Short Story Master Class 4: All About The Theme Of Your Story
9 mins read

Short Story Master Class 4: All About The Theme Of Your Story

We have come to the last part of this master class series. Click to read Part 1 , Part 2 and Part 3, if you missed them. Else scroll down to continue reading Part 4.

When it comes to fiction, what do the terms thematic concept and thematic statement mean?

Both make up the theme. The thematic concept is the idea or the set of ideas that you, as a writer, will work with. They are usually clear to you and there is often no controversy about what they are or whether they are there. An attentive reader (not necessarily a meticulous one) may observe them in your story.

The thematic statement is the message the reader gets after reading your story (and not the message you think they got). This is where the controversy may lie. The message you think you gave may not be the one the reader got. Perfectly logical.

For this reason, it is necessary to establish what your main theme (thematic concept) will be so that you can leave readers with a clear message (thematic statement). You want to deliver a message that doesn’t miss, don’t you? Yes. So why don’t you try a systematic approach to storytelling to
bring all the aspects of your story together nicely and give them a collective meaning. Readers would then understand your (subtle) aim, what you were trying to say in those detailed narrations, why you had spent time on those things. The essence of having a main theme and keeping to it so is to avoid
a situation where you tell many stories at the same time and in the end, impart little or nothing on the reader. A collage of events has no meaning to the reader unless he can see what links them together. Stories that do not consider theme are all plot and no purpose, shallow entertainment.

You ought to establish what the main concept of your story will be and work with it in a manner that delivers the statement you want it to make. It may look easy but it isn’t as easy as it seems.

The plot is what happens in the story. The theme is what your story is about. It was not until fairly recently that I began to appreciate the concept of theme, appreciate it as both a concept and a statement. I used to start writing stories without knowing how they would pan out or what topic or
deeper issue they were dealing with. All I knew was what would happen in it. And as I hadn’t thought it through, of course, I didn’t know what it was really about. When I finished, I tried to make sense of it all, sometimes, choosing to believe it meant what I wanted it to mean. Many of us are like that.

Your story can have several thematic concepts and even thematic statements. But you should have a main theme made up of both, especially short stories. Knowing what your story is about is the beginning of wisdom (story wisdom). And this entails understanding theme; it makes you a better story craftsman. Your writing journey will not be complete without it. You may perfect your style of writing, your voice, and that's great, but if you are unable to craft a meaningful story then… your wait will continue.

With each new story you read, ask yourself, What was it about? What was the main issue it tackled? What did it say to you about that issue? When you’ve learned how to decipher those, you'll appreciate better the things writers do in order to shape their stories and deliver the punch they want it to. You’ll be able to recognize when a story is morphing out of message. If you are unable to see these things, these light strokes made by the writer’s story brush, then all you will see is the plot and the style of writing, all you’ll see is the superficial.


If you want to write a story while working through the theme, here’s the question you should consider:

I want to write a story that argues for point X (or I want to write a story that argues against point X), what story should I tell to make my case?


A lot of us come up with stories based on this approach. We decide what will happen in our story and in the end. We are not concerned about making apoint as we are about getting to a point. We seem to want readers to appreciate what it took to get to point X and we do not realize that the story of getting to point X should make a point to the reader. By the time we decide what point we want it to make, we have already gone too far in our story, and it's too much work to start changing this and that. Yes, we'll need to go back and adjust this, delete that, add this, and rewrite that in order to make point X. In the end, we analyze our story like reviewers and choose a point we think it made or hope it made. Often, the point we think we made is not the point the readers got and our story misses. Even if the point we think we made can deciphered from the story, sometimes making it clearer will improve the story. If we have to explain the point of our story to readers, then it is likely we have not done a good job of telling that story.

Sometimes we are writing about a character. He is the topic of the story, its main theme. There are other characters in the story too. If we spend more time on those other characters than on the protagonist (than we should), then we run the risk of detracting from the theme and deviating from what the story is about. What we should be doing is treating these other characters as they relate to the central character, whose life and struggles form the main theme of our story. For instance, if your story is about Edward Snowden, then you should tell stories about the characters in Edward’s life only as they relate to him. If you stray, please don’t stray for long. Because if readers can’t see the connection between the events in your story, you’ll be guilty of telling too many stories with one story.

in her short story, When We Were Nearly Young, Mavis Gallant looked back at a period in her central character’s life, while living in Spain and hanging with three friends. The one thing that connected them was that they were all waiting. Waiting for someone or something to arrive or happen in their lives. This was the main theme, waiting or, you could say, youthful optimism. The
main thematic concept centered on young people thinking they had all the time in the world to do nothing but wait. The thematic statement I got from this concept at the end of the story was that those were wasted years spent waiting, a time when the main character and her friends were clueless as to what life had in store.

Her story had so many themes (or thematic concepts) but she chose one, waiting– waiting for something or someone to happen– as her main theme and delivered a statement on it.

The story was about a period in the narrator’s life when she was an American foreigner living in Spain, a period when time had moved so slowly and all she and her friends did was wait, thinking they had a lot of time on their hands. Notice I didn’t tell you what happened in the story. I told you
what the story was about. What I said was all theme-based and not plot-based.


Charles Opara is a programmer with the National Population Commission in Nigeria. He is a short story writer and speculative fiction novelist who enjoys the logic involved in creating programs and stories. His short stories have been published in Flash Fiction Press, Zoetic Press, and Ambit Magazine.

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