Stories, novels, plays, and poems, almost always contain a theme or themes. Themes are underlying messages about life and human nature; they are big ideas an author wants to pass on to you. What is tricky about themes is that sometimes they don’t stand out but only emerge after careful analysis. Understanding the theme of a text is an “aha” moment that gives you deeper insight into what an author is trying to say.
As a writer, how do you go about considering theme along with everything else that’s involved in writing a short story? Let’s begin by saying that theme is an important part of your short story planning process. Themes are the abstract concepts or universal truths found in all good literature. Themes are born out of an author’s observation about the human condition. The writer communicates those observations through the characters in the story. The changes your characters make as they progress through the story will help you define your theme.
Read the story below and think about how you would answer these three questions:
- What is the main character’s internal conflict?
- Which of the main character’s views and attitudes will change as a result of the story’s events? How and why?
- How does the main character demonstrate those changed views and attitudes at the beginning and the end of the story?
The Fish and the Salamander
At the beginning of time, Fish and Salamander looked very much alike. They were discussing how they planned to evolve.
“I wish to grow thinner and to grow my tail broad,” said Fish. “Then I will swim like lightning and outrace any creature in the pond. How about you?”
Salamander considered. “Well, it would certainly be nice to be the fastest creature in the pond. But I think I will keep my awkward tail, which allows me to swim well enough. What I wish to change instead is to grow some modest legs.”
Fish laughed. “Legs? In a pond? What a waste!”
Soon, though, came a drought, and the pond began to dry up. Fish was trapped, but Salamander was able to crawl out in hopes of finding another pond.
“How did you know that legs would come in so handy?” cried Fish to his departing friend.
“I didn’t,” said Salamander. “But I wasn’t so naive as to assume that circumstances today would be the same as circumstances tomorrow.”
Would you say that the internal conflicts of the characters are their respective decisions about how to change their bodies? Fish seems to change at the end of the story as he realizes the error of his decision when he asks Salamander why he knew the right decision to make.
We know that Fish changes or is forced to change by the circumstances of nature.
Finally, we can answer question number three by showing Fish’s arrogance in the face of Salamander’s logic and forethought. We see Fish’s arrogance disappear as he “cries” to Salamander for an explanation as to Salamander’s wise choice.
Even though this is a very short story with a simple plot and only two characters, we can have a discussion about the “human” condition that informs the story—the theme of this story.
As you continue thinking about your short story remember the following:
The secret of theme lies entirely in the hands of your characters. As with almost every other aspect of story, character is the vital key to making your theme come to unforgettable life.
—K. M. Weiland, “Crafting Unforgettable Characters”
You’re nearing the end of this trio of lessons on how to write a short story. You may have been writing with a theme in mind, but if you’re unsure about theme, you might want to review the lesson “Analyzing Various Texts with Similar Themes.” To get to know your own theme better, ask yourself a few questions: What was your purpose in writing this story? What central insight or universal truth did you want to convey? What truth did you discover as you were writing?
As with anything worth doing, writing an interesting short story takes time and patience. As you continue to practice, your characters will come alive and themes will take shape from their actions.
Images used in this section:
Source: FiestaTexas4, Rei, Wikimedia
Source: Coryphopterus glaucofraenum, LASZLO ILYES, Wikimedia
Source: Salamander larve, Simbyte