Theme – the magic ingredient within a story

In my last blog, I tried to define story as:

“ …a tale about a character or characters, set in a particular environment or time, who struggle to deal with an important problem or opportunity that comes into their live(s) and which sets in motion a sequence of events and actions that logically lead to a climatic ending consistent with the theme of the story.”

In my view, a story should all ways have a satisfactory ending consistent with the theme of the story in order to provide the reader with the necessary emotional pay-off that they expect. So what is theme? Basically, theme is what the story is all about. Not the plot itself, but the underlying message that the story is illustrating through the actions of the characters. It is usually a moral message the reader can relate to. For example: good will overcome evil; love conquers everything; family are more important than personal gain; absolute power corrupts; freedom is worth fighting for, etc.

In children’s fairy tales, fables and parables the theme is usually very obvious. In a complex novel the theme or themes might be less obvious. Some writers have said not all stories have a theme. I disagree. All stories have at least one theme. Without a theme a story is just narrative without a sense of purpose.

That doesn’t mean that the main character should be a paragon of virtue. Most main characters have some flaws, and part of the story is how they change as a result of the actions that effect them: the character arc. Some main characters may well go from bad to even worse. They may succeed with their goal; but may lose something more important to them in the process. Even with these types of stories there is a message. The issue is whether the message resonates with the reader. Where the message doesn’t resonate with the reader the impact on the reader may be one of shock. The question is whether the reader wants to shocked like this or not.

What should a writer do to incorporate theme into a story? The answer is that the writer doesn’t incorporate theme directly — it is part of the story already. The writer shouldn’t have to think about it too deeply. And the last thing they should do is to get preachy with the reader. It is what the story is about.

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