Your story – what does it all mean? How can you give it a good theme, something for readers to interpret and think about?
Well, it’s okay if a story doesn’t have a moral. It’s fine for something to be fun or scary or sad or whatever simply for the sake of it. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of escapism – even, perhaps especially, in today’s crazy climate. You are not obligated to comment wokely on everything that happens all the time.
But meaningful fiction is great and important too.
The big risk with trying to Say Something is that you bash the reader over the head with it. An overwrought attempt at theme can come across as the unholy pretentious spawn of a story and an essay. Hey, why not write some non-fiction then?
In On Writing, in line with his pantser/gardener approach, Stephen King says that:
starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story. The only possible exceptions to this rule that I can think of are allegories[…]
This article takes a similar view, but says having ideas in mind from the start can be helpful so long as it’s with a light touch:
if you approach your theme front ways on, it’ll sound crass and didactic, so what do you do? Well, the most important thing is to write well. If your stories, characters and prose are superbly knitted together, you’ll start to see themes forming like a mist rising from a field at dusk. It just happens. Secondly, it’s fine to have some ideas in mind as you write. They should stay towards the back of your mind, though. Stories must be told through character and action, and it’s these things which should occupy your conscious attention. But if those things are at the back of your mind, then they’ll wriggle their way into your work.
Kristen Kieffer takes a more ‘plotter’ approach here. She says that ‘You can make a point of choosing these themes during the pre-writing process,’ as well as letting it develop naturally and emphasizing it in later drafts.
Kieffer suggests building theme by considering the implications of your character arcs:
Take a look at the main character(s) in your current work-in-progress, and ask yourself the following questions:
- Who is my character at the beginning of the story?
- What are their flaws, and what holds them back from happiness or fulfilment?
- How do the events of my story shape my character for the better or the worse?
- Do they overcome their characters flaws and the obstacles that stand in their way? How so?
- Who has my character become by the end of the story?
Once you’ve answered these questions, review what you’ve written and try to identify any themes that naturally arise. What are you trying to say about these topics?
This is a more deliberate approach that can be used to plan theme in a first draft. But notice that it still avoids approaching theme ‘front ways on’, to hopefully not be ‘crass and didactic’. This more plotter/architect tactic still takes King’s point about fiction that ‘begins with story and progresses to theme’.
Where King first writes the pure story as a first draft, then thinks about theme while editing, Kieffer’s approach suggests planning character arcs, building theme through that, and then writing a first draft which has both story and theme there from the start.
In both cases the theme arises for the reader through implied points and subtext, from the story itself instead of from a heavy-handed author dropping in to give a speech.