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Lesson I: Theme, Narrative and Atmosphere



Everyone has the urge to tell stories, whether it is something to tell your friends or writing a novel. And as some, you might experience a couple of problems when sitting down and not being able to get past typing “chapter 1”.
So here’s a little help which might get you started, and hopefully give you the push you need to further develop your story as a beginning writer.




Pick a perspective


The basics of any story are theme and narrative. Every story has one. Whether it is a romantic novel, a heroic war story or a thrilling detective.
It is important to decide the theme of your story before starting with the story itself. Normally, it might seem natural, but there are several elements which are influenced by theme.
For instance: the perspective is an important feature to keep in mind. There are three commonly used perspectives, which I'll be discussing:
-First person
-Third person
-Omniscient narrative




First person



Drawing from games, everyone knows what first person means: through the eyes.


Some people feel more comfortable writing a story in first person, focusing on the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist to propel the story.
This perspective is ideal when a story focuses on this too, and will often be used in psychological narratives, most commonly found in thrillers.
A first person perspective is often paired with a limited narrative: the narrator knows what the protagonist knows, because the protagonist IS the narrator. This reinforces several elements of a thriller, such as the tension not knowing what is going on in the background.
A drawback of a first person perspective is that other characters are more remote from the narrator. A side character’s feelings can’t be thoroughly explained since the narrator has no way of knowing exactly what is going on in that character’s head.


In short, pro's:
-Focus on thoughts
-Complete immersion of the reader


-Limited narrative capabilities
-Little to no insight into side characters


Third person


Again with the games: third person, better known as over-the-shoulder


Another narrative form is the third person. This is like the first person, except that the protagonist is addressed by name or he/she.
In this perspective, the focus is still on the protagonist. This also means the reader can be kept in the dark on some details the protagonist doesn’t know about yet.


Using a third person perspective can be more useful when you want to focus on the environment more that you could in a first person story. One could highlight features the protagonist can’t see, or explain actions performed by side characters that the protagonist can’t see.


In short, pro's:
-More focus on the environment
-More focus on other characters


-Less focus on the thoughts and inside of the protagonist
-Less immersion into the main character


Omniscient narrative


How useful games are: omniscient narrative is best compared to strategy/tactics games, where you have full overview and control.


The final perspective I’ll be discussing is the omniscient narrative. In this perspective, the narrator is completely separated from the protagonist. The narrator knows everything that happens, including the emotions, thoughts and motives of side characters.


This perspective is best used when having multiple people heavily influencing the storyline. Their actions and motives can be discussed in detail without breaking perspective.
A drawback is that this way of telling a story might be slightly immersion-breaking, since the protagonist and the narrator are separated most in this form.


In short, pro's:
-The reader knows a lot of details about every character and location


-Little to no immersion into the main character
-There is little mystery to be had if the reader knows everything that is going on already




A story set in the medieval period should always have a medieval story, not something which might as well happen today.




Another important feature to keep in mind when deciding a theme is the way it influences or is influenced by atmosphere. Atmosphere is determined by several narrative factors, such as:


-Location and local culture
-Period in time
-Current circumstances
-Character traits


For instance, a story about a young girl in medieval France during the 100-years War will have a vastly different atmosphere than a single mother in modern-day Los Angeles.
A couple of things to keep in mind when working with atmosphere:


-Atmosphere should reinforce your theme.
-The story should determine the atmosphere, not the writer.
-Make sure your story and all above factors make a match.


Recommended Comments

Nicely written but already talking about themes in Part 1?

I'm not denying the importance of a strong theme but a theme should arise naturally from a strong conflict. You can't just choose it as you can't just choose an atmosphere.

I think before choosing a theme it's important to understand where does plot come from and how conflict is created. Themes are important but they can't drive a plot by their own.


I don't see blogs like this often enough on this website so I'm looking forward for the next chapter.

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@amid this blog is written from my own experience and preferences, and I usually pick a theme and let the conflict match the theme. That way you can write a story with the theme you want and start developing other aspects from there on out. Different people have different preferences, but that should go without saying ;)

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And then there's second person (using "you" instead of "I" to refer to the protagonist), approximating the immersion of first person, but with enough narrative freedom to give some of the scope of third person (but not too much...). Some people do not like second person narrative, but some stories work better in second person.

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@sen4mi yes, some stories use a second person perspective, but not nearly as often as the other three I've discussed, so I didn't put it up here.

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Nice. Good work.I'd like to offer a counterpoint to one thing you said, though:


A story set in the medieval period should always have a medieval story, not something which might as well happen today.
I'm not sure that I'd agree with that "always". A strong contrast between setting and theme or atmosphere can result in some very good story telling.For instance the "Riariya" books set what are essentially modern crime capers in a mediaeval/fantasy setting. A lot of Jerry Pournelle's SF uses a feudal culture and the themes and atmosphere can vary from dark ages top modern military. The magnificent seven was a samurai story taken and set in the wild west.What I do think is important is consistency. If you want to have slick, wiseass, cyberpunky kids as heroes in a low-tech fantasy setting, that's fair enough. Just establish it from the start and keep it consistent. Suddenly changing the tone halfway through a narrative can be really jarring. Of course, if it comes as a result of an "everything changes" moment where the reader finds out that things are not as they appear, that can be ok too. The danger is in randomly changing tone and style without good reason.
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@DocClox I agree, sometimes this contrast can work out very well, but you'd need a lot of experience beforehand in other aspects to make it work. This blog is primarily aimed at beginners who could use a couple of tips to get started. I may get to more advanced techniques later on, but until then I'll mostly post for people who are just starting.

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