A theme is a one-line explanation of your story.. Every story should have one because our stories are about something.
When I say should, I mean that this isn’t always the case. Especially so for beginner writers, who may not know, that the theme carries the story. Or even those who’ve been writing for years may not be aware of the importance of a theme.
And a theme is important.
A theme is what will keep you on track as you write the story.
What happens if you write without a theme in mind? Two things…
1. You stray from the subject
2. You write more than one story.
Let me give you an example of a story written with a theme in mind…
The theme to a story I once wrote was, ‘Vanity Leads To Destruction.’
Very briefly, this story is about a female character that believed herself to be so beautiful, in the end she lost everything.
Writing this theme on a post-it note and sticking it on my computer, I was always reminded that my story had to revolve around this theme. Having a theme helped me stick to the story I had intended on writing and not stray from it – not even a little. It also helped me to focus only on what was essential to my story.
So according to my theme, ‘Vanity Leads To Destruction’…
• Every action my character performed was to show her vanity
• Her goals sprung from her vanity
• What motivated her was her vanity
• Her words (dialogue) showed her vanity
• How she handled situations showed her vanity
• The interaction with other characters showed her vanity
• The conflict was a result of her vanity
• The highest peak in my story, the climax, showed an intense moment of whether her goal would be met (whether her vanity would work for, or against her)
• And the ending? The ending showed how she was led to destruction because of her vanity
By following my theme, everything in my story was precise.
If I showed my character not being vain in any instance, then I would’ve strayed from my theme.
Does your story have a theme?
If you didn’t consciously write with a theme in mind, then your story won’t have one. Chances are, your story isn’t focused. But then again there is the other possibility… At times we fluke things.
Perhaps without consciously knowing, a theme is running through your story.
Check your story to see if this is the case. If it is, are you sticking to the theme?
If you find that some parts of your story are straying from the theme, those parts will need to be changed to accommodate the theme.
Now the other possibility…
You don’t have a theme and none is running through your story. That’s okay. We can still save it. Read through your story and see what it’s about. Then come up with the most appropriate theme to it - A theme that makes sense yet won’t mean too much work to change the story.
Rewrite those parts that don’t accommodate the theme.
It is easier if we come up with a theme while we are at the plotting stage. It saves all that rewriting but not to worry… You won’t make the same error again in your next story!
Does Your Theme Contain Character, Conflict, Resolution?
For a theme to work and the story, which will revolve around the theme, it has to contain three things…
What’s the reason for this?
If your theme doesn’t contain these three essential elements, then you won’t be writing a proper short story. It might turn out to be an essay instead.
You can’t achieve emotional depth. Readers become engrossed in stories because of the characters in them. They either become the character (sympathize), or read about an interesting person (empathize).
Emotional depth is achieved when readers use their imagination and senses and/or experiences to live the story through the characters.
Your story will be boring. Why? Without conflict, something to stir things up, nothing happens. And a story, in which nothing happens, is one not worth writing about.
Your characters don’t lead carefree lives. Well, not in the instance you are writing about them. In that part of their lives they are faced with a problem. They want something and can’t get it because of the conflict, which is preventing them to do so.
And it’s that conflict and the struggle the characters has to undergo that keeps us readers interested and in suspense. Will the character succeed or won’t he? And when is this all going to happen? And how is it all going to happen?
Something that starts has to finish, one way or another.
Once you have created great characters, which the reader will come to care about, and you have placed them in conflict, that conflict at the end of your story has to be resolved. The characters will achieve their goals or they won’t.
That doesn’t matter.
You can end your story as you please and as it suits your story – but you have to end it. Ending the story means resolving the conflict.
Does your theme contain character, conflict, resolution?
Is The Theme Running Throughout The Story?
It’s no use coming up with a theme and not using it. Short stories are about a character or characters and about one situation or happening in those characters’ lives.
By concentrating on that one thing, our stories are focused. You will need to focus to maintain a level of intensity and sticking to the theme enables us to do that.
Let me give you an example…
Let’s say your story is about a young man (main character) who is being harassed (one situation) by the school bully (secondary character.) Let’s place the setting in grade school.
Now if we focus on that single happening and in our story say….
• What started the bullying
• What the main character felt, confronted with this problem
• What the main character did to overcome this problem
• If the main character won or lost against the bully…
Then we’ll be focusing only on that incident which is what our story is about.
Now if we took that situation further and in our story said that this character grew up and was bullied in high school and then later by a colleague…
That will be listing three incidences, which will weaken our story because we are not focusing.
Remember a short story is short.
We don’t have too much leeway to develop too many things so we have to be selective with what we choose to concentrate on. Short stories work best when they span over a short period of time.
Like in scenario one, this incident might span over a couple of days or a week, where in the second scenario, it spans over a number of years. The shorter the time span the more intense the story.
Your theme should begin at the beginning, run through the middle and conclude in the end. So let’s put a theme to the first scenario…
‘Strength Comes From Within And In The End Prevails.’
How can I have this theme running throughout my story?
Initially I will portray my main character as a weak individual. But I will excuse his weakness, by saying perhaps that…
“He comes from a closely knit, loving family and initially doesn’t know how to deal with such a conflict.”
As my story progresses, I will gradually show his inner strength and I will do this through incidences, which will show his maturity, like…
• He helps out by caring for his younger siblings and contributes with the housework.
• I can show him cutting the neighbors’ lawns or delivering newspapers before school to show that he contributes economically too.
If I do this, my ending (when he wins against the bully) will be believable because I have developed his inner strength. My theme would have run its course.
Is your theme running throughout the story?
Have You Tested Your Theme Against Your Plot?
How we usually begin the preparation stage in the writing process is…
We think of an idea for a story
We think of a suitable theme
Once we come up with a theme and we begin plotting, we have to see how the theme and the plot match up. Sometimes as we plot we find that the theme we had initially chosen won’t do.
‘Winning The Lottery Makes Your Life Easier’
Plotting with this theme in mind, we have our characters pay off all their debts, go on endless shopping sprees, go on holidays, etc. We find though that this won’t make a very interesting story. So we spice it up, adding to the theme or coming up with a different one.
“Winning The Lottery Makes Your Life Easier But Everything Has Its Price.”
We can show the characters living the life of the rich for a while before they realize that being wealthy has its problems too...
• They now fear for their safety
• Their friends and relatives are constantly harping at their door asking for assistance
This second scenario creates more problems for the characters, so it’s more interesting for us readers.
The preparation stage is there to prepare before you write. It’s our workbench where we figure everything out. We test our theme, we test our plot and once everything passes the test, then we begin writing.
You can change the theme as many times as you feel it needs changing, while you are in the preparation stage.
The main thing is to make your story interesting.
It’s not a good idea to keep changing the theme when writing the story because then you will have to keep changing the story. This means rewriting.
Figure everything out then write.
Have you tested your theme against your plot?
Does Each Element of Your Story Further The Theme?
Whichever theme you choose, all the elements, which make up your story, dialogue, conflict, scenes, etc should be written with the theme in mind.
Your theme should progress the story.
If you find that anything in your story doesn’t progress it, it should be cut when you are in the editing stage.
Before we see an example of elements written with a theme in mind, let’s think of a theme and a story….
The theme is…
‘Arrogance Leads To Humiliation’
Very briefly, this story is about a character that believes he is better than his colleagues.
His goal is to get promoted to a managerial position. What will prevent him from reaching his goal, is the fact that management are aware of his arrogance and they don’t believe, with his attitude, he is the right person to manage the staff.
To meet his goal, the character will take on more work than he can handle. He will do this to prove to management, that he is the right man for the job. But in the end, he will make a grave error and his arrogance will lead him to humiliation.
Now let’s take a look at the elements of this story…
The character’s dialogue will show his arrogance, by the tone of his voice and the words he chooses to express himself.
I will show my character is arrogant by the way I describe him and from how other characters see him.
I will explain what makes him think he is better than everyone else.
I will state his goal and show how it arises from the fact that he believes himself better than everyone else.
The setting is going to be in an office environment. I can show his arrogance through the setting by perhaps describing the contents of his desk (trophies) and his desk area in general (diplomas on the walls.) etc.
The conflict will come from himself. He is the one that creates it by doing and saying things, which create dislike.
The climax is the highest point in my story where the conflict and his arrogance will come to their peak. Here we will see how he tries to overcome the conflict and reach his goal by taking on more work.
I will end my story with my character’s humiliation. He takes on more work and makes an error in judgement. Which not only prevents his promotion but also gets him fired.
My theme here would have run its course.
Does each element of your story further your theme?
Can Your Theme Be Proved In Your Story?
Your theme has to be something you can prove in your story - It doesn’t have to be a universal truth. This means that your theme doesn’t have to be something that happens in real life all the time (providing our logic can accept it, in order for us to believe it).
Whatever story you choose to write, be it a contemporary or a story which requires elements of fantasy such as in horror, science fiction etc… the events of that story have to appear logical.
What is not logical and consequently not believable is…
A character that has no knowledge of computers and overnight becomes a computer whiz
A car that goes over a cliff, bursts into flames and the character manages to escape unscratched
These are not believable because they can’t and don’t happen in real life and our logic doesn’t accept them.
Your theme will be believed when you prove it (providing of course you can.) Let’s see how you can do that.
We’ll start with a theme…
“Hard work leads to success.’
Our story is about a character whose goal is to reach a managerial position within the company that he works. For the reader to see how the character will reach his goal I will show him…
Working long hours
Using his initiative
And all those qualities, in the end, will secure him the promotion he has been aiming for.
So my theme here will be proved that ‘Hard work leads to success’ because my character succeeds in the end.
From the examples I have given so far, you may have noticed that my stories end on a happy note. Yours don’t have to. The ending will depend on the story you are writing and how you, the writer, prefers to end it.
I could have done the reverse with this theme. I could have said,
“Hard work doesn’t lead to success.”
My story will be the same but in the end I will have the character missing out on the promotion. Both themes will be proved because I have proved them in my story.
Any theme can work in a story providing you can prove it.
Have you proved your theme?
Is The Theme Reinforced In The Ending?
By now you should have an idea that your theme has to reach its conclusion just as your story does. But our theme has to do more than reach its conclusion – it has to be reinforced in the end and by doing this, it will strengthen all that we have said in our story.
So if we took a theme…
‘Persist and in the end you will succeed’
And I showed my character working hard to achieve his goals, persisting, even if at times those goals seemed unreachable, then I would’ve showed that all his hard work did pay off in the end. By having him succeed, it would reinforce the theme that had been running throughout the story.
Let me further illustrate this point by giving you a more detailed example.
The theme is…
‘Persistence pays off’
The story is about a writer, who has been writing short stories for years, but has not succeeded in getting published yet.
In your story you will show his persistence with…
• How he makes time to write, even when his day is already full by his full time job and other responsibilities
• How his every thought is consumed by his writing
• Showing him sending story after story to publishers
• How he doesn’t let the fact that his family believe he’s wasting his time, distract him from his purpose
Simultaneously I will place him in win and lose situations - Losing when his stories are rejected - Winning when he receives encouraging notes from publishers.
And in those instances where he is winning, I will show gradually that resistance is starting to pay off, till I reach the end of my story where I will have one of his stories accepted for publication and thus bring my theme of ‘Persistence pays off’ to its conclusion.
By showing the reader how persistence is paying off, I would have reinforced the theme in my ending.
Is your theme reinforced in the end of your story?
About the author:
Besides his passion for writing, Nick Vernon runs an online gift site where you will find gift information, articles and readers funny stories. Visit http://www.we-recommend.com
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