Is a story without a message a story at all?
As a novelist and writer with several works published, I often like to discuss and meditate on what makes a story successful. What makes a story stand out above the rest? Although there are a plethora of components needed to a create successful story, one critical pillar of any story is its theme, or message, and that is what I aim to briefly touch upon in this article.
Themes are a very interesting aspect of writing. My writing philosophy is that fiction writing should be used to improve the world. To do this, books should have messages that the reader can learn from or ponder over long after they have put the book down. When putting a story together, I like to first come up with the messages that I hope to pass onto the reader. Every work of fiction, whether intentionally or unintentionally, has a message that it gives to the reader. Even if the author writes their book strictly to entertain, the reader will get a message out of it typically based on the plot and/or characters’ arcs.
Novels normally have more than one message. There are typically one or two main messages that the story as a whole conveys, and then there are several other smaller messages that appear in parts of the story. For example, in my first novel, Dark Guardian, the major themes I had in mind as I wrote it are about redemption and self-forgiveness. However, in parts of the story, there are messages about the power of love, letting go of the past, and freedom.
In my second novel, Memories of My Future, the core theme is the responsibility people have to use their gifts to make the world a better place. However, other themes that are prevalent throughout certain parts of the book include the power of coexistence, importance of education, living without fear, and the difference one bold voice can make. In both these examples, the themes form the story’s pillars, and the plot is woven around these pillars to convey the message.
I am not arguing that every novel has a world-changing message. Many authors do write to simply entertain, without wanting to pass along anything meaningful. However, even when authors do not intend to put messages in their story, many times themes are still laced into the story unintentionally due to the audience’s interpretations of plot and characters. I am also not arguing that a novel’s theme takes precedence over plot, characters, or writing style. Without the latter pillars, readers won’t go very far into the story before putting it down. What I am saying is that without a theme, a novel is lacking a major pillar of what makes writing great. Plot and characters are what draws a reader into the story. Themes are what stay with a reader long after they’ve finished the book.
One thing I learned from interacting with bestselling and award winning authors at different book signings and panels is that when conveying a theme to the reader, you can’t hit them in the face with it. Nobody wants to be preached and lectured to. In this day and age, writers have to be subtle when conveying a message to the reader. Show it, don’t tell it. Readers should see it through the setting, character arcs, plot points, symbols, etc. The first thing a book needs to have is that the story needs to be captivating enough to keep the reader engaged and make them dive into the story’s world. The theme then needs to be tactfully woven into the story. This can be a tricky thing to do sometimes, requiring planning, patience, and a second-pair of eyes in many cases. Another great way to learn how to convey themes is to read other writings and learn from them. Personally, I read many works not for entertainment, but to study different writing techniques and learn from different authors.
And the interesting thing about themes is that at times, different readers can get completely different messages from the same book. For example, I have had some people tell me that from Dark Guardian they got the message of ‘redemption’ while other have told me that they main message they received was a ‘good triumphs over evil’ theme. And even still, some have told me that they received a message of ‘choices’ or a message of ‘one-man’s worth’ from the book.
An example I like to use to further illustrate this point is Harry Potter. Some people read the Harry Potter series and get the message of the ‘power of friendship’. Other read it and receive the message of ‘good vs. evil’. And still some get the message of ‘destiny’. Even though they all read the same book series, they all get different things out of it.
This is the beautiful think about themes. Based on where people are in their lives, the context of when they read the work, and components of their personal lives that may influence their interpretation of the work, they will receive different things from the story. Often times if we read a book and then re-read it years later, we receive completely different messages from the story because we are at different points in our lives. This is something that I’ve experienced in reading many of Og Mandino’s famous works, especially two of his better known works, The Greatest Miracle in the World & The Choice. When people tell me that they read my novel, I always love to ask people what message they got out of it. Sometimes the answers blow me away because their perceived interpretation of it is something I never even intended (and here I’m the one that wrote the story)!
Although writers cannot often control or predict what every single reader will get out of a story, what authors can control is what kind of a message they put into it. Will it be a message that will make an impact and help make the world a better place? Or will it be one that the reader will forget when they put the book down? Because making the world a better place is what writing is really all about. As Tom Stoppard once said, “Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.” Using words properly and efficiently can build powerful messages in writings, and the authors that aim to do this are the ones that stand the test of time.
What are your thoughts on the role of themes in fiction? Are they critical to a story’s impact on readers? Or do you believe that I am making them more important than they actually are? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments! Thank you!
Ammar Habib is a bestselling and award winning author who was born in Lake Jackson, Texas in 1993. Ammar enjoys crafting stories that are not only entertaining, but will also stay with the reader for a long time. Ammar presently resides in his hometown with his family, all of whom are his biggest fans. He draws his inspiration from his family, imagination, and the world around him. To learn more about Ammar, please visit www.ammarahsenhabib.com.