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It seems like in some stories, you can feel the theme pervading through every element. In other stories, you don't know what you're reading about until the very last line.

I'd guess I lean on the side of a bit more obvious than not, but how do I make sure that I'm not beating the reader over the head with my ideas?

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Personally, I think the theme does not have to be obvious at all, or ever stated. It just needs to be consistent. For example, if there is some life philosphy in your story, "love will triumph", then make sure love does indeed triumph, in some way or another, and a lack of it or hate or greed does not triumph in the end.

Don't tell us the theme, show us the consequences or ramifications of your idea for the theme.

Many stories achieve commercial success without making their theme explicit, or if they do state it explicitly, it was offhand enough I didn't connect it as such. The theme is satisfying not because we know what it is, but because it causes character's stories to resonate with each other, if it bends all their arcs in similar and consistent patterns.

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I've seen advice to make sure the theme is influencing every step because your story will be stronger as a result.

The beta reads I have received so far almost all revolve around 'I don't understand why this is happening ...' even for things I felt were unnecessary to the story or blindingly obvious.

My sense is that readers do not want to be confused, so err towards more. Also, and more importantly, you will think your description is crystal clear and people will say they have no idea what your setting looks like.

The images (etc) are more complete in your mind than they are on the page. Maybe lean towards a little more exposition for that reason too.

Follow your instincts - lean towards more. You may need to revise and can increase or decrease at that point - but my limited experience to date is that the revisions will include things nowhere currently on your radar.

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The advice I was given was that theme is not the author's concern. It's the reader's job to figure out theme if they want to. The writer should just tell a good story. Just tell your story. If you're writing to follow a theme, the reader will, as you say, feel beaten over the head.

I've taken that advice. I just put characters together and have them do interesting stuff that leads to an ending that I'm content with. And when I look over my old stories I find overarching themes, but I didn't intentionally write them in. Themes made it into the story because I wrote the story and I am who I am.

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It's a matter of balance. If the theme is too subtle, the reader may miss it. But if it's too heavy-handed, the reader will find it annoying.

I have read many stories where at some point I find myself saying, "Yeah, I get it, you don't like political party X. Do you have an actual story to tell or is this just a political rant?" Even when I agree with the writer's social or political or religious or whatever views, if it's too blatant it just gets tedious.

Old example but first thing that comes to mind: The Twilight Zone movie. There was a scene where a racist character is complaining because a Jewish person got a promotion that he thought he should have gotten. And there's this dialog where he's complaining to his friends about how "these Jews have all the money", and his friend says, "I know Goldman. He's not a rich man." He says he should have gotten the promotion because he's been with the company 10 years, and his friend points out that Goldman has been with the company for 15 years. Etc. Every argument he makes why he should have gotten the job rather than the Jewish fellow, one of his friends has a rebuttal. I hate racism and antisemitism as much as anyone, but in real life, surely the guy would have one or two reasons why he should have gotten the job rather than the other guy that were not quickly and easily demolished. I can believe the other guy won on 7 out of 10 points, but 10 out of 10 seems a bit much. And even if true, would his friends have really all sat there explaining to him why he was being a jerk? Surely his friends would be more likely to be saying, "wow, that's too bad" and being at least somewhat sympathetic. Maybe a "now Bob, don't get carried away".

If you reduce the people or ideas that you disagree with to caricatures, your story is probably less persuasive than if it was more realistic.

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