So, this week, after a flurry of activity trying to get my current projects—both freelance and writing—DONE, I find myself suddenly in project limbo. And, since I am absolutely dismal at passing time with that thing that people do called “relaxing,” I decided this weekend was as good a time as any to commit to churning out 10,000 words over the course of two days on one of the first drafts that’s been wallowing in my drawer over the past few months. There’s already been some devastating betrayals and a couple actiony bits, but sitting down to write this morning, I actually stumbled upon a scene between my protagonist and one of the major antagonists of this new story. It was a short scene—maybe three or four pages, but what struck me in this scene was the dialogue, which I won’t, for your own sanity, subject you to at this point. Suffice to say, it made me realize the tropes I wanted to write about this week:
Children, especially pretty, nicely brought-up young ladies, ought never to talk to strangers; if they are foolish enough to do so, they should not be surprised if some greedy wolf consumes them, elegant red riding hoods and all.
—Angela Carter’s Bluebeard
There are far too many stories where the moral of the story is painfully, sometimes anviliciously presented, the most famous of which are Aesop’s Fables (hence, the tvTrope term for overt story morals: the Aesop). And while there is nothing particularly wrong with a story having a message, a story whose message is the only important thing about it can hardly be called a story at all. Because stories are not just pretty vehicles for messages which might be better communicated through the post: the best stories are living, breathing entities, with a logic and a morality and a reality all their own. They don’t give simple messages, because simple messages exist only in simple worlds: and the best stories, no matter where they’re set, say something about our world, which is anything but simple.
Themes, on the other hand, are very useful both in making sense of the stories we read, as well as clarifying the heart of the stories we write—because Themes, unlike Aesops, do not pare down reality or feeling to some pithy declaration of UNIVERSAL SIGNIFICANCE. Themes, instead, pose a question. Where Aesops are declarative, Themes are interrogative, and it is this open-endedness, this invitation for readers to engage with the story, that makes themes so important. Not only that, a theme helps focus your writing without oversimplifying it—because if you know the aspects of life that you want to explore, it makes it that much easier to know what situations and conflicts and characters will best illuminate those aspects: it can guide your plotting, your dialogue, your everything, without constraining you to a single foregone conclusion: the villain doesn’t always receive their just punishment; the hero doesn’t always win. And while such endings might be enough to break an Aesop, they may also manage to say something very important about a more general theme.
Do not believe everything your English teacher tells you: more than likely, they are making something up.
This also applies to things you read on the internet.
Do not trust this blog.