I teach both American Literature and Creative Fiction Writing, and often feel like I’m sending mixed messages to my kids. Imagine my feeling of hypocrisy when, in my American Literature class, I implore my students to “find the theme” in whatever novel or story we’re reading, and, in the following class, encourage my Creative Fiction Writing students to “not worry about writing with a theme in mind.”
So perhaps I should take some time to clarify where I’m going with that seemingly contradictory message.
When we write fiction, our goal should not be to write with a particular theme or message in mind. If we do, the rest of the story, the characters, the setting, etc. all become slaves to the “message.” In that case, the story becomes overly didactic, and the story is not strong enough to support whatever “theme” the author originally intended. So, by setting out to write a story about “the evils of drunk driving,” (as some student wants to do every semester), their attention to that message cripples their story, and thereby, their theme.
Another paradox—the more you assert your “message,” the less effective it is.
Instead, our goal should be to avoid “soap-box fiction,” as it so easily slips into what I call “crowbar fiction.” I use this term as a metaphor of the reading experience, which is a lot like being beat over the head with a crowbar while the author shrieks “Pay attention to my message! Look at my theme! Drunk driving is EVIL!!!!!!” (See all those exclamation marks? Yeah, it’s that bad.)
How then do you write with a message in mind?
Simple. Forget about the message.
Tell the story.
When you’re done with your first draft, read what you’ve written. The story will tell you what the theme is, and then you have my permission to revise with that theme in mind. But it must be organic and subtle. It must not be overly didactic. If you’re still, and read your story with a quiet heart, it will present its theme to you. These are how the powerful themes are created.