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I'm writing a short story

From what I understand, the theme is the message that I want to send across. Akin to Beauty and the Beast's "Don't judge a book by it's cover" theme, or "Opposites attract."

I have a story I am trying to write. Just a character story about to friends. I'm not sure what the theme is. I know the beginning, middle, and end. I know the setting, characters, the problem, motivations, and the result, but not the message I'm sending across. I just wanted to write a story about these two friends.

Do I need a defined theme to complete a story?

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Theme is not necessarily a message. It is more the thing that you are exploring. If the theme is love, for instance, you don't have to take a position on love, you don't have to have a covert message, like "love hurts" or "love sucks". The theme is love simply because the story is about love, is an exploration of what love it like.

The great privilege of a storyteller is not to have to draw a conclusion. The job of the story is to give the reader an experience, an experience that is, at some level, human, and, at some level, true. As with first hand experiences, it can be left to the reader to draw their own conclusions (if they are the sort of person who is minded to interpret everything they experience, rather than just being content to experience it).

Some people do like stories that reach conclusions, that express positions, but generally only if those positions happen to match their own. A story that resists the urge to take a position may be much more widely enjoyed (and therefore much more influential). But a position is not a theme. Love is a theme. Love sucks is a position.

If you have a coherent characters, setting, and plot, you have a theme. Character, setting, and plot would not be coherent if they did not have a unifying thread running through them, and that thread is theme. In other words, you don't have to add theme to story because if you have story you already have theme.

Finally, be wary of categories of analysis when you are writing. The tools of dissection are not the tools of creation. The tools of analysis are not the tools of synthesis. Storytelling is first and foremost an act of imagination -- of seeing a thing whole and describing it. Anything can be analysed down into component parts, but that does not mean that it was built or imagined that way.

See it whole. Write it down. Leave the analysis to others.

  • Thanks so much Mark! You're always helpful here. Theme is something I've always been slightly confused about, so thanks for clearing that up. I like that you pointed out that theme doesn't have to have a stance. – Dylan Beck Apr 12 '17 at 20:10
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    "The great privilege of a storyteller is not to have to draw a conclusion." Exactly. What could the theme of A Song of Ice and Fire possibly be? "Don't get attached"? – Lauren Ipsum Apr 12 '17 at 21:09
  • @LaurenIpsum wouldn't "Don't get attached" be a stance and not a theme? Perhaps simply "attachement" (or the cliché, "love" again) then? – storbror Apr 13 '17 at 1:31
  • @storbror Sorry, it's a joke. I'm pointing out that many, many characters who would seem to have Plot Armor have died, to the shock of the audience. So if you become fond of a character, the idea is "don't get too attached to any one person, because Martin will kill his characters indiscriminately." – Lauren Ipsum Apr 13 '17 at 9:59
  • @LaurenIpsum Oh well.. I considered that it was a joke, but for the sake of enlightenment and taking comments seriously, I made a fool of myself. Good joke. No problem ;) – storbror Apr 13 '17 at 10:08
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I just wanted to write a story about these two friends.

So, maybe that is your theme. That friendship is beautiful, rich, enduring; that friends help each other through obstacles, or despite them; that friendship is more powerful than X or Y.

It's a perfectly legitimate thing to write about. If your story has a beginning, middle, and end, with an obstacle which is overcome, you have an actual plot — it's not even like you just have a character study. (Which is also fine, but a different thing.)

A theme doesn't have to be an Aesopian punchline. It can be something very simple and straightforward. There's nothing wrong with that.

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It seems you confuse "theme" and "conclusion." Your title asks about a theme, but you give conclusions as examples.

A story MUST have a theme. It may have several, or it may be a theme so convoluted it's hard to spot it, but it will be there. Travel, self-discovery, self-improvement (or opposite), love, greed, morality versus survival, and so on. Without a theme, you'll have a word noodle, not a story. This rule can't be broken thoroughly. It can be subverted - a bait-and-switch, when you suddenly completely change the theme halfway through the story, or show that the main theme was a big red herring, and the secondary "underdog" theme one is the one that really matters. This can be done to a great effect if done right. Nevertheless a theme is always there.

A story SHOULD have a conclusion. It's a rule of the kind that exists to be broken. And as with these rules, you need to know what you're doing when you're breaking it.

A straightforward story will go from beginning to a conclusion. All threads closed, all implications explained, all questions answered and all opinions expressed.

A more challenging story will imply the conclusion. Instead of stating it, it just sets up the final scene in such a way that the conclusion becomes obvious. You don't need to be told "crime doesn't pay," you're instead shown how the super-scoundrel finds himself losing everything he held precious, having only the loot from the heist, which now is useless.

An even more challenging story will ask a question about the conclusion. Instead of setting up the final scene with a single clear outcome, it sets it up as a question: Was it worth it? What is the right course of action? How to get out of THIS paradox? This is a story that is meant to start an internal discussion, it doesn't present the solution, but requests it.

A story which is not that challenging, but enticing will distance the conclusion, be open-ended. It sets up the scene, the actors, and leaves the conclusion implied and distant - it breaks off at a point where a bad sequel would begin.

But there are stories without a conclusion. And they are invariably bad.

I finish such a story and... "Okay, so that happened. And?" - the events are of no consequence, no effect. There's no food for thought, no resolution, nothing to grasp.

When I was 13 or so, I had a class-mate, Eva. She was a short girl with dark hair, rather plain-looking, always meek and silent. Kids didn't really pick on her because she was not some kind of loner, just staying in the background, not taking initiative. I don't think I ever saw her to take up any task.

And one day our class was to organize and run a small snack shop for other kids during some event, overseen by the teacher. I was assigned as the shopkeeper, along with several other kids. Eva was doing something else, I really don't remember what. That day as I worked, laboriously handling the candy and counting money, it was a real eye-opener about the amount of work. We turned up a pretty decent profit which went towards a trip to the cinema though, and in general there were no incidents.

The end.

See what I mean?

  • Thanks a bunch. I guess I was confused about the definitions of the two. Thanks for helping to clear it up. – Dylan Beck Apr 13 '17 at 13:07
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A trusted teacher of mine said this about theme (paraphrased):

Your job as author is not to worry about theme. Your job is to just move your characters from place to place. Theme is the readers' job. Just write your story.

The point is that your themes will emerge as you write, without your thinking about them. In fact, in some stories I've read, the author should have thought a lot less about theme since it comes across way too heavy on the page.

That advice has served me well. The only time I ever think about the themes in my own work are in retrospect, when people ask what kind of stories I write. "Um, I dunno. Let's see..."

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All good stories have a theme, or so it's said. A Theme doesn't mean a moral or a message. It could be something internal or profound. You should be able to see one visualize after the story is written. However, if you don't have a particular thing you want to say, then don't worry about it. The audience or reader will lend its own interpretation of a theme.

More importantly, what's your story about? If it's just a conversation between two friends, why do we care? Is there conflict between them? Is there a goal that both of the friends want and is there a need? It can get boring real quick if you don't have answers to these questions.

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