As an editor, one aspect of a story that I look at is theme. It is the invisible backbone of your story, a thread connecting disparate events that would otherwise appear random. Themes are often polarized, and multiple themes can emerge, creating opportunities for adding depth.
How do you identify your theme? Sometimes it’s difficult unless you start out with one in mind. Most of my books are based around the hero’s journey and detail how large events shape, and sometimes skew, the protagonists’ morals and ethics.
A common theme in fantasy is the juxtaposition of chaos and stability (or order). Good versus evil is a trope of the speculative fiction genre. Evil is usually portrayed by taking one or the other of these concepts to an extreme.
Riffing on the hero’s journey allows me to employ the theme of good vs. evil and the sub-themes of brotherhood and love of family. These concepts are important to me personally, so they find their way into my writing.
What themes are important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? I am not talking genre here; instead, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common? That commonality is probably the theme.
Theme is rarely stated baldly. Even if it isn’t overtly stated, it’s a unifying thread that goes through the story from beginning to end.
When an author is new to writing short stories, limiting the background information, and sticking to the theme can be the most challenging part. In my own early drafts, I often have a lot of information that doesn’t advance the story.
Still, I have found that writing backstory is a form of mind-wandering, an exercise that helps to cement the story in my mind. For this reason, I write the backstory in a separate document.
In the final draft, that 2000 words of background information I so lavishly laid down is not needed. Nor is any background on the setting required unless the location is a core plot point.
You must focus on one idea in a short story and riff on it until you reach the end. If you are writing for a themed anthology or magazine, you are fortunate! The editors have given you a framework on which to hang your plot.
So, what is theme actually? It’s different from the subject of a work. An example that most people know of, is the Star Wars series and franchise. The subject is “the battle for control of the galaxy between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance.” The themes are “moral ambiguity” or “the conflict between technology and nature.”
At some point, serious writers become brave enough to submit their work to a magazine or anthology. Most anthologies and many magazines are themed.
When you choose to submit to an open call for themed work, your manuscript must demonstrate your understanding of what is meant by the word ‘theme’ as well as your ability to craft compelling prose and produce a clean, well-edited manuscript.
I write and submit many short stories. It’s always intriguing how some find good homes in anthologies and other publications, and others don’t. When the story is good enough but “lacking something” indefinable, even our writing group members may not see why a particular story doesn’t work.
Possibly, there is no unifying theme to give events and conversations meaning.
The next installment in this series will go further into building a plot around a theme, or conversely, identifying and expanding on the theme in your already-written story.