The hardest storytelling element to successfully integrate into any story, in my opinion, is theme.
The theme of your story is the message you are trying to teach your readers. When theme is successfully implemented, story has the power to influence viewers and readers into perceiving the world in a different light.
This is where fiction earns its value – tell a kid not to smoke and he may not listen, but show him someone dying of lung cancer who still can’t kick the habit and he’s bound to think twice about lighting up.
Properly integrating theme into your story is one of the most difficult things for writers to do, and only the greats can truly master it.
Part of the problem with giving out moral lessons, however, is they’re generally pretty boring.
That’s why I’ve titled this post “Buying yourself time.” In the following excerpt, Danny O’Keefe gives James a speech that could easily bore readers and keep them from reading on. One of the great powers suspense wields is the ability to keep your readers zoned in on crucial information due to the urgent threat of danger, lurking just around the corner.
Notice how anticipation keeps you locked in on an important, but not riveting, conversation in the excerpt from “A New Kingdom” below:
* * *
“Everyone is going to die.”
James pushed away from the window, shoved his way through the tree branches, then ran up the steps to the front door and threw it open.
“What is going on?”
Mr. O’Keefe’s eyes dropped to his bottle of whiskey. Gregg pinned his lips closed and looked away.
“Why can’t I know?”
Gregg tried to make eye contact with Mr. O’Keefe, but Mr. O’Keefe was too infatuated with his whiskey bottle.
James marched over to his dad then grabbed the whiskey from his hands. “I’m seventeen now. I have a right to know whatever the hell is going on.”
Mr. O’keefe stood up and swatted the bottle back to himself. “Oh, quit whinin’! It don’t matter how old you are, I’m not even old enough to understand this.”
“Danny, we have to leave now. It locks shut at midnight.” Gregg said.
“Alright Gregg, can you give me a minute to talk with my boy?” Mr. O’Keefe moved over to the sink and poured himself a shot.
“We don’t have the time!”
“Then make the time!”
Greg shook his head, then waved his hand as he left the apartment and went outside.
Mr. O’Keefe addressed James. “Now, if he hadn’t been my good friend, I wouldn’t ‘ave believed him. And when he told me what was going on, I wouldn’t ‘ave even listened to ‘im if he hadn’t been pacin’ so bad. And after he finished talkin’, I still didn’t believe him, until he had me look through his telescope. Now, son, I believe him.”
Mr. O’Keefe took James by the arm and led him over to the scope. James peered through and felt his heart race from what he saw – Giant balls of light were bouncing around like mad, multiplying even.
“Gregg says, and this doesn’t roll off my tongue too easily, that we got aliens coming. That’s right boy, aliens. We’ve known about ’em for a while, apparently. They’ve been kept secret by our own government, Greg says. Up until now they’ve been friendly, but I suppose that was their way of getting to know us, to prepare for their invasion. They’re coming to ‘Take earth’, so to speak. Which means destroy us. I asked Gregg why we don’t fight the damn beasts, we got no shot, he says. Compared to them, we are as smart and powerful as little bunny rabbits, he says. I think that’s rubbish if you ask me, I never saw a fight that couldn’t be won, somehow.”
James’ attention remained glued to his dad.
“So Gregg tells me that a military man knew this invasion was going to happen. He sent out Gregg, among others, to retrieve those privileged enough and take them to Pine Mountain. There’s an underground base there. He says if we don’t get to it in time we won’t be alive come morning.” Mr. O’Keefe played with his shot, swirling it around a bit, then brought it to his nose and took a whiff. He then looked at James, then lowered the shot and smiled.
“What?” said James.
“Not tonight.” He laughed. “I’m not going to drink tonight.” Mr. O’Keefe poured the shot out in the sink. He then grabbed the bottle and poured the whole thing out, watching it blip blip blip its way down the drain. He rested the empty bottle on the counter, composed himself with a quick glance out the window, then took a seat in the wobbly wooden chair across from James. He scooted in close so that he sat face-to-face with his boy, then spoke with a direct, wise tone of voice.
“I’ve been really angry for a while now, James. Mad at my enemies, my friends, but especially myself. But more than anything else, I’ve been mad at God. And I think it’s because part of me knows that there is a God. That makes me so mad, Jimmy – knowing that there is a God, and he chose to let my beautiful, perfect wife die. He let your mother die, James… I try to understand that, with everything in me, but I can’t. Your mum loved God, you know. A lot more than I ever did.”
Danny smiled and went on. “But God let’n mum go dying didn’t just hurt me, James. It hurt you, too, and I know this. I see a lot of pain in you, Jimmy. I see a lot of struggle, a lot of sorrow. But beyond all that, buried deep inside a you, I see potential for greatness. You’re going to do great things, Jimmy, I know this in the bottom of my heart. There is greatness like I have never known within you.”
The front door swung open.
“We gotta go now!”
Hope this helps!
– Thomas M. Watt
Excerpt from A New Kingdom