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Writing Short Stories - The Theme Of Your Story

( Originally Published 1922 )



What Theme Is.—Every story must have a start, a beginning, a foundation. Such a nucleus we call the theme. The theme of the story is that part of the story about which the author builds his complete production. Of course, the theme of the story may not be the germ idea or the bare incident that suggests the story, but from the germ idea or suggestion or emotion must grow the theme, for the writer must have ability to determine in his own mind what he means to impress on the reader before he can go ahead with his work. I will now mention various themes upon which uncounted stories have been based.

Example of Themes.—Idleness breeds evil—a loving wife must have a certain amount of attention and consideration —sacrifice for an ideal begets its own reward—to have a friend one must be a friend—bitterness and intolerance breed hatred and revolt—you cannot beat a man at his own game —a man may stifle the voice of conscience by constant excuses for himself—a true happiness in life rests in doing and being some real good—fear begets fear and is the wrong mental attitude—and if a person is to dance he must pay the fiddler. There is really hardly an end to the number of suitable themes for possible stories. The reason that certain themes are used in predominate quantities by story writers is that these themes adapt themselves regularly to problems and conditions of every-day life and strike a responsive cord in the heart of everyone. Thus, the themes founded upon the problems of married life strike home to a large proportion of magazine and story readers. The emotions sketched and the complications developed are followed with intense interest, because in many cases the reader can consider what has happened to himself under like circumstances. He may ponder over the things he might have done if placed in a like position with the hero or heroine that the story portrays. When you come to think of it, all of us, regardless of our positions in life, our education, training, and the like, are moved by the same fundamental, traditional, hereditary emotions and instincts. Under the superficialities and conventions of civilization, we are all made from the same clay, breathe the same air, shed tears over like sorrows, and respond to like joys and adversities. Thus it is, a story that is founded upon some great, fundamental, well-known theme has an excellent chance of being emotionally and dramatically strong, if developed in a suspense-arousing and original fashion. The theme really has little to do with the originality of your story. The originality depends entirely upon the manner in which you handle the incidents illuminating your theme. Originality does not enter into the theme itself. That must be left to a later development.

How a Theme Might Suggest Itself to You.—Let us, for a moment, consider the theme of injustice, of how it breeds hatred and revolt. Consider the stories and novels that have been founded upon this theme. The history of the world is a history of people revolting against oppression—of a rapid development to a high state of happiness and prosperity under benevolence and efficient administration. A young man of your acquaintance may be working in a shop or office. Suppose someone in authority over him should severely reprimand him before a number of his co-workers. Would this young man mutiny against the authority of his superior? Would he perform his duties as faithfully as he would were he surrounded by an air of friendly co-operation? Suppose you yourself had witnessed some such an incident as this? Offhand, it might not mean a great deal to you, but, on consideration, you would perceive that right under your eyes was fruit for your basket of story plots. Such a theme might develop in any number of ways. The young man spoken of might be revengeful or he might be broad-minded enough to teach his employer a lesson by doing some great good for him. Such a theme would be capable of many varieties of development, just as any theme is.

A Typical Theme.—You may have read in the news-papers of prospectors, hunters, explorers, and the like, who have been away from civilization for a long period of time. Perhaps you yourself have at times been away from all social beings, have been cooped up by yourself with only your thoughts and the great outdoors for company. What effect did or would such a life have upon you? How would you react to the loneliness of such a life? Armstrong Livingston, in his story, "Over The Horizon," treats of such a theme.

Its Development.—His story deals with a prospector who, in the early Spring, goes into the wilds of northern Montana in search of gold. The prospector reaches his destination and toils day in and day out for the precious metal. The surroundings about him are desolate, drear, barren. The solitary life and atmosphere bears down his spirit, transforming him into a morose being. The loneliness becomes so nerve-racking that he welcomes with great joy the friendly advances of a marten. The hero cultivates the visits of the little animal with great care. He thinks that without some living object to be interested in, he will go raving mad. At this point, a trapper hoves into view. He is hunting martens. The two men are talking together when the hero's friendly little marten sticks his head into view. The trapper makes a remark regarding the value of the marten's fur, whereupon the narrator of the story, whom we will term the hero, explodes with the statement that the marten is his own companion and is not to be molested. The trapper departs. Sometime later, a rifle shot is heard down in the gully. Hours flit by. The marten does not return to visit the hero. The latter becomes frantic. He gloats over the thought of what a joyful feeling it would be to tear the trapper limb from limb. The hero by now has concluded that the trapper shot his pet.

A few days later, when the hero has become almost desperate in his loneliness, the trapper again appears. In his pack of skins, the prospector notices a pelt that looks extremely familiar. He is convinced that the trapper actually did shoot the marten of whom he has grown so fond. The prospector stealthily reaches for his gun. He sees blood. He will murder the trapper who so treacherously killed the marten. Tragedy, at this point, is barely averted by the marten suddenly poking his nose over the top of a log. The hero starts. Three other little noses poke themselves over the top of the log. Suddenly, the hero understands. The marten has given birth to three babies—its absence is thereby explained. A great tragedy has been narrowly sidestepped.

As you will note from the foregoing, although the theme is old,its enunciation is original. Now ask yourself how you would have had this man reacting to the influences of loneliness that assailed him on all sides.

Themes Based on Circumstance.--Not all themes can be !stated in such terms and problems of life as I have given. Many of the themes of adventure stories are based upon some dramatic situation. Thus, an adventure story might be based upon the dramatic, clever, and entirely original manner in which a hero extricated himself from a hazardous position—how a business man put a deal over on his rival —how a political campaign was put across—how a lover put it over on a rival, and so on. Such themes cannot be stated in definite terms of life or character—rather are they unique twists of circumstance and situation arousing the suspense and interest of the reader. Upon such situations are stories of incidents, adventure, intrigue, and the like, usually founded. All contributing incidents lead up to a vivid explosion of this main situation that usually is placed at the point of climax. Thus, in one of Ben Ames Williams' stories, the main situation is the impersonation of a wealthy young man by a rogue who bears a striking resemblance to this wealthy young hero. The disguised rogue imitates the hero in all his mannerisms and studies the latter's former life in all the details. He is assuming the role of the hero with great finesse upon the sudden return of the latter. The story proceeds with an absorbing account of the strenuous efforts of the hero to prove that he is himself, and equally determined efforts on the part of the impostor to prove that he isn't.

Other Elements on Which Stories Are Based.—Many stories find their inception in strong, primeval emotions —envy, hatred, ambition, the struggle between love and duty, and so on. Other stories may be based upon the elaboration of ideas. Such stories are usually termed "purpose or problem" stories. As such, they may be based upon the discussion of social conditions—prohibition, politics, a man's duty to his country. And still other stories may be built around some particular setting in which a person's environment, his location, or his surroundings, are stressed to bring out their effects upon him. In the main, however, stories usually are based upon character, incident or situation, and emotion--only occasionally upon idea or setting. It is very difficult, too, for one to say definitely that a story is based upon character, upon emotion, or upon incident, for very few stories are restricted to any one of these. Usually, any two or all three of them enter into the basis of the story. Thus, a story may show the reaction of various characters to strong emotions, these emotions brought out by their placement under certain strained circumstances and in unexpected situations. If character, emotion, and incident were all brought forth in an equal degree, there would result a story of character, incident, and emotion. The truth is, most of our present-day stories are built up in just this fashion, although a large proportion do stress character and the manner in which certain characters respond to other characters, emotions, incidents, or to their own good or bad impulses. It does not much matter what you stress in a story provided you give to it a new twist and a new tone, provided the story arouses the emotions of your reader or the suspense of the reader regarding the outcome, and with all this is sincerely and logically told.

To give definitions, to classify the various distinctions of theme, and to give the examples of each type of theme, the following is offered :

Theme Further Defined.—The theme bears the same relation to the story that the foundation bears to the finished skyscraper; It is the underlying idea, the causation of the story, the truth or moral on which the plot is based. It receives its vital spark of life from any one of innumerable philosophies of life, strange and suggestive experiences, odd characters, human passions, and the like. The theme is that which the', writer wishes to impress upon his reader, the central idea which he wishes to set forth as impressively and significantly as possible.

Stories Based on Character.—All stories have characters of some sort in various numbers. Some writers will wish to base their stories on the study of an odd character with whom they are intimately acquainted, and whose passions and peculiarities, in reaction with the other characters of the story together with the circumstances in which all the characters are placed, they feel will prove entertaining and worthy of portrayal. All stories in which characterization or the conflicts of various emotions predominate, are stories of character. A story in which a son, by force of circumstances, must choose between the love of his mother and the respect and worship of his father, set off by situations necessary to give the story suspense, is a story of character. The study in a story based on such a theme would be a study of the son.

Stories Based on Incidents...—Characters must act, must engage in enterprises, the more interesting and harrowing the better. Stories of incident ordinarily are stories of adventure, productions in which thrilling, exciting, ever-rushing action is featured above all else. In stories of pure adventure, the characters usually are subordinate to incident; we demand only that the hero be brave and crafty, the heroine pretty and lovable. And, though the main characters conflict with various others in the story of incident, we are not so much interested in the influence event, emotion, and circumstance have on the hero's and heroine's nature, as we are in the manner in which they will extricate themselves from some pressing danger. The themes on which stories of adventure are based are many and varied. Examples are: "Arabian Nights," "Robinson Crusoe," Merimee's "Taking of the Redoubt," together with Scott's, Dumas', and a number of Stevenson's writings, "Treasure Island," for instance.

Stories Based on Setting.—Next come stories of setting, in which the greatest emphasis is placed upon the background, the tone, the time, the place, or the conditions of the story. Thus, I might desire to write a story in which some phase of nature—the sea or the foreboding mountains—has an overwhelming effect upon man's life; or, again, I might know of some strange and mysterious building on which I could base a story of the supernatural, as Poe did in "The Fall of the House of Usher." The pervading mysterious atmosphere of a certain house gave Poe his theme. His next problem was to build up incidents occurring in or near the house to bear out the original theme of the supernatural.

Characters ordinarily will be actuated according to the conditions in which they are placed or the localities in which they are set. If you are put in a healthful, beautiful, and sunny land of flowers and singing birds, you are quite likely to be optimistic and to react differently than if you are placed in the New York tenement district. The complications of setting .Ire limitless.

Stories Based on Emotion.—Next in order comes the story of emotion, that based on some great passion or perturbation of the soul—love, fear, hate, duty, faith. Thus, with some stories love predominates; or we may have a production based upon a jealous husband or lover. A story built upon any one of these emotions and in which character, incident, and setting are subordinate to the emotion aroused in the heart of the reader, is a true story of emotion. Bulwer Lytton, in his story "The House and the Brain," evidently had in mind the production of the emotions of fear and horror, as had Poe in many of his stories of the supernatural.

Stories Based on Ideas.-Lastly in this category comes the story; of idea, the result, ordinarily, of the author's philosophies of life. One and all of us during certain periods of life observe inharmonies of human nature, and odd social reactions: among people, which, if set off in the texture of a story, might prove illuminating to man. The writer might have seen examples in which a poor and unobtrusive, but deserving and talented, young man or woman was received with less consideration than another individual, the latter more prosperously placed but having less true culture and humility. The possibilities of stories based on ideas are without end; they include all ideas of life and may be either humorous or tragic. An excellent story of idea is Edward Everett Hale's "The Man Without a Country." Hale's intention in this story was to bring clearly and powerfully to the reader's mind, lest he forget, just what his country means to him.

The greatest themes are those which are based on the fundamental sensations and passions of human life, those which might grip an Eskimo in the far North and which might touch a responsive chord in the breast of a swarthy Arab. It is stories based on elemental themes, such as fear or love, that will live longest, for from the earliest epochs man has experienced fear and love, and doubtless always will.

How and Where to Secure Your Themes.—Now that the prospective author understands what theme is, and the type of stories that he may write, he may next ask, "How am I to think of "a theme?" There are a number of ways in which his thoughts may be assisted. He may secure his inspiration from his everyday life. He may be working side by side with some ambitious young man who has beautiful visions but who is shackled down by lack of confidence in himself, and who requires a mental revolution to make him really determined to grasp 'a fulfillment of his ideal, though it may mean the draining of his life's last blood. Or, again, the young author may look down into his own heart to analyze the fiber of his own nature. If he is broad-minded, he will see much therein to write of.

Another prolific source of themes is that of reading books. Ofttimes while reading a story it may suddenly occur to one that the hero, if placed under different conditions, might react in a very entertaining, original manner. Most themes permit of a multitude of developments, according to the mind that uses them.

Regarding the inspiration given by the reading of books, Robert Lewis Stevenson says in his article, `Books Which Have Influenced Me "A book which has been very influential upon me fell early into my hands, and so may stand first, though I think its influence was only sensible later on, and perhaps still keeps growing, for it is a book not easily outlived, the Essais of Montaigne. That temperate and genial picture of life is a great gift to place in the hands of persons of today; they will find in these smiling pages a magazine of heroism and wisdom, all of an antique strain; they will have their `linen decencies,' and excited orthodoxies fluttered, and will (if they have any gift of reading) perceive that these have not been fluttered without some excuse and ground of reason; and (again if they have any gift of reading) they will end by seeing that this old gentleman was in a dozen ways a finer fellow, and held in a dozen ways a nobler view of life, than they or their contemporaries."

The wise writer allows the world to be his sphere of observation; allows the world, and every part and particle of the world, every object of nature, every bit of news, every suggestive happening, no matter to whom or in what manner it occurs, prove grain to his grist. As Hamilton W. Mabie cites: "He fed himself with any kind of knowledge which was at hand; if books were at his elbow, he read them; if pictures and engravings, he studied them; if nature was within walking distance, he watched nature; if men were about him he learned the secrets of their skill; if he were on shipboard he knew the dialect of the vessel in the briefest possible time; if he traveled by stage he sat by the driver and learned all about the road, the country, the people, and the art of his companion; if he had a spare hour in a village in which there was a manufactory, he went through it with a keen eye, and learned the method's used in it."

Themes to Be Barred.—The young author, in choosing his theme, may decide on one which has been the foundation of innumerable other stories he, has read. Everything we read, everything we hear or see, is placed firmly in our mind, though we may not be able consciously to bring each mental record to instant recollection. Nevertheless, it still persists ; hence, if we choose an old and much-used theme for elaboration, we may be apt to work it out on the lines on which other stories, with themes similar or identical to the one we have chosen, have been developed. It will all be without intention, yet the danger is there. So, in choosing an oft-utilized theme, the writer must be doubly cautious in working out his plot.

For instance, there might come to me the theme of the young child proving a means of reconciliation between father and mother at odds. Now, literally hundreds of stories have been based on this theme, and unless I can devise some new method of bringing the child in contact with the father and mother, some new method by which they are brought to see the error of their quarrel, my story will misfire, will not be a new story at all. The young writer, like the sentinel on duty, must constantly be on guard that he does not allow old, worn-out themes automatically to work themselves out as they have been worked out before. This, of course, does not apply so strongly to the elemental themes, dealing, for instance, with the faith of woman ''for her husband, or the blind love of a mother for her child. Such themes are too broad and possible of unlimited development to admit of a great amount of danger. It is with themes based on ideas or incidents that we must deal most carefully. Thus, if the author desires to write a story concerning the adventures of two brothers in war time, one championing one side, the other the opposite, it will be incumbent upon him to differentiate his story from others of a like theme.

Next in order come improper themes, themes dealing too strongly, insincerely, or suggestively with sex, together with morbid and depressing stories. Of course, every story based on sex and some of its intimate relations is not undesirable. The writer, must however, be clean of mind when writing a production of this character. He must have noble sentiments in mind, for every story must inevitably bear the texture of the writer's very soul—all evil in him will be mirrored in the story. Many of the French novelists and short-story writers deal with sex questions and sex relations in a very daring manner, but their manner of treatment merely is analytical and serves as an illuminating illustration of the theme.

Since the magazines of the country, too, are aiming more and more toward the ideal and the optimistic, it will be to the advantage of the writer to avoid the sensational, the morbid, and the depressive. The writer should not base his stories, as did De Maupassant in "The Piece of String," on too merciless logic or on the grinding decrees of fate and cruel nature.

If he must write stories of action, let there be not a super-abundance of murders, suicides, broken hearts, ruined homes and tortured heroes. Use propriety and proportion at all times. Let this emotion or that emotion, if stressed rather strongly, be offset by its contrasting emotion. If it is desired to write stories dealing with the supernatural or mysterious, the writer must be sure not to descend to the shocking and repulsive, as does Poe in a few instances. Your story might not possess the sharp tone of reality that Poe was able to impart to his. Unless done by a skilled hand, such a story might degenerate into the senselessly horrible.

The themes barred are those that offend good taste, and it certainly would be beyond the pale of good taste to argue with a neighbor over his religious beliefs, or to poke fun at another because of his race, his creed, or his opinions. Moderation in everything should be the motto to shackle enthusiasm.

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