Tag Archives: theme and the short story

Theme part 2 #amwriting

Not every anthology is themed, but many are. Most will also be restricted to one genre (romance, sci-fi, fantasy, crime) or a particular location, like a city or a place such as a coffee shop, etc. This is because theme alone isn’t enough to unify a book encompassing ten or more stories that are widely divergent in genre.

The concept of how to create a cohesive anthology was explained to me this way:

Consider a community art project where you ask five local artists to paint murals of cats to be displayed in the local community center. You will get five wildly divergent styles, and clashing colors, and cats that don’t go together well. But, if you ask them to paint black cats (or orange or red), your community wall art will have a consistency that celebrates the variety of the artists’ different styles rather than an eye-bleeding jumble of cats.

Therefore, when planning a story for a particular anthology, you must take the theme and any other setting or genre restrictions and run with it.

The first thing I do is research all the synonyms for that word. I recently wrote for an anthology with the theme of Escape, and it had to be set in the Pacific Northwest. I set my story in Olympia, Washington, in the area I grew up in. With my setting established, I went online and looked up every synonym for the word “escape.”

The above list is an image and not text, but feel free to copy it for your files.

Then after I had all the synonyms, I looked for the antonyms, the opposites.

Capture. Imprisonment. Confront.

Once I had a full understanding of all the many nuances of the theme, I asked myself how I could write a fantasy set in my real-world environment. My solution was to set it in a historical time, the late 1950s. I was a very small child then so anything I know about that era is a fantasy that I learned from television.

Then, I began plotting. I asked what my character needed most in her effort to escape. My gut answer was courage.

Sometimes, it helps if I use polarities (opposites, contrasts) to flesh out a character. These polarities helped me in fleshing out a protagonist and also the antagonist:

  • courage – cowardice
  • crooked – honorable
  • cruel – kind

As an editor, when I begin reading a short story, I want the first paragraphs to hook me. Those opening sentences establish three vital things:

  1. They introduce the problem.
  2. They introduce the characters and show us how they see themselves.
  3. They introduce the theme.

When writing a short story, it helps to know how it will end. I suggest you put together a broad outline of your intended story arc. I’m a retired bookkeeper, so I have a mathematical approach to this. Divide your story arc into quarters, so you have the essential events in place and occurring at the right time.

Assume you have a 4,000 word limit for your short story.

The Setup: The first 250 words are the setup and hook. You must have a compelling hook. In some cases, the first line is the clincher, but especially in a short story, by the end of the first page, you must have your reader hooked and ready to be enthralled.

The next 750 words take your characters out of their comfortable existence and launch them into “the situation” –will they succeed or not? What will be your inciting incident? How does it relate to the theme?

The next 2,500 words detail how the protagonist arrives at a resolution. What is the goal/objective? How does it relate to the theme? How did the underlying theme affect every aspect of the protagonists’ evolution in this story?

The final 500 words of your story are the wind-up. You might end on a happy note or not—it’s your story, but no matter what else you do, in a short story, nothing should be left unresolved. For this reason, subplots should not be introduced into the short story.

Word Count: Many times, publications and anthologies will have strict limits on the word count, such as no more than 4,000 or less than 2,000. For this reason, when writing short stories, we keep the cast of characters to a minimum.

When you’re only allowed 4,000 words, you must make each one count. You want that story to be the one the publication’s editor can’t put down.

We also keep the setting narrow: one place, one environment, be it a cruise ship, a restaurant, or a gas station—the location shouldn’t be epic in scale.

In a novel, side-quests and subthemes help keep the story interesting. This should go without saying, but you would be surprised at how often it doesn’t: you have no room to introduce side-quests in a short story.

When your writing mind has temporarily lost its momentum, and you are stretching the boundaries of common sense, it’s time to stop and consider the central themes. It helps to remind myself of the elements that really drive a plot.

Allegory is an essential tool for the author who wants to underline a theme and express crucial ideas with the least number of words. Using allegory and symbolism in the objects in the environment is a way to subtly underscore your theme. It allows you to show more without resorting to info dumps.

Consider a scene where you want to convey a sense of danger. Go to the “D” section of the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms and look up “danger”:

  • danger – safety

Just past danger, we find

  • dark – light

And just beyond dark, we find

  • despair – hope

All of the above polarities would play well to the theme and would give your characters depth.

In any work, novel or short story, once you have identified the main theme, you can write the story in such a way that it is shown through:

  • Actions
  • Symbolic settings/places
  • Allegorical objects deliberately placed within the setting
  • Conversations

One final suggestion: Don’t think you can pull out some old story you have in a drawer, dust it off and tack on the theme word in a few places. No editor will be fooled.

Editors will look for many things when they are reading submissions. But no matter how brilliant the story is, if it doesn’t explore the theme well enough, they won’t accept it.

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