If you’ve ever heard that there’s no new stories, you might feel a little disheartened, especially if you’re wondering why you should be writing. The bad news is that for the most part, it’s true: there’s no new elements in storytelling. The good news however, is that the elements themselves are only minorly important, what makes your story unique is how you combine them.
For today I want to talk about thematic elements specifically. By definition, theme is an idea that recurs in art or literature. That covers a lot of ground from particular settings to character archetypes to messages.
One of the best examples of thematic elements are fairy-tale retellings. The characters tend to crop up again and again, often facing some of the same conflicts. Cinderella has to face her Evil Stepmother. Red Riding Hood faces the Wolf. Beauty saves the Beast.
Some elements, such as symbols, are also powerful thematic elements. The glass slipper, for instance is often used to represent Cinderella. Mixing these symbols up among stories gives a new angle on the story. What happens when it’s a bite of Snow White’s apple that can break the Beast’s curse, instead of true love? What happens when Rapunzel is the one cursed to sleep for a hundred years?
Even playing with setting as a thematic element can create unique stories. Taking Robin Hood out of Sherwood Forest and putting him in New York City certainly changes things! What happens when King Arthur is removed from the settings of Camelot and Avalon?
As an exercise: Pick three of your favorite books or movies and compare their thematic elements. Consider what character archetypes appear. Think about the symbols and messages used throughout. And finally, think of how the story might be impacted by changing the setting.