How to Use Compelling Themes to Strengthen Your Writing

by - Wednesday, June 08, 2016

by Rollan Wengert

You have something to say, but how do you craft your writing in a manner that will get an audience to contemplate your themes? Or, at least not let them reject a work solely because of a theme? Of course, your first step (as hammered in by English college professors) is to know your audience. But, what if you’re not necessarily out to target the like-minded? How can you project themes so that people will at least consider your message?

use compelling themes in writing

Ultimately, your writing is art. And isn't art a means to get a divergent audience to contemplate themes? 

There are three thematic spectrums to consider that affect the palatability of your content. Shifting your content within these spectrums may help broaden your audience (or narrow it if you so wish).

The Controversy of a Theme


Certain themes are more polarizing than others. The more controversial a theme, the smaller the audience (possibly) — you should not consider people who will read your content solely to mock it part of your audience. The real goal of a theme is to get people to intellectually contemplate what you have to say. Being controversial isn't the same thing as creating a theme!

controversy of a theme - safe to dangerous
That being said, some themes are controversial. So, how does this spectrum help keep your work compelling? This is the easiest spectrum to manipulate in order to gain the broadest audience. Simply stated, don't write controversial themes. You're not likely to offend audiences by suggesting hard work and determination help build character. Or that babies are cute. Sure, certain stances do have a built-in audience. Some Christian movies often sell because they are Christian, not because they are quality--vice versa with both conservative and liberal pundit lit. Perhaps though, speaking to those who already agree with you, is your goal.

However, by avoiding controversy, your work may lose some appeal. At times, people are drawn to controversy. Moreover, maybe what you want to say is controversial. Maybe you’re not out to say something radical solely to get attention. Should you always be forced to hold your tongue? Why speak to a safe audience alone? How can you change the world that way? So, if you want to get others to contemplate more provocative themes, read on to the next two spectrums.

The Clarity of a Theme

the clarity of a theme - ambiguous to blatant
You do not have to be sneaky, manipulative, or underhanded with your themes; but, by being in-your-face blatant, you may turn people away before they've had the chance to hear you. A shut-down reader is not a contemplative reader. In turn, you can try to be a bit more ambiguous with your themes, especially when they are more controversial. There are various ways to accomplish this: perspective, allusion, allegory, subtle references, etc. 1984 (by George Orwell) is a good example. There is a reason why polar thematic opposites prop the work. Some see anti-communism jabs and pro-capitalism comments. Others hear freedom of expression hummings and anti-tradition whispers. Sure, 1984 carries the overarching themes people love to embrace, but it is the subtleties that cause both Liberal and Conservative spectral opposites to embrace it. This is also the danger in being too ambiguous. Instead of getting an audience to contemplate your themes, you may simply reinforce their views.

Complexity of a Theme

complexity of theme - complex verses simple
Socrates acknowledged he was the smartest man alive, solely because he was the only one who knew he didn't know anything. Worldviews are riddled with human-reasoned fallacies. To acknowledge that of your own view is the pinnacle of honesty, and honesty is the purpose of compelling art. One way to counter shut-down mentality when an audience reads your work is to acknowledge the opposition's understanding and admit the weaknesses of your own view. It's frustrating when I read simple-themed works that turn my perspective into a straw-man while making its own case a superman. If you want to convince the opposition, do not do the same. Of course, just because you acknowledge weakness, doesn't mean you are wrong, or what you want to say shouldn't be said. As you work out expressing your themes consider the opposing view. Ask how you would respond to the work had their view been your own. Also realize, if you dwell too long on certain complexities, you can confuse your audience — or even send those who agree with you into despair. You may incidentally reinforce the opposition.

Themes can be a tricky lot to work with. Many don't bother with them at all, and even that is a theme in of itself. Others strive to be controversial but lack a complex understanding of certain nuances. Or, they simply believe because their writing is beautiful and entertaining, the broad audience will be magically transformed to their way of thinking. Some think they're being provocative, but are in fact recycling years of the same themes that general audiences have already accepted. Others bury themselves in nuances and symbolism creating an ambiguous message that can be interpreted anyway a reader sees fit — which may be your goal. 

So ask yourself, "What do I want my audience to think about?" And, "How can I best get them to think about it?"

Rollan Wengert lives in Tea, SD with his wife, Maria, and three rowdy boys (and a foreign exchange student for much of the year). He currently works overnights at a boys residential treatment facility, which gives him a lot of time to write. As a youth, he spent hours in his room typing stories. Stories of all kinds. Stories that were never finished. Then, he grew up. Hints flowed, that maybe, he ought to choose a 'realistic' career path. So, he did what any confused teen would do: joined the army. Four Army and another four college years later, he began writing again. Check out his author page or follow on twitter @caveatties

~ this post originally appeared on Rollan's blog, graphics are based on his design 

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