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On online forums, I often see the argument that not every story needs a theme. This is the flip side version of the question of when a story needs a theme. I felt that those arguing that some stories don't need a theme often fail to point out when exactly a story needs or doesn't need to have a central theme, thematic statement, or moral.

When I posted the above question on Quora, I got the following answers (I've summarized the answers):

  1. Choose-your-own-ending stories written in second-person narration don't need to have a central theme.
  2. Mysteries, thrillers, and suspense stories that focus on mysteries and plot devices don't have to have a central theme (Quora's AI bot gave me this answer).
  3. When the writer does not want to give his/her story a theme. Is this a legitimate answer to my question? How is this different from saying that a writer doesn't need to give his story a theme when he doesn't care about the quality of his story? In other words, how is this different from saying that a story doesn't need to have a theme when it doesn't need to be a good story? I felt that this answer dodged my question.
  4. When the theme of a story is immoral, then the story would have been better if it had no theme at all.
  5. If the theme is too obvious, then it would be better to write the same story without any theme than with this kind of theme. When is a story's theme so obvious that the story would be better off not having any theme whatsoever than having this particular theme?

In addition to the above points I've seen the following arguments for when a story would be better off without a central theme:

  1. When a story is preachy. But what makes a story preachy?
  2. A story should be open-ended and its central theme should be a question rather than a statement that forces the reader to accept the writer's point of view. Readers should be allowed to think for themselves.

I would like to know if you agree or disagree with the above points. I've not seen any surveys about whether or not most readers would prefer to read a story without a theme than to read a story whose theme they strongly disagree with. Does such a survey exist? Do you think the number of people who would prefer no theme to a theme they disagree with outnumber the people who prefer there be any kind of theme even a disagreeable one than there being no theme at all? And would writers be better off financially if they gave all their stories themes even if they believed that many readers would disagree with their themes? Would writers be happier and more fulfilled if they just gave all their stories a clearly laid out theme even if they feel uncomfortable giving certain stories a definitive conclusion?

Would you prefer a story to have a theme you disagree with than have no theme at all? For example, I detest the theme of the Legend of Korra series, but if you asked me if I would prefer it to have no theme, I would give you an emphatic "no".

I also hate the theme of the Arcane animated series. But these are 2 of my favorite animated series. I cannot imagine enjoying them without these themes that I hate so much. I suspect that these shows would be largely incomprehensible without their central themes, but I could be wrong. And I dislike incomprehensible stories more than I dislike right-wing stories.

I hate the Legend of Korra's theme because it says that the political status quo, whatever that may be for any given nation, is the best possible socio-economic system for a given nation because some sort of "balance" must be maintained. In my opinion, the so-called "balance" can best be described as a balance of military power between all warring kingdoms and nations i.e. no nation should have the power to conquer another nation. I think the Legend of Korra's theme could have been far better executed, but even if it were better executed, I would still hate the theme because of my left-leaning political orientation. I found its theme morally reprehensible. The theme also makes no sense, but I would still prefer a better-executed theme I disagree with than no theme at all.

And I hate Arcane's theme because I think the show hates poor people and is essentially saying that the only reason why the poor would want to overthrow the rich is out of jealousy and spite and not out of any legitimate economic grievance or out of any kind of economic necessity. But I still found the show very entertaining even though I found its theme morally questionable. I also love the 300 movie even though I wholeheartedly agree with a YouTuber called Big Joel that that movie is basically well-disguised Nazi propaganda.

I think it would make more sense for authors whose stories readers describe as propaganda or as immoral or preachy to write better-executed themes than to give up on the idea of giving their stories any theme whatsoever. Let me know if you agree or disagree with my assessment.

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  • this question seems like something for Reddit, where people voice their opinions, and isn't asking for specific help that might benefit future readers of Write@SE. Rather than share the things you like and the things you hate, formulate a specific question that you are having challenges working out on your own. If its challenging for you, others might find it challenging too
    – EDL
    Jun 9, 2023 at 3:58
  • I would not count on that Youtuber: the movie 300 is not nazi propaganda, it is an interpretation of a ver grim comic by Frank Miller that depicts a story told by Herodotus and is very much influenced by Plutarch's description of the Agogae and Spartan culture as well as Xenophon's description of their combat. Also, arguments ad hitleri are very frowned upon in general.
    – Trish
    Jun 9, 2023 at 12:36

2 Answers 2

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Theme is subtext

You're unlikely to find 2 people who think about themes the same way. Theme is something that is done in the reader's head. It's a fuzzy impression of the accumulated story.

Theme is also subtext. It's something the author constructs purely in the reader's mind: emotions, associations and memories, empathy, innate feelings of right and wrong.... Since mental telepathy is an inexact science, themes are not sure things.

If a story is 'preachy', it's probably straying away from subtext into author insert text – a character who is a mouthpiece for the author.

When the plot starts preaching by magically bending to the author's agenda, it's deus ex machina.

(Author's sometimes write things they don't believe, like a preachy character they don't agree with, as a challenge –– adding another layer of subtle communication: should the author reveal themself, or should the character stand alone warts and all?)

Themes should be subtle

Readers continue to grow and change their entire lives, our taste in themes also change.

The stories that feel momentously powerful in your teens, will be head-shaking cringe later in middle age. Stories that are 'about real life' tend to bore the young, while older viewers stop enjoying make-believe.

Commercial entertainment tries to appeal to the broadest audience, so they have multiple themes that are subtler and co-exist. As long as multiple themes can avoid contradicting each other, a broad demographic can find something to relate to. The downside is a main theme written by a corporation, something obvious and generic and saccharine.

Themes can be too subtle, to the point where they are only suggested by a situation, but not followed through in the actual story. It feels 'un-earned', relying on the reader to provide a message and continuity between cause and effect.

Themes are subtext, but they must be supported by the text.

Theme is Genre

I disagree with the bot on technicality.

Thrillers, Suspense, and Murder Mysteries are themes unto themselves. They have defining structures with fairly rigid expectations and plot beats. But it's their themes that get to run amok.

It's the same with Comedy and Horror, they are expected to suspend reality (and story) to transcend into pure theme.

Melodramas are also almost pure theme, an entire genre based around manipulating emotions of moral outrage, pity, justice, and catharsis. But again, if emotional themes are not your bag 'melodrama' will become a pejorative for any too obvious story.

Imagine an old codger who yells at street kids playing their radio loudly. He yells 'Can't you hear it?!" The kids laugh and turn it up even louder. Yes..., they LIKE it loud.

What it means when they say...

"not every story needs a theme." –– They don't know what themes are.

"writer does not want to give his/her story a theme" –– same.

"Choose-your-own-ending stories written in second-person narration don't need to have a central theme." –– This is just plain wrong. (I'm not disagreeing in-theory, but lol. It's so specific.)

Cave of Time is not literary, it's a game of chance. If it had a real theme you would be able to navigate the story with intent, which sounds better than random.

"Thrillers (et al genres) don't need a theme." –– Yes, well... the obvious theme is probably the genre itself – people's lives are interrupted by THEME – so it feels more like a plot, but that theme is actually defining the structure of the story. Characters lose agency, and status quo is derailed, because of this theme (and there's still plenty of room for other themes to co-exist).

"immoral stories would be better with no theme at all" –– shameless immorality is a theme for people in their early 20s. It's chaotic evil on the level of a messy bedroom. The real challenge is standing for something.

Struggling with a moral issue is maybe the BEST theme that exists...? So, it's close but misses the point.

"Themes should be so subtle, vague, and ambiguous you aren't sure if they are there or not." –– (no one actually said this) Theme is the vermouth in a vodka martini. The people who brag about 'barely a hint of vermouth' are normally drinking vodka straight from the bottle. There's a metaphor there somewhere.

"If the theme is too obvious, then it would be better to write the same story without any theme than with this kind of theme." –– Everyone's free to go write their own story the way they see fit, nobody stopping them.

"This story is preachy" –– same.

"I didn't like Kora..." –– same.

j/k. I like that you understand your opinion and can explain it.

Win the Lottery

And would writers be better off financially if they gave all their stories themes even if they believed that many readers would disagree with their themes? Would writers be happier and more fulfilled if they just gave all their stories a clearly laid out theme even if they feel uncomfortable giving certain stories a definitive conclusion?

Financial gain and uncomplicated happiness are not guaranteed, but what is 'actionable' for an author?

If you are writing in a genre chances are you're already using tropes that have their own themes as baggage. Be aware of these themes so they don't clash with another. Use them to imply more depth than is actually there – a play between subtext, and letting the reader connect the dots for themselves.

Follow through on the themes so they are established structurally in the story. Don't rely on readers 'picking up telepathic thought waves', the theme needs to be supported by the text, the actions of characters and their outcomes.

I have not watched the shows you mention. It sounds like Arcane was shallow and insensitive, while Kora offended your politics. Both reasons are valid. I don't know how they were supported in the text. For me that is the real issue. If I don't agree I can roll my eyes, but if it's not supported or contradictory in the story that's a flaw.

To answer to your question, today I prefer a solid theme over a clever plot, but when I was younger I don't think theme mattered much to me at all. When I can go back to a book or movie and see something totally new – that's usually thanks to themes I didn't pick up on when I was younger.

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Never - Themes and associated tropes keep the story together

Think about clas sic books that have their themes quite visible:

  • 1984 has the theme of a dystopian government, and how that interacts with society as well as others.
  • Neuromancer has themes of transhumanism, living with (and in) cyberspace that weave in and out of the main plot - which is arguably a heist story.
  • Histoire d'O is an erotica, but even it has a theme. It is known to have coined a lot of the Tropes for BDSM communities, even as itself was using previous material to reframe what was found in more explicit literature before - and to extensively use purple prose.

The themes will lead to a natural choice of tropes. 1984 coined or used tropes of intrusion into the private life. Big Brother is Watching You.

Case Study: Mrs. Dalloway

"Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf was published 1925, describing a single day in the life of the titular character. It is sometimes claimed to have none or only little overall theme as it delves into the stream of consciousness of the protagonist on a single day.

However, it still contains classic themes and tropes. Among those are gender roles, societal constraints as well as the impact of social class on individuals. The themes are there, but they are not quite as prominent as in the first paragraph. Yet their use of them even as a backdrop does help (with their associated tropes) to create a picture between the lines, to fill the gaps that are not outright told.

The meta-theme here might even better be described as the background and setting: Without knowledge that the setting is 1923 London, some behavior or patterns would appear strange and uncanny, with that knowledge that all is "1923 London" everything clicks into place much better. In cat, you might say, that is the actual main theme.

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  • Your "case study" does not seem to support your argument, as it sounds like it would be easier to argue that it's impossible to not have a theme, as even if you write a story without a theme, people will still "read a theme into your story". Tropes are patterns across stories, and themes a pattern within a story... and humans are pattern finding geniuses, even if the patterns are random. Mar 18 at 9:48
  • @DavidMulder Some literature professors tried to claim that Mrs Dalloway wouldn't have a theme, it's not my idea, but as you noticed, the idea of a story without patterns and themes is literally impossible, unless you leave almost everything on the cutting floor and even then you might find a theme.
    – Trish
    Mar 18 at 12:21

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