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What Does Your Family History Story Mean?

We have all read a book, put it down and thought I don’t get it. We’ve all walked out of a movie and looked at your better half in confusion and bewilderment “What the heck was that about?”  How these stories get made can sometimes leave us wondering.

However, the movies and books that leave you satisfied with a meaning or message, the book that resonates with you are usually destined to become blockbusters.

The difference between a story and a story that speaks to its reader can be summed up in one word THEME.

When telling a family history it is so easy to rely only on recounting the events of what happened in an ancestor’s life. However, if you can convey a message to your reader, a universal meaning then you have captured theme.  Theme is the meaning of your story.

The difference between a story that falls short and one that meets with a wide audience appeal is usually the result of theme. Regardless of what kind of life your ancestor lived, regardless of how different it may be from the reader’s life, if there is a meaning behind their story, a meaning that the average reader can relate to then your story is destined to resound with the reader.  

Theme is not necessarily your intention for writing the story, but rather the meaning of your story. The theme may be simple or complex; there may be a major theme with subsequent minor themes. However, most certainly since we are writing about the story of real people’s lives there undeniably will be a relevance to life, a theme.

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks sums it up best for me:

“Theme is the relevance of your story to life. To reality, as reflected in your fiction. Theme is live and hate, the folly of youth, the treachery of commerce, the minefield of marriage, the veracity of religion, heaven and hell, past and future, science vs. nature, betrayal, friendship, loyalty, Machiavellian agenda, wealth and poverty, mercy and courage and wisdom and greed and lust and laughter.
Theme is life itself, as manifested in our stories, as seen through our characters, and as experienced through our plots.”

Finding the Theme

Sometimes a writer can have a theme in mind when they start writing but not usually.  As you move through writing your family history, and you begin to see your ancestors and the truth behind their lives a theme will emerge.

Even if you have a theme when you begin you may find it growing deeper and richer as you write.  There may be many levels of meaning to your theme from when you first conceived it until the time you finish your story.

Ask yourself a few questions to help you discover the theme of your family history story.

1.       Why do I want to write this particular family history?
2.       What emotions do I feel when I think about my ancestor’s story?
3.       What do I want to show about my ancestor’s lives?
4.       Why did I choose a particular ancestor to feature, what does this ancestor represent to me?
5.       What is the meaning behind your ancestor’s life?

Once you have uncovered your theme you may have to go back and restructure your story, focusing in on the theme.  This might mean removing irrelevant stories or scenes.  You may have to reshape the story.  You will want to look at the plot, characters, the tone and atmosphere and even the setting are all elements that aid you in expressing the theme of your story.  If you have done your job, all readers should be able to verbalize and feel the same theme. If they pick up on different themes you need to drill it down some more.

How to Articulate Your Theme

You can express your theme in very specific ways, through dialogue and thought, characters, actions, motifs, atmosphere, and symbols.  A combination of these elements can help you to communicate the theme of your story.

 Full Circle Moment 

The last paragraph is what I call the full circle moment and is very important to theme. It is here that the theme resonates the strongest.  Concluding with an ancestor’s realization of the meaning behind of their life, this is great moment for a direct quote taken from interviewing an ancestor or a quote from a diary or letters.  Finishing with an image or symbol is also a way to conclude your family history story while demonstrating the meaning and significance of your ancestor’s life.  After reading the last paragraph, the reader should feel content and satisfied, with a clear awareness of what your family history story means.