Mixed Messages

mixedmessagesblogI 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.

11 Comments on Mixed Messages

  1. Summer Connell | January 29, 2013 at 10:02 am | Reply

    When I write a story or anything like that I automatically think of a theme that will go with the rest of the story. I immediately go straight to the message in the beginning of the story wanting everybody to know what the story is going to be about. It’s like I’m saying ”Nothing else matters until you know my message!” But I still think that it’s ok to SET a theme without exactly telling you the theme. kinda like saying,” I live in a forest” but instead saying ” The trees rustled outside my house” That wasn’t exactly a good example but it was good enough.

  2. DeZerae Fraijo | January 29, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Reply

    In all honesty, I’ve never even thought about a theme for my story. I really just write and write. It really didn’t occur to me until now that there really is a theme buried beneath all of these words that I’ve written.
    I’m thinking back and I really can see a theme blooming in my story, and it was entirely unintentional.
    I guess my mind knew the theme well before I could even pick up a single thread of it’s existence!

  3. The best pieces I’ve written are those that I approach without a theme. Sometimes I start with a single general concept, or a line that has some potential, but hardly ever with a theme.
    Most of the time, when readers pick up a story, they’re not going, “I want to read a story about divorce!” It’s far more common for a reader to just want to hear a good story. Don’t think about messages–just put your pen to the page, or your fingers to the keyboard, and write until your fingers fall off.
    Write well, write often.

  4. janet anderson | January 31, 2013 at 7:32 am | Reply

    wow…. i feel like i just write and write and i finish my story but in reality its just all rubbish and does not make any sense when i first write everything goes through my mind i call it “free minded” i just put all my thoughts on paper but it never occurs to me that i have no theme and when someone reads it their like uhh… what is it about so therefore i should really take the time and think of a theme or at least one that is similar to my upcoming story (in mind)

  5. That is so true and i usually don’t think of the theme first i just write and continue on the story and let the reader figure it out for them self. It’s kind of like a mystery untill you get toward the end and really remember all of the foreshadowing that ties in with everything at the end and you really start to see why all of those rocks are important

  6. JessicaRae Padilla | February 6, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Reply

    When I write I don’t really have an exact point that needs to be made. I start with an idea and make a story out of it. I don’t usually think of a setting theme or even characters until I am in the writing process, after writing my first draft I go back read it then make any changes that are necessary adding to it things that make it a story.

  7. As I find myself writing I don’t tend to include a theme. I feel as if it wouldn’t make the story or whatever I’m writing have any interest in it. Therefore it is better if the reader just figures out the theme on their own which will add interest to the story. It is just best keep the reader thinking about the theme as they try to make connections to the story.

  8. The themes in a literary work aren’t all that easy to find because good authors don’t implement crowbar reading. A literary work with the theme stressed too much would be very boring to read. It wouldn’t be about the plot or characters, but the theme.

    • I meant to say The themes in a literary work aren’t all that easy to find because good authors don’t implement crowbar fiction. A literary work with the theme stressed too much would be very boring to read. It wouldn’t be about the plot or characters, but the theme

  9. Basing the story on one theme can make the story very one dimensional which you see a lot in school papers, but now it is clear to me why it is not good for it to be one dimensional like that. Characters, setting, and ect. are much more important then setting a scene.

  10. dina rodriguez | March 4, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Reply

    Wow you realy tell your english class to find the theme!? No offence but i dont care about theme as long as the story keeps me on edge is all i care about. But thats just me.
    You are right NEVER MAKE YOUR MESSAGE SO APPERENT PEOPLE!!!!! It makes the story bad. Unless your wrighting something only you will ever read and your saying what you learned. But if your wrighting for people to read then dont shove it in there face. Like you said Mr. Gansky “hitting the driver with a crowbar”.

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