Theme and Vocation: The Heart of Your Story

It’s funny how life often tends to resemble some sort of serendipitous collision. I’m always amazed by how so many seemingly disparate elements of my day to day reality will suddenly coalesce, or how something I’ve read recently will reflect in a conversation I have with someone completely unrelated to that topic.

For example, I just got off the phone with my brother, who is studying as a seminarian, and we were talking about our respective vocations. Ordinarily, this would not seem to relate to my writing, but my conversation with him sparked a couple of thoughts about the concept of vocation and how important it is to writing.

Firstly, I was explaining to him how I am certain that I am called to be a writer since it has been with me from my infancy. I began reading earlier than most children, I have always possessed a verbose streak, and I even began making attempts at storytelling as soon as I was able to make some marks on a page. Throughout my childhood, I reveled in the fantasy worlds of the books I read, whether it was The Hardy Boys, Jules Verne’s classics 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days, Brian Jacques’ beloved Redwall series, or The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings when I was older. To put it simply, I have always wanted to share with other people the joy I experienced from reading.

As an extension of that desire, I admitted to my brother that even when I have gone for long stretches (even months at a time) where I do no creative writing, the nagging itch to write has always remained with me. In fact, I actually feel out-of-sorts and “off” when I don’t write, yet when I do make some progress on any WIP I have going, I feel more balanced and peaceful overall. You’d think that after such experiences, I would strive harder to actually live up to my vocation by making writing a higher priority, but unfortunately, writing countless term papers for school often leaves my brain devoid of any desire to write further. However, this realisation has inspired me to firm my resolution to make time regularly to write just for me, whether it’s blogging or working on a WIP.

Actually, today I was fortunate to have some time to myself, and I made some significant progress on The Shards– not by adding more prose to the draft, but by tackling a fundamental issue I had neglected: nailing my themes.

Theme is crucial to good storytelling. Ultimately, we tell stories to convey deeper truths about our own reality. Yes, we read books and watch movies to be entertained, but as a species, we humans have always told stories to inspire and encourage each other in the midst of a difficult existence. We don’t know how our own stories will end because we have not yet reached that point, but we draw courage and hope from the tales of heroes like ourselves whose endings we do know.

While no one likes a preachy tale, we reject stories that have no point, who serve no greater good than to pass a few of our already fleeting moments in this life. Rather, we hunger for stories that reassure our deeply held beliefs and confirm our own experiences. Theme is what you, as a writer have to say to your readers.

When you examine your themes, you can’t help but notice how they are tied to your characters’ own vocations. To be real and really resonate with your audience, your characters themselves must have their own vocations. For us to relate to them, they, too, must be inexorably drawn to a particular fulfillment or goal. When you know what your characters’ callings are, then you’re really getting to the heart of your story.

For a long time in my own life, I have focused on the logical progression of my actions. I am always holding myself above life, weighing my options, paralysed with incertitude, unsure of what I was truly called to and what I wanted to say.

Similarly, in my writing, I have focused far too much on plotting logically progressive events, hovering above the story instead of taking a chance and entering into it (including emotionally) which— more often than not— ended with me throwing up my hands in frustration and becoming stuck.

The key is to stop overanalysing life and to actually live it, including taking a calculated risk and staking yourself on a concrete claim.

Amor omnia vincit.

Hard work pays off.

“Even the smallest of us can change the course of the future.”

Suffering, far from destroying us, has the power to redeem us.

Etc.

So what if you’re wrong? There is no point to perpetually sizing up your options unless you eventually choose one of them. Why even tell a story unless you have something to say? And you’ll know what you want to say and how you want to say it when you realise your own vocation and those of your characters. Instead of a merely episodic series of events, now, you will have a story with heart and one which will, hopefully, resonate with the hearts of your audience, as well.

12 thoughts on “Theme and Vocation: The Heart of Your Story”

  1. For me its about perseverance, just keeping on going, no matter the circumstances, to stop would to be to become overwhelmed with reasons not to continue, so I just keep taking another step.

    1. Too often, I do stop and become overwhelmed, like you have said. It takes a lot of energy to get the literary engine started again, but if I can keep going like you say, it does become easier. Keep on keepin’ on!

  2. I can’t believe you got 123 comments on your muppet-character-post and only one on this one, which has so much more to say. I guess that’s what getting freshly-pressed does, and I did follow the flag on Freshly Pressed to get here, but still…

    Keep writing. Don’t stop; that’s the key. And if you’re someone who finds that you can’t stop writing, that’s how you know you’re a Writer.

    What you say about knowing your character’s calling resonates. When I think about the fiction project I’m working on, I realize that I’ve done that. I didn’t set out to do it, it just happened along the way. I think you’re onto something.

  3. Great thoughts on the vocation of writing, Ed. I believe very strongly that it is a sacred vocation, that by telling stories and caring for words we participate in that divine story which gives us our purpose.

    I, like you, have been a reader from an early age (we seem to share many of the same tastes), and writing has always come naturally, but I definitely find myself struggling with consistency. Each time I go away from it, though, I do find myself drawn back by a need, almost a thirst, to write. Beautiful thoughts; keep writing, please.

    1. Thank you, so much for the encouragement. I wholeheartedly agree about participating in our own divine story. As artists, we are essentially sharing in the creative nature of God, and every good story is but a reflection of our own lives’ story.

      It’s easier to keep writing when I have readers like you, so thank you, again.

  4. Good Post Ed, I particularly like that line “The key is to stop overanalysing life and to actually live it”. I can spend so much time worrying about all kinds of things, or even the opposite planning all these things. I should just get up and do them.

    A great encouragement and a little reprimand I once heard (two different sources) are what keep me going;
    1) just show up, every day, show up for your writing, it does not matter how much you do, just write and
    2) if you can’t write a hundred words every day you’re not a writer.

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  6. It’s really a nice and helpful piece of information. I’m satisfied that you just shared this useful information with us.
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