Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Name that Theme - Part 3

While I’m not a big fan of fiction that focuses more on teaching than on story, that doesn’t mean stories shouldn’t teach. In fact, the best stories are the ones that do the best job of teaching. I’ll explain what I mean.

The best stories often take protagonists through a series of events where they have to face their most terrifying fears, overcome their biggest weaknesses, endure their greatest challenges, live through the most devastating crises of their live, and so on. As a result, protagonists often must make a journey of self-discovery where they realize they need to make internal changes in order to come out on top. If these discoveries come by way of the natural turns that the story takes – and not through author intrusion or some obvious manipulation of the story to get a certain point across—then they can ring true for us and can lead us to discover things about ourselves.

These stories with unintended messages teach us best because they let us go on our own journey of self-discovery, where we uncover our own pearls of knowledge. These might be stories that create such intrigue that even after we’ve closed the book we can’t stop thinking about what we read, pondering and wondering about its hidden meanings. It could be that certain characters, events or the whole story simply resonate with us, triggering thoughts, ideas and emotions that go beyond the pages of the book.

What do you think of this? Does any of it ring true for you? Does teaching, learning, or lack of it affect your enjoyment of a book?


  1. Theme always works best when it grows organically from the story. I think this is true because theme is a two-way communication between writer and reader. The writer plants ideas in the story which the reader then combines with his own experiences and interprets the theme for himself. So if the writer is too overt with the theme, it leaves the reader too little space for individual interpretation and the theme is weaker for it. (Something akin to writing a picture book and leaving room for the illustrator to interpret).

    Because the reader's prior knowledge is a factor in theme, sometimes people come away with different ideas about what the theme of a certain book is. Each individual reader has his own life experience which is universal in some ways but unique in other ways. While interpretations of the theme of a certain book may differ, some will be more commonly felt than others.

    And that's really the magic of story, isn't it? Thinking about the human experience from a different perspective.

  2. On second thought, two-way communication is probably not the best way to describe it. More like "collaborative effort."