When it comes to fiction, what do the terms thematic concept and thematic statement mean?
Both make up theme. They are the two (and only) components of theme.
The thematic concept is the idea, or the set of ideas, you, as a writer, will work with. They are clear to you. And there is usually no controversy what they are or whether they are there. An attentive reader (not necessarily meticulous) can easily observe them in the story.
The thematic statement is the message the reader gets after reading your story (not the message you think they got). This is where the controversy lies, because the message you think you gave may not be the one the reader got.
For this reason, it is necessary to establish what your main thematic concept will be so that you can leave readers with a clear thematic statement about it, deliver a message that doesn’t miss. If you fail, your story could deteriorate to strings of events that have no collective meaning, nothing binding them. They are events, a collage of events, that we take nothing away from, neither do we understand why they were included in the same story, all plot and no purpose, none beyond sheer entertainment.
You should establish what the main concept of story will be and work with it in a manner that delivers the statement you want. It may look easy but it is easier said than done.
The plot is what happens in the story. The theme is what your story is about. It may amaze you that it was not until recently that I began to appreciate the theme as a concept and a statement. I used to write not knowing what my story will be about but knowing what will happen in it. At the end of my writing, I try to make sense of it all. Sometimes, I choose to believe it means what I want it to mean. Many of us are like that.
Your story can have several thematic concepts and several thematic statements. One statement pairs with a concept. I advise that short story writers have one thematic statement per story or literary fiction writers have one thematic statement per chapter (you don’t want to make too many points at the expense of driving none home.).
Knowing what your story is about is the beginning of story wisdom. It entails understanding theme; it makes you a better story craftsman. Your writing journey will not be complete if you can write but are unable to craft a meaningful story.
With each new story you read, ask yourself, What was its topic? (What was it about?) What did it say to you about its topic? In other words, what was the thematic concept and the thematic statement it delivered. And when you’ve learned how to decipher those, you’ll be better able to appreciate the things writers do to shape their stories or to ensure they don’t morph out of message. If you are unable to see these light strokes made by the story brush, all you will see is the plot and the quality of the writing. And anyone can see that.
THE THEME-WISE APPROACH TO CRAFTING A STORY
If you want to begin writing a story with a final message in mind (through a thematic statement known beforehand), here’s the question you should ask:
I want to argue for point X (or I want to argue against point X) so what story should I tell to make my case?
THE PLOT-WISE APPROACH TO CRAFTING A STORY
Most of us come up with stories based on this approach. We decide this will happen and then that will happen and in the end, we want readers to appreciate point X. Unfortunately, by the time we decide on what point X point will be, we have already gone too far in our story, and do not take into consideration that we need to go back and adjust this, delete this, add that, and rewrite some things in our story to make point X clearer. I’ve been guilty of that.
In the end, the point X we think we gave is not the point the reader got and our story misses, misses imparting the message we hoped it would.
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, and we may spend more time than we should on them, discussing things about them unrelated or tangentially related to the character who is our theme. When we do this, we deviate from what the story is about, the focus of the story: the theme. If your story is about Edward Snowden, then you should tell the stories of other characters in his life as they relate to Edward Snowden. If you stray, don’t stray for long. If the reader can’t see the connection between one story and the central theme, then, you are probably telling a different story. What you should do is tell stories about those characters as they relate to the central character (the main theme). If you don’t do this, you could be telling two stories instead of one. And as such, our thematic statement or final statement will miss.
Marvis Gallant in her short story ‘When We Were Nearly Young’, looked back at a certain period of time in a central character’s life, while she was living in Spain. She had a group of friends around them and what connected them was, they were all waiting. Waiting. Waiting for someone or something to happen in their lives. That was the theme, the main thematic concept of that story, to be specific. The impression or thematic statement I got at the end of her story was that those were wasted years spent waiting.
Her story had so many themes (commonly called thematic concepts) and she chose one main theme (waiting, waiting for something or someone to happen) and delivered a thematic statement on it. The story was about a period in the narrator’s life when time moved slowly and all she and her group of friends did was wait, thinking they had a lot of time on her hands. She was living in Spain at the time. (Notice I didn’t tell you what happened in the story.
Charles Opara is a Nigerian-born author in his early 40s. He writes short stories and novels. As a novelist, he has a leaning towards suspense and speculative fiction, some set in Africa. He is a programmer with a passion for gadgets and gizmos and groundbreaking technologies. His creative mind enjoys the logic involved in writing stories and programs. He currently works with the National Population Commission in his country, and is a member of the Association of Nigerian Authors. In 2015, his horror short “It Happened” was shortlisted for the Awele Creative Trust short story prize back in his country.