What's the Difference Between Your Story's Theme and Its Message?

What’s the Difference Between Your Story’s Theme and Its Message?

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.”

Robert Duvall (Ned Pepper)  and his gang capture Kim Darby (Mattie Ross), and he forces Cogburn and Le Boeuf to abandon the girl.

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.

Tobey Maguire Spider-Man 2

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 Lionstheme 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.

 Second Hand Lions Jane Eyre Old Man and the Sea

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?

What's the Difference Between Your Story's Theme and Its  Message?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. In my last book, I do establish the message that bullying is wrong, especially if the victim lacks the physical, mental or emotional skills to defend themselves. While this message is quite clear throughout, I try to leave the reader to make up their own minds as to who to blame after the protagonist has finally had enough and solves the bullying problem by shooting up his school. So far, I have had quite a few different answers and none of them the protagonist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good example! You’ve got a broadly inclusive theme of “bullying is wrong,” but a very specific situation within your school shooting.

    • As I read the article, “bullying is wrong” would be a theme, as it is applicable to everyone.

      “Bullying gun owners who lack the physical, mental or emotional skills to defend themselves is a really bad idea” would be a message.

  2. KM, I hadn’t thought about Theme vs Message before you brought it into this beautiful blog. I am so glad to have signed in for your updates. In recent days I have been almost overwhelmed by your generosity toward others in the art and craft of writing. I certainly owe you five-star reviews for two of your books: Outlining your Novel (2011) and Structuring your Novel (2013).

    About my message and theme

    I wrote the Schellendorf series of four historical novels as a direct result of living in Germany for a couple of years after WW II. There I learned from the ‘other side’; about the dangers and horrors and privations suffered by the ordinary German citizen during that terrible conflict. Many years later I wrote The English General, about a general in Hitler’s army trying to find balance and honour in his military duty. According to your theory, this is the message of the story. Duty and honour are all that he strives so mightily to do – and yet in the end he feels that he has failed.
    The implicit theme, however, is that although we may be fighting on opposite sides, our experiences, emotions and objectives are no different: all people are the same under the skin.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, your books are a splendid example of a very clearly defined theme and message. I would further refine what you’ve said here to say that your message is explicit in Erich’s situation as an Englishman enmeshed in the German Army – obviously a very exclusive situation that would apply to few if any of your readers. But it presents a hugely inclusive theme in its exploration of duty and honor.

  3. Tough question. But with a potential to make world of difference 🙂

    • Kinza, if I look at all my novels, nothing changes. The only difference for me is that I have been able to analyse both message and theme. They were already there before I ever thought about them.
      What I mean by this is – it hasn’t made any difference at all to the stories. Message and Theme are intrinsic components of any good story. Rather than plan for them, I find they just fall naturally into place.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree with what Lyn said. The great advantage of identifying and separating theme and message is that it takes the pressure off our having to create some kind of “moral message” for our theme. The only place the “moral” of the story has to play out is within the story’s specific message, and the only people *that* message is aimed is the characters.

  4. I’m in edits on #3 in my series, so it’s fresh on my mind. My series theme is the importance of finding and claiming your identity.

    The message of #3 is that every life is worth saving. It doesn’t matter how screwed up you think you are, or how much you think you deserve to be miserable or dead. You are unique, you are you, and you cannot be replaced.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Without knowing more about your story, it’s difficult for me to say anything for sure, but “every life is worth saving” sounds closer to your second book’s theme (versus the series theme as a whole) – since that’s something that applies to everyone, not just your characters. Your message is probably buried just a little deeper in the specific scenario your characters are going through to claim this thematic Truth.

      • Yes, it is buried in there. There’s one specific life the hero is focused on, and Ro thinks he’s not worth the hero’s effort. He’s on the wrong side of everything when it comes to their culture and society, at the bottom of the bottom. And the hero is risking everything to make sure Ro gets a chance to find his happily ever after.

        By saving Ro, the life everyone around them thinks shouldn’t be allowed to exist, the hero is making a very strong statement about the value of life in general and this life specifically. And giving Ro a chance to forge an identity based on what he wants to be instead of what’s been forced on him.

  5. My story’s message (which has taken quite awhile to emerge!) is that my protagonist must learn to trust God rather than himself for his sister’s ultimate safety, because in reality he’s not in control – God is. The theme, which is displayed in a variety of different scenarios throughout the book, is simple: “trust.” (Which is ironic, because the name of the book is “The Trusted”…and it’s had that name for ages, long before I recognized its themes and message!)

  6. thomas h cullen says:

    Intelligent post (a parallel one of sorts, to the one that had differentiated plot concept and premise from one another.).

    Family. One of the core themes of The Representative.

    …..That of all the possible sources, of fulfilment and of the innermost happiness, there’s absolutely nothing to compete with possessing a child of one’s own.

  7. In my Candyland story the theme is freedom. And it’s message is “phsycopaths make terrible rulers.”
    In my focus WIP, Wishes Of The Few, the theme is “a person’s a person, no matter what they look like.” And it’s message is that just because one race had a member that killed millions of people doesn’t mean you have to hurt other members of his race.

  8. This is a great post, but pretty much everything I would have said has already been said.

    But I still want to comment to tell you that I FINALLY was able to afford the e-book versions of your two new workbooks, and I LOVE LOVE LOVE them already! I’ve been bragging about them to anybody who will listen so hopefully I will lead others to pick them up as well. Thanks so much for doing those!

    Merry Christmas!’ish

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m tickled pink you’re enjoying the workbooks! Absolutely makes my day to hear they’re being helpful. 🙂 Merry Christmas to you too!

  9. Wow. Your posts challenge me each time. One day I *might* just have a great book thanks to all this. This one made me think so much you may be able to hear my synapses firing wherever you are.

    The inciting event of my story is the end of WWI. People try to pick up their lives and their aspirations from the ruins. In a nutshell: The two main characters are women. Both are from poor backgrounds and want to do better than their parents, i.e., climb up the social ladder. They face difficult decisions regarding their love lives which conflict with these aspirations. One ends up giving up on love but gaining the social status. She tries to replace the need for love with other things that turn out to be meaningful but can’t replace love. However, a small opening is left to allow her to claim love back – which happens in book 2. The other character chooses love that comes with the freedom and happiness she aspired to, but with an even lower social standing than she had to start with.

    So the theme, I think, is life choices and the power they hold.

    As for the message, I’m not sure exactly. Right now, it seems that what I’m saying is that you must sacrifice status for love, which is not the point of the story. The story is about what guides one’s choices. Is it fear, social convention and distrust, or is it faith and the aspiration to feel whole? Maybe my message is that the safe choice may not make one happy? Or that there is always a choice one can take to change one’s life for the better? Or…?

    This is just my first stab at this. Somehow, I feel it may be possible to frame it all under a different theme and message. A bit confused, I admit.

    I can’t stop thinking about this!
    It feels like putting your story through psychotherapy 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you’re right on the money to me. Your message will always be uber-specific. It’s the specific situation in which your theme plays out. So if you’re illustrating theme through the story of a woman who sacrifices love for status, then that is probably your message, even though the theme or what the story is “about” is obviously much broader.

  10. Thank you for all your posts on writing. I have enjoyed reading around your blog and will be pondering the difference between theme and message…

  11. Thank you

  12. I just came upon this post, and I must say ‘thank you, thank you, thank you!’ Your clear and profound explanation of theme really helps me develop the theme for a story that was going all over the place. Of course that means I’m also going to have to cut major portions of the manuscript, but I’m ready. Scalpel, please.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Awesomesauce! Theme is such a great guideline for the what story is *really* about–and thus what needs to stay and what needs to go. Happy revising!

  13. Mallory says:

    I think my story’s theme is: You can’t embrace and fulfill your destiny without facing your fears.

    Something like that, anyway. I’m still in the middle of the first draft stage so everything, including my story’s message, is a little hazy at this point.

    Do you have any tips for me? Do think the theme will become clearer and the message resolve itself as I write?

    How did my story’s theme become the same as my writing theme? Writing a novel is scary! 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Plot, character, and theme are the three corner posts of a story. We have to juggle them all at the same time to get the story to work. As you discover your plot, you also discover your theme–and vice versa. So as you work on your story, you’ll undoubtedly learn more about your theme and its message. But I wouldn’t leave it all up to chance either. Keep returning to the theme to make sure the plot you’re creating is the best vehicle for delivering that message.

  14. antal leisen says:

    On regarding you as one who knows Dramatica inside out, please brief me on selecting thematic focus when the story has four throughlines with each having its own different quads of themes .
    f.e.:
    OS: senses vs. interpretation
    MC: truth vs. falsehoods
    IC: fate vs. destiny
    M/I: situation vs. circumstances

    Theory book however advises only on exploring the feel of a quad – but not on the feel of the story as a whole pertaining to the overall theme.

    Studying your differentiating on theme from message, I suppose you to be so kind and savvy to elaborate on the topic now from this Dramatica angle and not to shrug it off with a reply of “ask the authors”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like Dramatica a lot, but I don’t consider myself an expert on it and really can’t remember this aspect of it well enough to offer a worthwhile opinion.

Trackbacks

  1. […] What’s the Difference Between a Story’s Message and Theme? “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.” […]

  2. […] are many choices to consider when you’re thinking about your themes and the message of your story. As you plan your novel or draft, think about how explicit you want your message to be. Do you want […]

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