Recurring themes

Hey all,

Today I wanted to shift us back to talking about writing, specifically in talking about recurring themes and elements.

One thing I really enjoy about following any creator over time is to see the iterations of their work. The best example I can think of to demonstrate this is George Miller’s Mad Max movie franchise. If you’ve seen them, you know that the first one, well, it’s not great. It mostly looks like they were filming in somebody’s backyard and the whole post-apocalyptic thing doesn’t really come through. But as you move on to the next one, you see Miller build on those fantastical elements a lot more, and by the time you get to Mad Max: Fury Road, you get the sense that he’s finally arrived at the destination of that original vision, that he’s finally managed to match what he had in his mind to what’s on the screen. Each time, he builds on the world, using more experience as well as increased budget and technological advances to bring to fruition things we saw just as seeds in the first film.

Another example, taking a slightly different approach, is Hayao Miyazaki, mastermind behind Studio Ghibli’s greatest hits. His iterations come more in the sense of themes, most notably in anti-military and environmentalist hues. Even some of his designs carry over from movie to movie, the same cannons in Castle in the Sky showing up on Howl’s castle in Howl’s Moving Castle.

Howls Moving Castle
Glad to see this old gem from college still has its uses. Copyright of Howl’s Moving Castle does not belong to me.

I could go on, but for the sake of brevity, I digress.

The thing I love most about this is how reflective it is of the creative process. For Miller, it’s a chance to see someone grow in the mastery of their craft, refining their vision over literal decades of time and effort to reach an (at least semi-)final goal. For Miyazaki, it’s a rehashing of concepts, looking at the same ideas over and over again through differing angles and lenses. Creatives grow by making art, after all, and it seems both of these heavy hitters are no exception.

As a fellow creator, it makes me hopeful. Seeing how both have grown or just being inspired by the quality of their art makes me want to keep pushing forward too.

It’s also a useful tool for self-reflection, and, once you’ve locked onto it, for marketing.

For example, there are a few wells I know I frequently draw on when crafting my own tales:

  1. Antagonistic partners
  2. Angry heroes
  3. Grace

Of the five books I’ve written, I think I have the first one in all five, the second one in three, and the last one in three. And that’s just to name a few of my watering holes.

But what does that knowledge mean both for me and the dreaded M word?

Well, for one thing, it shows me what I like. I love biting banter between two people forced to work together and the drama of an angry person forced to yield. I am indebted to the extent of my life to the One who showed grace to me, and am therefore in love with (and bewildered and confused and baffled by) that concept as well. Knowing that about myself is helpful because it shows me what kind of writer I am, what my readers and I can expect from the stories that I tell. If voice can be described in adjectives, well, I think it can also, to a certain degree, be defined by recurring elements or themes.

This is also important because it shows me what I want to understand. Like Miyazaki parsing out the consequences of man’s violence or N.D. Wilson’s constant quests against the forces of evil, recurring themes can show us what we are passionate to explore, what we as people want to show or puzzle out. Writers tend to camp out on these kinds of things, so it’s helpful to know what element of our world we’re trying to show or explore. Social justice? Race? Maybe just a good old-fashioned adventure? What do I want to share with my reader? What experience am I trying to build? Why? Asking myself these questions can make a huge difference not only in how I write, but how I promote it.

Which brings me to my last perk, which is that knowing what my recurring themes are helps me to know where I fit in the larger scheme of the writing world. If I know that romance or inner city crime aren’t the main focus of what I’m exploring, I don’t have to worry about trying to cram things like that in–or market to people who only want that kind of story. If I know friendships and family are more my bag, I can hone in on that. As I said, the kind of stories you write can be as much a part of your voice as the tone you use to write them, and therefore are a crucial part of what makes any one of us unique. And as we all know, knowing your niche is key to selling your work.


So, what about you? Do you have any recurring themes or elements in your work? Can you think of examples of other artists who do? How have you used them to focus your work, process, or marketing, and in what ways has that been helpful or not? Let me know in the comments below, and if you want more content like this (including a follow up to this post on the potential downsides of recurring themes), follow me here or on social media using the sidebar links.

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