When I write a story, there’s about a 40-percent chance that I’ve given any thought to the theme of what I’m working on. I don’t believe every story has to comment on the human condition. A story can simply be an enjoyable read about what this person or these people did under these circumstances. Just because the stories that were read to us as children ended with a moral doesn’t mean that our adult stories have to have them.
When I do have a theme in mind, then the challenge is to keep it from overwhelming the narrative. I dislike stories where the author hits his reader over the head with the point he’s trying to make.
As I’ve said elsewhere, a story is a partnership between a writer and a reader. The writer has to put in the elements a reader needs to understand and enjoy the story, but the reader brings his own experiences and thoughts to the story. Sometimes, this means a reader finds a meaning the author didn’t intend.
For my most recent story, A Halloween Interlude, Greg Bryant commented that he liked how my protagonist’s “attitude transcends the terror.” So a theme for this story could be that if you keep your head in a difficult situation, maybe you can talk your way out of it. I didn’t intend that as a theme, but it does seem to be sitting there ripe for the picking.
Red Riding Hood and the Wolves came about because I wanted to do a modern version of the tale, one with a sexy Red Riding Hood. (Because I can, that’s why.) There was my whole motivation, and the writing was purely an effort of getting from one end of the story to the other. When it came time for Lorinda to head back home and she needed help from her grandmother, then – and only then – did I come up with what became the theme. As Greg noted in his comments on this one, “The theme develops naturally from the action.” And it was a nice surprise for me when I was writing that a theme did develop from what I had done.
At his site, Dave Hood walks us through the very idea of theme: how to find it in someone else’s story and how to craft it in one of your own. And Chuck Wendig, in his own special fashion (taking us back to last week’s Pen to Paper), gives us lots of useful information about what theme is and isn’t.