Thinking about Theme

Understanding theme and how to use it

We love storytelling for so many reasons, but its ability to teach readers about the world is top of the list!

Research has found that reading to children helps to shape their understanding of the world. It’s no surprise that many parents seek out stories that deliver helpful lessons through theme.

Let’s look at what theme is, how you can harness it and a particular form of short storytelling that puts theme centre stage.

What is Theme?

Simply put, theme is what your story is really about. It’s not the characters, plot or even what happens in the story, but the universal idea that runs throughout.

A writer could have a story about an apple, banana and an orange who bully and then befriend the exotic new pomegranate in the fruit bowl. But when they’re asked, they might actually say that it’s about accepting people for who they are.

Themes can be as broad as nature or love, or as specific as standing up for those who can’t speak up for themselves. It’s also possible for the same theme to appear in lots of different stories. On the other hand, a story might not have a theme at all!

The theme is an undercurrent that runs through your story. It gives the reader something to reflect on and take with them once the story is over; it’s what makes your story meaningful.

Above: Ish by Peter Reynolds, a story with the theme of letting go of perfection.

Finding your Theme

Theme is linked to whatever your main character values most, forming the emotional core of the story.

Sometimes, the theme will come first; sometimes an idea can inspire a theme. No matter how you get there, let it come naturally. Because a theme is referenced by suggestion and hints, the reader must be able to identify it on their own.

For example, a story about a gang of pirates returning buried treasure to its owners could have a theme of appearances can be deceiving or honesty.

Here are some wonderful examples with a range of different themes:

The Girl And The Bicycle by Mark Pett

A little girl works hard all year to raise funds to buy a new bicycle, only to discover someone else has bought it first.

Themes: The value of hard work and generosity.

Hey Little Ant by Philip and Hannah Hoose

What would you do if the ant you were about to step on looked up and started talking? Would you stop and listen?

Themes: The importance of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

The dark lives in Lazlo’s house, sits in his basement, but it stays out of his room… until the lightbulb breaks.

Themes: Facing your fears.

As a much-needed layer that gives depth, theme should sit underneath everything else that happens in the story.

Some children’s writers feel the urge to make their theme stand out because they’re worried a reader will miss it. Resist that urge! First and foremost, readers want fiction to be entertaining, but a theme handled awkwardly puts a stop to this.

It’s also important to remember every reader will have their own way of looking at the world. Every reader will interpret a story differently but spelling out a theme means they can’t do this.

Discovering Fables

But what happens if you do want to make your theme the central idea in your story? There’s an entire genre dedicated to stories that share a message: fables!

Fables are a type of short story dedicated to a core theme or lesson. With animal characters and their length at a few paragraphs, fables are still enduringly popular and there’s a thirst for more.

Parents enjoy fables because they are a way of teaching lessons and giving advice without overtly nagging. Teachers love them for the same reason and because they’re compact, simple and easy to read in class.

Most importantly, children enjoy reading them because they are short, sweet and straight to the point.

Left: The Lion and the Mouse by Aesop and retold by Jeff Pinkey, a classic fable about the value of kindness. 

Writing Fables

As fables are a form of short story, they’re perfect practice for any writer.

Their length means that any dialogue, character description and exposition has to work hard. Any conflict and problems have to link to the core message, which also has to speak to a child reader and make sense.

They’re also different because the theme is the most important thing, as this is where your story’s moral comes from. 

Say, for example, you want your short story’s theme to be about valuing determination.

The traditional formula in a fable is: one of the main characters demonstrates a quality that is the exact opposite of the lesson he or she is about to learn.

So, if the theme was determination, the character would probably reveal his or her tendency to give up. 

That’s the human flaw or weakness in this story.

Your main character then needs to learn a lesson, of course.

There are several ways the character can encounter a problem and get their comeuppance – that’s one of the most enjoyable parts of plotting and planning fables.

So, depending on how the problem in the story pans out, the moral lesson at the end of the fable could be: trying your hardest is more important than the end result or don’t give up

There are often a few options for morals and even some of the best-known fables have differing moral interpretations.

The Moral of the Story is…

As with any story, loose ends should be tied up and everything resolved in the end. But in fables, you have the added challenge that your character needs to learn a lesson.

There are two ways you can do this and advantages to both options:

The Explicit Moral

This is where the character has already had his or her comeuppance and has learnt something important, but the fable concludes with a single concise statement to hammer home the lesson. Aesop’s original fables all ended this way.

The Implicit Moral

With this technique, you weave the moral into the ending and don’t state it overtly. Your reader can ponder the story can come to their own conclusions — rather like in many short stories and novels. This technique also makes fantastic practice for any writer.

Including a story theme gives your story extra weight, passing on something valuable to your readers; something that will guide them in life.

Theme can give your story an extra level that sticks with a reader forever, but if ever there was a time to write modern fables with contemporary moral lessons, it’s now. 

It’s an area of literature that depends heavily on stories written thousands of years ago. Creating fresh new approaches to fables are the perfect way to enhance your storytelling skills and find an eager audience!

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