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I want my short story to have a specific point, to highlight a certain truth. But I wonder in which order I should proceed: make the plot, characters etc. first and worry about fitting my theme into the story later, or start with the point I'm trying to make and build my plot and characters around it?

Of course, the plot needs to be engaging in any case. But my instinct is to build the story around the theme/meaning, and I'm wondering if that is considered a good practice.

A potential downside is that the story will feel more artificial, but the other way around it might feel as if I'm shoehorning in my point into a story that does not support it.

As a response to some of the answers, I might also add that I have a specific theme in mind - so an emerging theme is not what I'm interested in, really.

  • I did some extensive editing on this question because I feel it wasn't really clear before and some of the answers were going in the wrong direction. I hope that's okay. – PoorYorick Apr 10 at 7:31
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Two things:

  1. I prefer to read stories where there are no overt themes being highlighted by the author (or else they're so subtle I can't tell, or not noticeable because the characters and what's going on are too interesting). Choosing themes first then constructing a story to illustrate them will probably end up sounding contrived.

  2. I find that when I focus on coming up with characters, plots and settings that I think are interesting, and then just write about them, the themes emerge by themselves. These organically-grown themes seem to usually end up working better than deliberately pre-chosen themes (and, as @foggyone said, I can usually then improve the story by identifying and working with those themes from that point).

  • 1
    Have to second the themes emerge by themselves. A guy at a writing conference I attended said you should be aware of things that come up as you write. However, once you find out what it is, make it intentional. – foggyone Nov 25 '10 at 2:23
  • @foggyone agreed. – MGOwen Nov 25 '10 at 3:54
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    I could not agree more with the points presented. Especially the self-emerging themes. Usually you write and the theme suddenly pops up, and you realize: this is what the story is really about, and has been, the whole way through! The danger of pre-selecting a theme is that you will often force your characters to do things they normally wouldn't and readers might start doubting the integrity and logic of your world. Don't try to be preachy. When the reader realizes the theme, he should feel it came from within, from his own inner self. – pHneuma Dec 2 '10 at 11:20
  • Overt themes. I think this is what happened with Life of Pi. – Alexandro Chen Dec 6 '14 at 3:17
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Rather than focusing on a single point as if you are writing an essay, you may want to focus on an ethos you want to create.

View your story as world-building (this is something you will find Orson Scott Card, author of Ender's Game reference frequently). The world you are building will reward certain behaviors by your characters and punish others. The world you are building may have a certain "bent," to it.

As an example, the in Ellison's The Invisible Man, all sorts of random things happen to the protagonist that end up making his life more complicated. The result is a story that leaves the reader feeling as if the entire world of the story was meaningless and nihilistic. Rather than hitting the reader over the head with nihilism, Ellison showed the reader a nihilistic world.

It is also possible to construct an absolutely wonderful story that does not try to move the reader towards seeing the world in a different way. In writing these stories the author is usually focused on showing the reader a specific character in all of his or her loves, wants, needs, desires, dreams, and fears. These characters don't necessarily have to drive towards a point in their existence in the story. They have to be themselves.

You can combine both of the above, or use just one for a successful story. In many ways Victorian novels and good science fiction or fantasty epitomize world-building, while modern short stories such as Olive Kitteridge move towards the opposite end of the spectrum.

And then again, you can write a plot-driven work of pure action fiction - it works for some writers.

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As the other answers suggest, this is largely an approach to be decided upon by the author – it will work for some, and not for others.

Stephen King said in On Writing that he preferred to get the story out and focus on theme afterwards. In fact, he considered it a part of revising and editing.

I tend to agree with him, in that I have discovered that the more I focus on the moral point or theme or moral of the story being told, the less I focus on the really meaningful interaction of the characters with each other and their world.

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    Conversely (and this comment does not invalidate your answer), I find that if I write without knowing what I am trying to say, both story and characters invariably end up as uninteresting and dull. As you say: different techniques for different people. – BittermanAndy Apr 11 at 16:04
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If you have a point that you do want to convey, this is certainly a legitimate practice. You shouldn't make artificial points just to have them, however.

It is important to ensure that your point does not become too contrived, as well. There are cases where everything should be a microcosm of your main theme, but they are rare, even in a short story. You do need to have a strong plot and characters and setting as well. The point will be lost if the writing falters because of it.

Many stories are written as an allegory of a specific point, but even if you do not take it so far as to be that obvious, there is nothing wrong with this.

5

"If you want to send a message, use Western Union." – Can't remember who first said that.

If you find yourself changing anything in a story to make a point, you're probably making the story worse. If you make the story bad enough, nobody will want to read it, and anybody who does will be annoyed at an author trying to pound a point home.

If you write a story with characters you can believe in, doing things you can believe in, and with results you can believe in, then whatever truth you're believing in will probably come out in the story. The story will be better, and it will have more influence over anybody who reads it.

2

Many of the critically acclaimed authors definitely do have a point (propaganda?), and they are using a story to convey that point. Who's to say how they go about it without asking. But, it seems very likely that Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was predicated on theme first. As well, 1984.

I agree with some of what Zayne is saying, though. For some stories, or authors, it might be easier to get the story out, and then do the craftman's work of sanding it down and polishing so that a theme becomes more apparent. Sticking to a theme would seem to me to be a difficult chore.

  • Although both Brave New World and 1984 are novels, not short stories... – Jürgen A. Erhard Mar 8 '11 at 22:59
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Try it and see if it works. Theme-led storytelling might give you direction and conviction. It's not how most people write but I would suggest that makes it all the more interesting to try. It's my go to method and I believe it's vaild. I have made my living writing professionally in film and TV for 25 years. As for the people suggesting you'll be hitting people with a sledgehammer ... Well, that's just bad writing. And that is a whole other problem that has nothing to do with being theme-led. Go for a swim, see how it feels.

1

Although I don't write themed stories (or the theme emerges naturally), the way I would approach this is kind of like a detective murder mystery story: Backwards.

In a murder mystery, you basically start at the end of the story (somebody is dead), and then work out the twists from who really killed him, to the beginning of the story. You have to come up with everything in reverse, and then tell it forward. The false leads, the misinterpreted clues, the dead ends, the clues that straighten that out.

A story (even one with a theme) is, first, about a character. Second, they find a problem (or it finds them). [After these two steps, a discovery writer is off and running with it]. Third, They try to solve it and fail. They try again and fail. They try again and -- third time's a charm, they succeed. They live happily ever after, or until the next problem.

So once you have your theme, you need to find a character with a personality trait that will serve to exemplify the theme. Often it is a personality trait pretty much the opposite of your theme. Then you need to devise a problem whose solution depends almost entirely on your theme; so it will bring out the worst in your MC and cause a head-on collision. So they try and fail (not getting the message). They try and fail again (not getting the message). Then out of desperation they finally GET the message, and try again and -- succeed, because they got the message.

The rest is details; it is usually considered ham-handed to make the theme too obvious, or to baldly state it. You can include secondary and walk-on character to violate the theme and end up dead or punished or miserable. You can have people, even your MC, argue the opposite of your theme.

An example: If your theme is "charity is rewarded", they argue convincingly against it. But arguing for "selfishness" will make them sound like jerks, and you want the reader to sympathize with them. So find a way to argue against your theme that sounds halfway reasonable. Off the top of my head versus charity: People need to learn self-reliance, and their personal experience that hardship is a test that can make a person better, or brings out innovation. Necessity is the mother of Invention! The world moves forward because people have to work through their hardships. Give a man a fish, he eats for a day, but if he has to learn to fish to fill his stomach, he will eat the rest of his life. So I might loan him a few of my fish so he doesn't starve while learning, but I expect them paid back!

(Note I don't personally believe any of that, I'm just devising a necessary character).

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