Themes – Whisper or Scream?

   I loathe drunk driving. It’s a major issue for me, and I am very black and white on it. No one has the right to drink (take drugs or for that matter TEXT) before or while they are behind the wheel of a car. That car becomes a weapon much deadlier than a hand gun. Anyone who knows me knows that I have strong opinions, and if I’m asked I will not hesitate to share them. (Don’t ask if you don’t want to know.) For a writer this is a double-edged sword. Having strongly held convictions provides you with themes that you are passionate about. The other edge of that is the danger of preaching to the reader.

  While I was in the MFA program, I began a story with a teenage protagonist, and it became apparent rather quickly that the story was going to be about teenagers and driving under the influence. Half way in, I stopped and thought about this whole process. It would be very easy to preach to kids about the terrible dangers of drinking and driving. And the story would be totally ineffective. Besides, as the story progressed I began to realize the story the characters wanted to tell didn’t focus on that aspect of the issue. As a writer, that turned the story around and taught me a vital lesson about writing.

In order to tell the story, I had to 1.) empathize with someone who had done a horrible thing and 2.) I had to make it possible for the reader to accept the protagonist (even if they couldn’t like or forgive what he had done). Right. Well, it helps if the perpetrator is young as it’s easier to forgive someone for being young and immature. However, I made that harder by making the outcome of the crime devastating to multiple families and a small college town. How the heck was I going to accomplish it within those constraints?

Again, it came down to the characters. A character who has less reason to accept the protagonist than anyone and NO reason to forgive him, steps in and plays a key role in the young man’s healing and acceptance of his crime. The end result made the story a tale of grace and forgiveness as much as it was a tale of a tragic error of judgment. It was not a morality play preaching to kids about drinking and driving,  but a story of the power of forgiveness in people’s lives, no matter what needed to be forgiven.

What we need to remember as writers is that a theme whispered can be more effective than one screamed. If handled with a light touch, it should linger like a gentle perfume long after the person has left the room. The comments I received on the story when it was published were verification that I had accomplished my goal.

One lesson learned, so many more to come.

The story, Branded in Gray, was featured in the January issue of A Fly in Amber.


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