Yeah, but what is it about?

Today’s focus is learning about theme and purpose relating to short story creation. It’s been an interesting exercise to take a story I’m planning and ask Yeah, but what is it about? Truth is, I didn’t know! At least, not like I thought I knew. I’ll explain.

Here’s an example premise:
Independent young woman Sally Jo grows up with some horrible memory, gets some training to be able to better her life, moves, gets a job, meets a boy, falls for the boy, and then discovers something that triggers the unpleasant memory of her youth.

We have a basic story there. But, before drafting even a single sentence to tell the tale, you must determine the theme or common thread that makes it a story and not just a meandering gaggle of descriptive paragraphs with dialogue. Though a short story is brief it must have the same (if not greater) attention to theme as a much longer story or novel. With a short story, you only have the reader’s attention for a handful of pages; without a theme, it will feel like an un-fulfilling waste of time and prose. (Hardly what you want to be known for, is it?)

What is a theme? After the set up (as listed in my previous post: put the man up the tree) you have the first part of the theme: (this is where the rocks get thrown at the person in the tree)
mistaken identity
missed opportunity
regret / guilt around tragedy
persevering despite odds

And then the final step in the theme: (getting the person out of the tree)
blood is thicker than water
love triumphs
truth will set you free
good over evil
stands the test of time

You get the picture. Those themes sound trite and cheesy on their own, but the almighty ‘they’ say there isn’t anything new under the sun, and really, they’re right. Think about why Shakespeare holds up today: the basic themes are as fresh and important now as they ever were. Stick to the timeless themes of humankind and you cannot go wrong.

So what about a theme for the above story? The theme is one of overcoming — memories and obstacles in her life, then love triumphs — helping her to overcome even more. It could alternatively be (depending on how the story is written) about forgiveness and love/truth setting her free. That depends on the direction in which I want to take the story and characters.

Without understanding the thread that ties your paragraphs together, a short story will likely fail to come across as anything more than rambling for a few thousand words. Pick apart the story premise in your head before beginning to write and if you can’t see a theme in the premise, then re-jig the idea. You wouldn’t write a book without a point, so don’t write a short story without one either.

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~ by Jen on Monday, 15 May 2006 - 12:22pm.

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