked. And so is the audience.


The conclusion to The Promise of Jesse Woods is startling because the protagonist chases the wrong answers throughout the entire story. The tactic works because readers are convinced that Matt is doing the right thing, even when he bungles the outcome. They’re too wrapped up in his well-meaning efforts to recognize his true need until it’s revealed.


To pull this off, the protagonist needs a goal that seems like it can solve his problems. Matt’s quest is centered around keeping his first love from making a terrible mistake, and on the journey back to his hometown, we discover that he spent his childhood attempting to rescue others. Readers root for Matt from the first few pages. After all, if our loved ones are gravitating toward bad choices, shouldn’t we stop them? Matt’s goal is intensely human and rational. But, no matter how many friends he steers away from danger, it won’t fix his superficial faith. He needs to understand that good deeds should be guided by wisdom that comes from a personal relationship with God, who is a better savior than a preacher’s kid from Dogwood, West Virginia. If we give our own characters similarly empathetic motivations, distracting readers from the theme will be easy.


However, sometimes this method isn’t applicable. If a character is obviously a mess, red herrings won’t divert attention away from his faults. Handily, we have another strategy we can resort to instead.


Hide the Thematic Question from Readers

When we’re dealing with themes, subtlety is our best friend. Concealing the thematic question that’s driving a character usually provides enough cover to sneak it under readers’ radar. And we have three main options for creating this camouflage.


First, we can embody the character’s need in a clear, achievable goal. In The Promise of Jesse Woods, discouraging Jesse from marrying a bully represented Matt’s need to save his friends. A person is typically aware of his outer goal but not the inner need that’s behind it. The same goes for characters.


Second, we can relay information through an unreliable narrator who shows his emotions through his actions while his motives stay under the surface. To explain his behavior, readers are forced to draw their own conclusions. I hate to spoil the ending, but Conner from A Monster Calls is a perfect example. Conner’s anger and destructive tendencies seem to originate from his mother’s fight with cancer, but he never verifies these suspicions. When he finally confesses that he feels guilty for wishing his mother was gone so he wouldn’t have to endure the pain of loving and losing her, the thematic question changes from “How do I cope with grief?” to “How do I love when it hurts?”


Third, we can disguise a character’s core flaw. In real life, a person’s greatest strength tends to be linked to his greatest weakness. Compassionate, selfless people may struggle to stand up for themselves. Strong, opinionated people may struggle with stubbornness. Characters are no different.


In The Promise of Jesse Woods, Matt is one of the kindest kids in town. He rushes to the aid of those around him, even when he’d avoid trouble by minding his own business. However, his zeal masks a hero complex. Instead of trusting God to lead him, he thinks it’s his responsibility to save the world, and his interference makes situations go awry.


Theme is the soul of our work, and shrouding it can enable us to crack open readers’ hearts so they’ll accept truth. But what we say once they’ve let us in determines the value of our stories. Before we employ any of these tactics, we must consider the answers we’re giving—and why they’re not our answers at all.


We Don’t Make Up the Answers

Deciding what a character needs is a personal process. Character and writer are connected, and the lessons a character learns are ones the writer has observed or experienced, often bleeding into the story unconsciously.


Writing what we know is vital, but we possess a source that’s even more enriching than our experience: a book to verify and refine our realizations. The Bible is the first text to portray characters chasing after false answers, only to find peace in encounters with God that prophets would never have dared to imagine.  


So fearlessly pursue the burdens God has laid on your heart. Use these tactics to search humanity’s problems for surprising answers. By poking into old truths, you just might unearth something new and wonderful.



    • Gabrielle Pollack

      So do I, man. So do I. I’m hopping I’ll be skilled enough one day to hide a theme like Patrick Ness does. It’s my favorite thing to experience as a reader.

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