The real question should be: why wouldn’t you? You’ve spent the last year or two of your life carving a story out of thin air – when you weren’t writing it, you were thinking about it, dreaming about it. When you’d finished it you redrafted it, edited it, polished it, scrutinised it line by line and reworked every paragraph to make the rhythms sing. After all that effort and hard work, why wouldn’t you give your precious manuscript one final look-over? You may have missed an opportunity for improvement.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have a good idea of the subtext of your work before you finish the first draft, but more likely you’ll have been so preoccupied with getting the story down that deeper meanings will not even have been a concern. But once the story is down, why not take a look at the thing as a whole? You may find that your apocalyptic zombie novel is more than just about survival, or that your vampire hunter story has more going on than merely staking bloodsuckers. Whatever underlying theme you notice – even if it’s only a fragment of one – you owe it to yourself to bring it to the fore and let the reader see it too.
One of the best ways of highlighting theme is with the use of metaphors and symbolism. Here's a couple of examples, albeit from the movies:
Benjamin Button had an unfortunate condition: he was born old and grew younger every day – eventually dying as an infant. At first glance the story appears tragic, but is in fact a tale of optimism. Throughout the film a seemingly insignificant old gentleman tells us of his poor luck regarding lightning. He tells us of the seven times he has been struck, and by the end of the film we realise the old gent views these lightning strikes as a good thing: “God keeps reminding me I’m lucky to be alive.”
Now take Benjamin: If you count the meeting of his adoptive parents as one lightning strike, then there are a total of seven encounters that Benjamin has during his life – seven people who have a profound effect on him, whether the encounters are good or bad. These are Benjamin’s lightning strikes, and regardless of the way in which he entered and left this world, Benjamin had a full life in between. This metaphor becomes the beacon for the story’s theme: Life is a gift – Embrace life – whatever, it all carries the same message.
Walt Kowalski is a racist Korean War veteran who forms an unlikely friendship with a Hmong teenager (Thao) who tries to steal his prized Gran Torino. The friendship causes Walt to face his racism but also a dark memory from his war days. Throughout the film a local priest tries to get Walt to take confession, but Walt has no intention of airing his sins to a wet-behind-the-ears priest fresh out of catholic school. But when Walt decides to lay down his life to save Thao and his family, he takes the priest up on his offer, but only confesses to the most trivial of sins.
In their final scene together, Walt locks Thao in the basement to protect him, and it’s here, through the wire mesh of the basement door, that Walt confesses his darkest sins to the boy.
The symbolism of the screened door not only landmarks Walt’s confession by visually redefining the immediate surroundings as a confessional, but also gives weight to the confession itself, and by doing so clearly echoing the theme of the movie: Redemption.
Metaphors and symbolism are no substitute for good storytelling, and omitting them does not a schmuck of you make, but not taking a step back to see what you’ve written does.