#129: Overthinking Themes

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I am a chronic overthinker who is making herself quite stressed and confused about themes. I feel like I am maybe critically missing the point of what they are?

Generally outlining is my least favorite part of the whole process, but it’s definitely prudent for me to be a meticulous plotter since I’ve had no success trying to revise structure into limp or directionless first drafts. I get character concepts first of all, and I quickly know what resonates with me about their underlying ideas and the emotional journey I want to put them through. The difficulty begins when I try to use the emotional themes as a road map for filling in any blank spots in the story. It wasn’t too bad when I was only focusing on character relationships and narrow-scope personal conflicts, but now that I’m making attempts at the larger scale adventure/mystery plots I’ve always wanted to write, my brain just short circuits. Rather than theme bringing clarity and direction to the conflicts and scenarios of the plot, I just end up getting kind of neurotic about it.

Say I want a moody fantasy story where the main character is forced to confront and make peace with the thorny parts of herself while stopping a murderous cult from summoning their evil god. I feel like to justify the premise I have to make “death cult conspiracy” into an elegant metaphor for self-destructive behavior, and the magic system needs to be a mental illness metaphor, and the society and culture in the setting can’t just be an interesting place that informed the protagonist’s worldview and adds context/tone as it has to also symbolize uuuhhhh I don’t know something really deep and I have to figure it all out RIGHT NOW oh my god PLEASE stop the ride I want to get off.

I feel self-conscious of all discrepancies. If the solution to the inner conflict is the protagonist accepting and reconciling with her flawed self, but I have her overcome a significant external obstacle by just thoroughly kicking its ass because I really want to see her be a badass, I feel like I’m writing a confused story that’s in disagreement with itself. I tentatively tell myself that some things can just happen a certain way because that’s what I want, but the tiny AP Lit teacher living in my brain is AGHAST at the very thought. It’s less “no fun allowed” and more “justify the thematic relevance of fun with 10 page single spaced essay, cite sources, no wikipedia.” Working backwards from a theme nets me conflicts/solutions that make for passable metaphors and antagonists who diligently check various boxes like “dramatic foil to protagonist’s thematic struggles,” but I couldn’t possibly be any less interested in them.

I can definitely feel it when I’m reading something that doesn’t seem to know or care what it’s about beyond the surface events of its plot and I really don’t want to do that. But I seem inclined to use pursuit of a theme as ammunition to tear down and discard any intriguing ideas I have, instead of as a way to augment and elaborate on them. I want to just say “fuck it” and jump ahead to the fun parts that are waiting for me on the other side of the outline, but I don’t trust myself not to make an unsalvageable mess of the whole thing if I start without having all the pieces slotted into place first. In short: please help, what do???

—It’s Theme Real Estate (she/her)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.


Story Nurse

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