Updated: Dec 25, 2022
If you were to write a story about a fisherman who, after a long string of bad luck, goes out by himself and catches a giant marlin and then has trouble bringing it home, your story may get some notice. But, if you weaved into that same story poignant themes that resonated through the tale and across the world, you would have a hit. This is what Ernest Hemingway did in his novella, The Old Man and the Sea.
He used sentences and phrases that intensify his story’s themes so his readers will feel from within great lessons.
Some of the themes within Hemingway’s story are:
Bear hardship without complaint
Providence does not define a man
A man goes down swinging, no matter his age
Persevere regardless of the tribulations which befall
None of these ideas are specifically stated in the story. Nowhere are the words “Heroism” or “Loneliness.” Messages appear incrementally and organically for the reader to discover on his or her own.
The plot itself presents themes, such as an old man trying to prevail on the ocean for many days (perseverance) while he draws inspiration from a famous baseball player (heroism). The old man himself is a mentor to a young boy who assists him in other parts of the story (more heroism).
The old man’s spoken words strengthen the story's themes:
“But a man is not made for defeat.” (perseverance)
“I wish I could show him what sort of man I am.” (loneliness)
“Fish,” he said softly, aloud, “I’ll stay with you until I am dead. (perseverance)
“It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact.” (luck does not define you)
His thoughts provide more themes:
He is my brother. But I must kill him and keep strong to do it. (respect nature, but remain victorious over it to survive)
The jellyfish’s iridescent bubbles were beautiful. But they were the falsest thing in the sea and the old man loved to see the big sea turtles eating them. (the fate of vanity)
Wiggle the spider web
After you have created a vibrant tale and infused it with stirring themes, there is one task yet to be done before it becomes a masterpiece. You must wiggle the spider web.
When something touches a spider web, the entire web vibrates at once. Your story must spread elements across a wide spider web. A touch to any of these elements is felt by all of them. Every word and thought must uphold and strengthen every other part of your tale, and in return be upheld and strengthened by every other element.
Pieces of your themes must be touched upon repeatedly—wiggled—so your readers will central their minds on your story's messages.
Every part of your story must repeatedly touch and be touched by every other part of your story.
If a loaf of bread is mentioned in your story that is never mentioned again and is not effected by other parts of your story, then that loaf of bread must be removed from your story. If it isn't wiggled again, get rid of it.
Your story’s spider web must be wiggled regularly so your tale remains a cohesive whole in your readers’ minds, one word at a time.