If you’ve ever been in a high school English class, your teacher probably asked a question to the effect of “What is the theme of [insert piece of fiction here]?” The theme, or message, of a story is the driving force behind the narrative. It gives the story depth. Often, this message isn’t extremely obvious. The best storytellers are able to craft their stories in such a way that the theme isn’t overbearing, yet still has an effect on the audience.
Unfortunately, many creators fail to do that.
I’ve seen it in movies, books, TV shows, you name it. The writer sacrifices creating strong, quality content in order to share a message, and because of that, the message suffers. In reality, a writer should be able to do both – create a quality story with a strong message. However, that’s easier said than done.
So where does that leave the writers? We should be striving to create stories with meaning, of course, but how do we do that? It’s a daunting task, and one that’s not easy to explain how to do. Even so, I’ve tried to come up with a few Do’s and Don’ts for creating stories with meaning.
DON’T treat your audience like they’re stupid
No one likes to be treated like they’re dumb. I don’t want to watch/read something that assumes I can’t grasp the concept of a theme, and therefore has to beat me over the head with the message. When writing, you shouldn’t have to state the theme outright. Leave enough hints for your audience to be able to figure out the theme on their own.
Speaking of which…
DO allow your message to come through naturally
So if that’s not how to portray a theme in writing, how do you do it? Let it appear naturally in the story, and allow the audience to put the pieces together. When the audience is able to figure it out for themselves, the theme holds more meaning and therefore becomes more effective.
For example, let’s pretend I’m writing something and the central theme is teamwork. If I simply state, “Teamwork is important,” it not only makes for a poorly-written story, but it also isn’t very effective. If I were instead to write a story about characters who are trying to accomplish a goal but are only able to do so when they work together, the theme becomes less obvious, but more effective. It’s like everyone’s favorite writing maxim: “Show, don’t tell!”
DON’T shoehorn a message into the story
Most of the time, a story will have some kind of message whether you intend for it to or not. Some writers try to write their story and then shove a theme into it in order to give it depth. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Oftentimes, stories have a mind of their own, and they don’t like being forced into a mold.
DO find the message your story is trying to tell
Instead of forcing a message onto the story, do the opposite: let your story breathe, and pay attention to what message it’s trying to show. Sometimes, without even knowing it, there’s a common thread between plot points or characters. Sure, sometimes you’ll need to tweak the story in order to make the theme stronger, but in the end, it will come across much better than if you were to force one.
And the final rule…
DON’T sacrifice quality content for a good message, and don’t sacrifice a good message for quality content
I touched on this earlier in the post, but it’s worth mentioning again. Too many times, I’ve seen stories that fall in either category. Sure, the message may be good and strong, but without a strong narrative to back it up, it falls flat. On the other hand, a story can be well written, exciting, and everything you dreamed it to be, but without a theme to give it depth, it too falls flat.
Not to compare writing stories with meaning to advertising, but look at it this way: If you’re creating a cereal commercial, you’ll want something that both conveys the message (i.e. that the cereal is the best cereal) and also catches the audience’s attention. If either one of those things fails to happen, the commercial is useless and the audience isn’t likely to buy the cereal.
So as I said earlier, writer’s are faced with the daunting task of creating stories with meaning while still making them well-written, exciting stories. Yes, it is hard, but in the end, you’ll be able to create something truly worthwhile.
Do you have any tips for creating stories with meaning? I’d love to hear them! Drop a comment below and I’ll be sure to read it!
See you next week!