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Developing themes | Reading

Authors build themes in stories using symbols, settings, dialogue, and actions. Themes link big ideas to the story's action. To find themes, readers can look for repeated symbols, how settings affect characters, dialogue that mentions similar ideas, and important character decisions. Created by David Rheinstrom.

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Video transcript

- [David] Hello, readers! Let's talk about themes and how authors can intentionally build messages into fiction. Now, to recap a little, themes link big ideas about the world we live in with the action of a text. For example, in "The Lord of the Rings" stories and films, the One Ring represents absolute power and how dangerous that is. How do we know that though? How did J. R. R. Tolkien, as an author, develop that theme in the text? How can we go deeper, beyond that headline of the Ring equals the dangers of absolute power? Good readers can look at a whole text from beginning to end and identify where the author purposefully chose words, included details, or directed action that develops or reveals the overall theme. It's not just that characters say, "Oh, no, the Ring's super-dangerous." In fact, I believe in "The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf says, "No, with that power, "I should have power too great and terrible. "And over me, the Ring could gain a power "still greater and more deadly. "Do not tempt me!" The characters say that, they do, but it's also about how they behave around the thing. It's how the plot is shaped around this object and how a group of people come together to identify this Ring as a dangerous, magical artifact that needs to be destroyed for the good of the world. It's not just dialogue. It's also descriptions by the author and actions taken by the characters. So let's go through some of the ways that an author can develop theme within a story, with the important caveat that you won't always be able to detect a theme in a text until you're already finished reading it for the first time. This, to me, is one of the great pleasures of rereading. You've already worked hard to get an understanding of the text, so now you can go back and pick up all the stuff you might not have noticed the first time. So one way to develop theme is through the repeated use of a symbol or an object. The Ring in "Lord of the Rings" is a great example because characters are always talking about it. But it could really be anything, a design, an object, an animal. Imagine a story about a child who wants to grow up to be an engineer that develops airplanes. And throughout this story, birds keep showing up, birds on the protagonist's windowsill, her favorite teacher's bird earrings, maybe she has a best friend named Robin. And from that, we can see the idea of flight is a theme in this story, and all of these bird-related things go back to this character's desire to take flight. Changes in setting are a fine way to develop themes. How is a location portrayed? How does it match with the way characters feel or behave when they appear in these locations? Imagine a character who desperately wants to be alone. So at a tense portion in the story, she flees to a distant mountaintop. When she gets there, what's the weather like? Is it cold, snowy, and forbidding on the mountain? Is it an active volcano, bubbling with lava? Is it clear, peaceful, full of snowdrops and mountain goats? What would an author be trying to say with those decisions? How should we, the reader, feel about that character's solitude? If it's snowy and forbidding, is it a symbol of the character's coldness, of their hardening up? Does the volcano reflect the character's explosive potential? Or does the beauty of the lonely mountaintop mean this was the right decision for the character to take? Dialogue that repeatedly references a similar idea can be a way to develop theme. When characters mention something a lot, it's probably because the author is thinking about it and maybe wanted to build it intentionally into the story. Imagine a teenager in Ancient Rome who's preoccupied with honor and his family name and how he's worried he won't live up to the achievements of his ancestors. If that's something that he's insecure about, he might think about it often or talk about the concept of honor or the social standing of his family. You can also see this presented as explicit lessons by a sage character, usually older and wise. Think of Moana's grandmother or of Yoda. They'll say something explicit like, "Go do the thing your heart wants, Moana," or, "Trust that the energy of the universe "will make you a really good space wizard, Luke." I'm paraphrasing here. Or think of Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," saying, "There's no place like home." She says it again and again. The words are so powerful that they're used as a magic spell. And words so powerful that they become magic is really just another way to say theme. It doesn't need to be said aloud to be thematic. Some of the most powerful moments in storytelling come from action, not just dialogue. Momentous character decisions, like Maui giving up his powers to save Moana or Harry Potter's climactic battle with Voldemort, are chock-full of themes, self-sacrifice, the power of love, the importance of honesty. Some of these themes can be expressed without speaking a single word. And I should be clear. Sometimes you need to finish the story before you can look back on it and understand how parts of it contribute to the theme. You might need to get some distance before you can see how all of the pieces fit together. If something really sticks with me, sometimes I like to go back and reread parts of a book once I've gotten a sense of its theme, to see how the author has threaded theme through the text. Now, if you look very closely at the videos I make here at Khan Academy, if you really squint your eyes and listen carefully, you'll notice that all of them share the same theme, which is you can learn anything. David out.