In the early days of fiction, especially fiction for kids, it was often used to convey a moral or teach a lesson. When I was growing up, I hated Sunday School because it was full of stories with lessons and teachers with messages like “Okay, kids, this is how we all have to behave. If you don’t, you’re a bad person blah blah blah.” It drove me crazy because I didn't like complete strangers bossing me about, so I quickly learned how to tune it out.
What about fiction today? In general, it's frowned upon to write stories with hit-you-over-the-head moral lessons. Sure, there are still stories floating around like this – fables, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, etc. And I think most kids tune them out, just like I did.
When a writer sits down with a new idea for a story, what is the objective? Simply to tell an interesting story? To get a particular point across? To impart wisdom? I'm sure the majority of authors say they just had a story to share. My question is this: why do they want to share it? Obviously it's important to them or they wouldn't feel compelled to tell it. So, what about it makes it so important? What is the story's purpose?
Hmm, that's a doozy of a question...
The purpose of a story depends on who you are. For a reader, the purpose is to either be informed or entertained. For a publisher, it’s business. For a writer? That's another loaded question.And this is what I've heard from authors on multiple occasions:
"I had something to say, and this was the best way for me to say it."
"I learned many things the hard way, and I want to send some wisdom back to the younger crowd. Maybe it'll make things easier for them."
"There was something I wanted to share with others."
"I want to present alternative views of life."
"There are things important to me that I want to be remembered."
"I hope to have an impact on at least one individual."
"I want to make people laugh."
"I want to defend or advocate for others."
...and so on...
All of these reasons are valid and admirable. But the reason behind the story doesn’t make it a good story – it’s all in the execution. And that execution will result in either themes or morals.
Theme – a distinct, recurring, and unifying quality or idea; the subject of a discourse, discussion, piece of writing, or artistic composition
Moral – relating to issues of right and wrong and to how individual people should behave; giving guidance on how to behave decently and honorably; a conclusion about how to act drawn from a story or event; a short precise rule, usually written in a rather literary style as the conclusion to a story, used to help people remember the best or most sensible way to behave
The main difference is that a theme asks a question, while a moral attempts to answer one. Which is kind of bossy, in my opinion. : ) That’s probably why I tuned out the heavy-handed stories in Sunday School, because no one likes a Bossy Boiler (in the words of Thomas the Tank Engine).
That said, isn't a theme also like a message, albeit in a more subtle form? It doesn't tell the reader how to behave or what to do, but it does present a question or concept that he may not have thought much about before reading a particular story. On some level, a message has been presented to him and he isn't ignoring it.
On a similar note, all the 'purpose of a story' reasons listed above, if you really look at them, do sound kind of message-y, don't they? I’ve heard all over the place that it’s a bad thing to sit down with the purpose of writing about atrocities/dangers/horridness of X. But is it really such a bad thing? I think it depends on how the story is executed.
Every book on the shelves has some kind of message woven into it. Some are blatantly obvious, and others have been written so subtly that the reader can take that message in his own context. Which isn’t necessarily the context intended by the author.
I think many people assume authors like this don’t write toward a message because it doesn’t hit them over the head. But I’m not so sure...if the author didn’t have something important to say, she likely wouldn’t have said anything, and we’d have had no story to read. Instead, I think she's just better at weaving in her message so it isn't so obvious.