One of the common myths about a story’s theme is that it must also be the story’s “moral” or “message.” Because theme always deals with fundamental truths that inevitably affect human morality, it’s easy to assume a story’s theme must always be specific and applicable to the readers.
This isn’t necessarily a false assumption. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, theme is about raising questions and suggesting answers that make people think about how to live their lives more honestly and, even, morally. However, there is a major problem with the assumption that theme is a didactic message, designed to teach people how to specifically enact the thematic principle in their own lives.
Why is that?
Think about it this way. If we create stories that tell people how to put the theme to work in their own, very individual lives, then we’re going to have to be writing story situations that apply to the vast majority of humans. Right away, you can see how such a story must become frustratingly vague (and boring). Worse, amidst all that vagueness, it’s pretty hard to hide your moralizing intent.
In middle school, I had to read stories about a group of kids who did generic, kid-like things (mowing the lawn, finding money, attending birthday parties). Every story ended with the kids learning some important lesson. The problem (which is still vivid in my mind all these years later) was that this approach–however spot-on in its intent–was more about the story’s message than its theme.
The Difference Between Your Story’s Theme and Its Message
So what’s the difference? Let’s make this easy:
Theme is a general principle.
Message is a specific example of that theme in action.
(And, yeah, I know I said the problem with a story’s message is that it was vague, not specific, but I’ll explain that in a sec.)
Theme is big stuff. Theme is justice and mercy. Theme is do unto thy neighbor. Theme is joy, peace, and love.
Message, on the other hand, is found in the specific story situations that illustrate the thematic principles. Your message is your story’s theme in action.
When your character is working through his character arc, headed away from his Lie and toward the new Truth of the theme, the plot events that act upon him and force him to take action are where we find the message. The very specificity of these story situations (just like those we encounter in real life) means whatever aspect of the theme the character is encountering in that moment is probably just a tiny piece of it. In Dramatica, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley explain:
…we know that characters often work not toward the real solution but to a perceived solution. And characters frequently grapple with a problem that is ultimately recognized as only a symptom of the real problem.
If your theme is justice and mercy, then your story’s message will probably be something much smaller and more specific to your characters, such as Mattie Ross‘s “justice is worth having, even if you must chase it down at the risk of your own life.”
Theme Is Inclusive, Message Is Exclusive
The most important difference to understand about theme and message is that theme is inclusive and message is exclusive. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Michael Hauge posits:
Theme is also not the same as message. A message, by my definition, is a political statement. It is a principle that concerns people in a particular situation and is not universally applicable to any member of the audience.
In other words, theme applies to everyone; message applies only to the characters and their specific situation. In Spider-Man, the theme is “with great power comes great responsibility,” but the message is that responsibility means donning spandex and fighting bad guys. In Spider-Man 2, the theme is that we all have the potential to be heroic, but the message is that, in order to be heroic, ” you have to be steady and give up the thing you want the most.”
I think we can all agree “with great power comes great responsibility” is a universal truth. It applies to you, me, and Kim Jong Un just as much as it does Spidey. But whatever power we may possess, it’s unlikely we’re going to exercise our responsibility for it by becoming hooded vigilantes. The story’s message is too specific to apply to us or most other viewers: it’s exclusive to people bitten by radioactive spiders.
But the theme? Ah, yes, that’s inclusive. It applies to all of us–and that’s why audiences resonated so strongly with what might otherwise have been nothing but a story about a human spider in tights.
If Message Is So Specific, How Come I Said It Will Create a Vague Story?
At the beginning of the post, I talked about how the problem with stories that focus on message rather than theme is that they end up too vague. But how does that work if message is more specific than theme?
The problem isn’t with message in general. You want your story to have a message. You can’t have a theme without a message, since your message is the vehicle on which your story’s theme will reach your readers.
The problem is when you try to make your message into your theme.
Remember those middle-grade stories I talked about? The message and the theme were exactly the same: Billy found some money, wanted to keep it, then realized the right thing to do would be to find the owner and give it back. It’s a message that applies to kids everywhere, not just Billy. The message isn’t more specific than its theme; it is the theme. The result is a message that’s too on the nose to avoid moralizing, and a story situation that’s too vague to create any real curiosity or interest in readers.
How Do You Find the Right Message for Your Story’s Theme?
Chances are your theme will arise out of your message rather than the other way around. Most stories start with their characters stuck in a situation, rather than with a theme that then needs a situation to illustrate it.
What’s important to remember is that the two are integrally linked. The theme creates the message–or vice versa. Whatever your story’s exclusive message is, it must be an illustration of your inclusive theme. When Phillips and Huntley tell us “theme will not be a universal meaning for all things, but a smaller truth pertaining to the proper way of dealing with a particular situation,” that “smaller truth” they’re talking about is the message.
Consider a few examples:
- Secondhand Lions‘ theme is having faith in people. Its message is that sometimes it’s better to believe in things because they’re worth believing in, rather than because they’re actually true.
- Jane Eyre‘s theme is self-worth. Its message is that even a great love isn’t worth enslaving your soul.
- The Old Man and the Sea‘s theme is that courage and endurance are their own reward. Its message is that trying and failing to bring in a giant swordfish will be more validating than giving up a losing fight.
Only once you’ve identified your story’s message can you use it to bring to life your story’s theme in the most powerful, integrated, and subtextual way possible. Put the two together, and you’ll have a powerhouse story that will avoid all the common myths about theme as the “moral of the story.” Try it out!
Tell me your opinion: What message is illustrating your story’s theme?
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