The essential elements a writer of fiction must grapple with early on in the process of telling a story are plot, characters, point of view, and setting. As a story develops, and a writer gains control over these, other considerations come into play, too—mood, atmosphere, tone, etc.
Some writers—often writers new to the discipline of writing fiction—are eager to add theme to the list. By theme we mean the ideas or the take-away a reader gets from a story. In my experience, theme is the least important element, and often the one we have the least control over. But we needn’t worry. If we’ve done our job creating interesting and complex characters, a credible sequence of events, a consistent point of view, effective use of time and place, and some vivid descriptions, then theme takes care of itself.
Yes, there are writers who decide at the outset to create a story that deals with romantic love, say, or the bonds of friendship, or the obscenity of war, etc.—but generally they are using these as story content more than themes. Melville didn’t set about to sell obsession and megalomania in Moby Dick; he wanted to tell a rousing sea story. Ken Kesey wasn’t intent on exposing conformity and social control in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; he had some bigger-than-life characters talking in his head and wanted to let them out. Books that are consciously composed around themes often lack in the more important elements like character development, story tension, and compelling dialogue. Try reading the tomes of Ayn Rand and you’ll see this made plain.
A more effective approach is to write a good story. Let the take-aways arise naturally out of the material, and allow the reader to decide what they are.
Here is a flash fiction piece from my recent book, Inflections & Innuendos:
When she was very young, my daughter would ask me to tell her about growing up in a town by the sea. “How close did you live to it?” she would say. “Were you right by the ocean?” She knew the answers but she liked to hear me tell it.
“Very close,” I would say. “Sometimes, when I was your age and was taking a bath, seahorses could come out of the faucet.”
“Right into the bath tub?”
“Little tiny seahorses, swimming around me. I’d play with them.”
“Could you ride them?”
“Oh, no. They were tiny little things.”
“You were small too.”
“Yes, but not that small. That’s a nice thought though.”
She was always delighted by this story. And it was a beautiful thing. What I did not tell her—to this day have not told her—was that other things would sometimes come out of that faucet. Portuguese Man-o’-wars and spider crabs and even small sharks. The worst though, by far, were the bluefish . . . swimming with wanton speed, those mouths full of miniature razor teeth . . . the bathwater vivid with blood.
A number of readers have offered feedback on this story’s thematic implications.
Many have commented that it expresses something about how we try to preserve innocence, one reviewer even suggesting it’s a reworking of Salinger’s “Catcher” theme. Someone else said it’s a re-boot of the Pandora’s Box tale. And I had a recent reader tell me she suspects that, in his childhood, the narrator has been sexually abused by a priest and may have attempted to slit his wrists in the bathtub.
My response to all of these is, fine . . . sure . . . if you find that in this story, then it’s there for you. And it’s possible, I suppose, that on some level I was trying to convey deep themes. But if so it was entirely unconscious; I wrote the story because it came to me and it felt like fun to write.
That is what I mean about letting ideas bubble up from the story, rather than feel we have to embed them to begin with. This frees the writer. And if, as we revise and edit, we discover certain ideas wanting to voice themselves, then that’s a good time to help them a bit, perhaps intensify or clarify them—though never to the point of shoving them in a reader’s face. Readers are smart, and part of the fun for them lies in making sense of the tales we present to them.
So . . . if you want to write a tale, say, about the eternal triangle, or the transcendent power of love, or man’s alienation, go for it. But you may be more successful in dialing back on the “theme quotient” and just telling a good story.