Every story which is true and beautiful and worthwhile coalesces around a solid core. It's like the compact iron ball at the core of the earth. All the other geological layers of story rest on top of it. Without a solid core, the story is hollow, 2-dimensional, and readers can sense that. The story will be boring and forgettable.
What constitutes that core may be differ from author to author, and story to story. For me, I have found that the best core is theme. I know the theme of my story before I even begin it. Other writers may have a different style; they let the theme emerge organically from the writing and surprise them after the fact. Probably those writers have more natural talent than I do. I have to sweat for my themes.
In The Unfinished Song, I have nested themes. There is the theme for the overall series, which is about what price we are willing to pay for creativity (in all its forms). Each trilogy has a theme, and then each book has a theme.
I was discussing this with another writer the other day, and she asked, "But you write fantasy, not great fiction, so how could your books have themes?"
Setting aside the unintended dig at an entire genre--as one must if one is a genre writer, since it happens all the time--yes, fantasy books certainly have themes. Lord of the Rings? Could you get more themalicious?
But what is a theme? Too often, it's something vague, like "Love conquers all" or "War is hell." Trying to stick flavorless mumble-mumble like that in the center of your story, and it slips away, like a goldfish flopping out of your palm.
So I have some tricks.
TIP #1 - USE THE CONCRETE TO ILLUSTRATE THE ABSTRACTI like to hook my theme on a metaphor. It might be a private metaphor that I use to guide my writing without putting it (directly) in the story, or it might be a living metaphor that appears as a character, scene or object in the book. Usually, I do both.
For instance, in the second trilogy of The Unfinished Song (Root, Wing and Blood), I have a character called Mayara. She is an Aelfae whose family, whose entire clan, was slaughtered by humans. Her own mother tore off her wings and buried them to disguise her as a human. The trick works; a human family finds her and, mistaking her for a human child, takes her in. Mayara is safe for the moment, but her goal is to dig up her wings and fly away as soon as she can.
On one level, Mayara's story is of safety (roots) vying with freedom (wings), the importance of being true to yourself vs. the living by the rules of others. (Her adopted mother constantly tells her, "Don't, don't, don't," and this, too, contrasts with the freedom she longs for.) The situation is complicated when a human man falls in love with Mayara. He tells her that his love is like a tree, with deep roots. And her own past is buried, her wings are subterranean, as roots of a tree are, so in flying away is she trying to be free of her past or to connect with her lost kin?
When I was a child, we used to sing a song in my fellowship, which inspired the images I chose for this part of the story:
Spirit of Life,
Come unto me,
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion,
Roots hold me close,
Wings set me free,
Spirit of Life,
Come to me, come to me.
This is the delightful thing of grounding themes in some gritty metaphor, a simple but strong image like buried wings. The mind loves these semi-conscious metaphors and wrestles with them, under the surface of the story. I have numerous characters, and they each have their subplots, but underlying metaphors link them together, sometimes in ways that are obvious and sometimes in ways that are meant to be ironic. For instance, although the image of flight is associated with freedom and independence in Mayara's story, in the main storyline, the enemy are Raptor Riders who ride enslaved avian shapeshifters. The link between freedom and flight is reversed. It is the great circle of living trees who protect the freedom of the Green Woods tribesfolk against their avian enemies, and when the trees are uprooted, it is a terrible loss.
TIP # 2 - USE REPETITION
One time is an incident. Twice is an accident. Three times is a pattern.
Your book will have many descriptions, physical objects, song lyrics, colors, tastes and scenes. The reader won't necessarily assume any of these have special importance unless you repeat an image in a new context.
The Hunger Games Trilogy makes use of several recurring images. One is the image of Katniss as the Girl On Fire. The other is the Mockingjay. She doesn't bury these symbols or try to hide them. The characters themselves are well aware of the symbols. Each of the characters consciously tries to manipulate the symbols for their own purposes.
For instance, Katniss' designers choose to dress her as the Girl On Fire to re-enforce one of the traditions of the Games, which is to show the contestants from District 12 as having something to do with coal. There's nothing subversive in this--at first. Just an innocent attempt to be showy, which is in keeping with the exploitive and sensationalized nature of the Games.
However, with ever repetition of the Girl On Fire symbol, the interpretation of it changes.The tyrannical President Snow fears the symbols will rouse the people to rebellion. The rebels are counting on it.
The Mockingjay symbol evolves throughout the trilogy in the same way.
TIP # 3 - BALANCE YIN AND YANGHave you ever read one of those Astrology Birthsigns descriptions of yourself that tell you, "You enjoy a good time with your friends, but sometimes you just like to be on your own." And you think: "Wow, it's like the astrologer knows me!" Of course, all that's happened is that the description has stated two opposite possibilities--and it usually fits, because most of us are not always one way or another.
Now, you don't want your novel to be as bland as a three line Daily Astrology reading for Gemini, but you can learn something important from this technique. Every yin has a little yang. Your theme will come across as deeper, more realistic and less preachy if you also consider the opposite.
Ask yourself, first of all what would constitute the opposite of your theme? If your theme is "loyalty to your friends is important" you might think that "betrayal is the way to get ahead" is the opposite. You might have a villain who believes in backstabbing his way to the top and a hero who is loyal to his friends.
But that's a bit shallow. It's more interesting to pit one great theme against another: "Loyalty to your friends is important" against, "sometimes you have to think for yourself." How do you balance those?
I'm entering the "middle muddle" of my twelve book series. This is a dangerous point for a long story-arc. It would be easy to "lose the plot." When I do find myself floundering, I return to the core: What are the important questions I want this story to ask? Not answer, so much; I don't know the answers. But ask. Every scene in the book, every one, relates to the overarching theme for the series, which is how can we live a creative life that is also a responsible life? How can we sacrifice ourselves for others yet be true to ourselves? This is the problem that Dindi faces, and it is also, in different way, the problem that Kavio faces, and the tragedy is that they have found different answers to a question to which there is no one right answer.