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2 Compelling Ways to Weave Themes into Short Stories

May 6, 2021

For years, short stories remained cloaked in mystery for me. I hadn’t the slightest idea how to write one, much less imbue a theme into it. I stumbled in the dark, creating tales and hoping themes would magically appear.

 

Shocker: that didn’t happen. But working on themes in my stories wasn’t important, right?

 

I submitted my first short story to an online magazine and realized that theme is indeed essential. It adds meaning and depth, and if done right, can be incredibly powerful. I often neglected to include themes in my stories because I didn’t concentrate on my characters’ beliefs or carefully consider POV choices. I only started understanding more about short stories after many painful failures, revisions, and more failures.

 

Incorporating themes into short stories doesn’t have to be painful (or mysterious). If you pay attention to your characters and POV, you can avoid many of the pitfalls I’ve discovered.

 

Make Every Character Count

Other than the protagonist, your story won’t have room for many round characters, but each one must believe something about the theme—and side characters can’t hold any ol’ stance. They must serve to demonstrate what will befall the protagonist if he follows their paths and imitates their choices. Ideally, at least one side character should either experience the opposite version of the protagonist’s arc or have already lived through the consequences of her decisions. If all the characters have similar mindsets, you’ll only reveal one side of the story.

 

For example, say you want to write a short story about a college student named Samuel who has the power to manipulate time. He accidentally twists the space-time continuum by using his gift to freeze the clock and cheat on an exam. Each character in this story must relate to the theme, which revolves around the morality of cheating.

 

The message could be summarized like this: if you cheat, you lose more than you gain. Samuel’s girlfriend cheated her way through college. She was caught a few months ago, and after being expelled, she must retake several classes she “passed” at another college. Unchanged, she encourages Samuel to cheat and embodies the dangers of forsaking academic integrity. His best friend, on the other hand, studies hard and is prepared for every test, so he has no need to cheat. These characters show Samuel the results of different choices and draw out various facets of the theme. Each interaction with these characters provides a chance to confront Samuel’s beliefs and push him to accept one opinion or the other.

 

Integrate Theme into Point of View

For a short story to flourish, the main elements of storytelling must be utilized to the fullest, including POV. Theme must be infused into whatever POV you settle on.

 

Each POV character has a unique ability to underscore a part of your theme. A short story usually features characters who either haven’t yet faced the thematic question, are in the middle of dealing with it, or have already answered it. A character’s position in the progression of his arc determines whether his POV can naturally emphasize the theme.

 

Think about it. If a character has decided what he believes, he won’t hesitate to assert that he’s right and take action. A character who is wrestling with the theme will be torn between options. He’ll move more slowly.

 

Telling a short story through the eyes of a character who changes is generally the easiest way to communicate a theme. In a short story, you need to devote time to internal battles and questions. Struggles not only prompt readers to ask questions alongside the character but also help them relate to his doubts. This builds empathy and engages readers within a small time span. Other perspectives can highlight aspects of the theme, but a transformative arc often has the most impact in the least amount of pages.

 

Samuel has plenty at stake. If he admits he cheated and embraces the consequences, he might damage his academic record—or even lose his ability to manipulate time. The theme will feel integral and compelling because it directly applies to his life.

 

The Pros of Writing Short Stories

Since a small tale isn’t as impressive as a novel, you may be tempted to think that excellence is unnecessary. But size doesn’t equal value. Short stories are a challenge, and intentionally crafting themes requires time, but you should still extend the effort.

 

Why? Because you don’t need a large word count to move someone’s spirit. A short story can still galvanize a coward into action, a hater into love, or a doubter into belief. As a Christian writer, you should strive to produce meaningful fiction, no matter the length.

 

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on November 26, 2018. Updated May 6, 2021.

17 Comments

  1. Rolena Hatfield

    Great article, Gabby! You’ve got me convinced I’ve got to start writing short stories. I’ll probably learn a lot about being purposeful about theme! Nice job girl!

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      Thanks Ro! 😀 I’m glad you liked it. 🙂

  2. NCStokes

    *taking notes so fast smoke starts coming from my pencil* Yes, yes, this is exactly what I need! I like to write short stories, but, ya know, theme is tricky.
    *sets off to rope side characters into my theme*

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      It is tricky! *wishes you good luck as you dash away*

  3. Serenity

    thanks, @gabriellepollack! great to hear from you! (=
    one of my favorite short stories is The Last Question by Isaac Asimov. It is SO good, but not as much because the characters grow as because the theme is so strong that it leaves you, as a character in the story, asking the very same questions that the characters are. It is SO good. definitely worth the read. (=

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      Hey Serenity! 😀 Oooo I’ll have to look it up!

  4. Matthew Sampson

    Thanks for this post, Gabrielle! Short stories are something that I’m looking into, and theme is a really important consideration. I’ve taken up labelling foil characters “Virtue” and “Vice” for how they relate to the theme, and for me it works as a simple and understandable shorthand.

    I know this isn’t exactly related, but how do you find an idea for a short story that is, well, short story–length? My recent attempt at short fiction started looking like a novelette. How much of the character’s story do you tell? Is it mainly just one significant turning point?

    *heads off to look for Gabrielle’s short stories*

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      Glad you enjoyed it! Theme is pretty important and can make for some fantastic stories. 🙂

      As for your question, everyone comes up with ideas differently. Most of mine come from random bits of inspiration.

      If you’re trying to intentionally come up with a short story, try centering it around a problem or event that holds meaning. How a character handles that problem/event communicates your theme and creates a climax. Because of that dynamic, short stories generally revolve around turning points in which a character must change her worldview, stand strong in her beliefs despite opposition, or suffer the consequences of not changing. A short story will end after the climax (or resolution). As for where it begins, that depends on the story. 🙂 There must be enough time at the start to set up the issue and characters.

      Sometimes a turning point in a novel character’s past makes for a good short story if you want to practice on one of your own. 🙂

  5. Libby

    I don’t have lengthy, thought-out comments this time, but I just want to say, thank you for this. So much. To be honest, I never focused deliberately on theme (in short stories) in the ways you suggested, so this was eye-opening. 😀

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      Aww! I’m so happy it helped! 😀 *showers you with glitter*

  6. Coralie

    Short stories are so challenging. They make me want to pull my hair out! I can’t seem to grasp impact without development and my development is crockpot stewed. This is definitely a struggle I face as a writer. I’m fascinated by the idea of packing a solid punch in a short story cause I don’t think I ever have.

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      Same! It’s quite hard to come up with compelling development that can be shown in a short piece, but I think if we keep working on it, we’ll get there eventually.

      Thanks for reading, Coralie! Good luck on your short story attempts!

  7. Ethan_Emanresu

    This really helped! I have a problem writing short stories… they tend to either turn into a corny mess, or stretch into a novel and never get finished. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Gabrielle Pollack

      I relate to that. Short stories take a ton of practice, but I think if we keep working on them, we’ll master the format eventually. 🙂 Thanks for reading, Ethan!

  8. Zachary Holbrook

    Will keep this in mind as I’m thinking about SE’s upcoming short story contest!

    Reply
    • Joelle Stone

      (Popping in to say that I follow your blog and you should totally submit a story)

  9. Joelle Stone

    Thanks so much for this article, Miss Pollack (amazing, as usual). I recently got a short story published (YAY) and was comparing it to this the whole time. SO. HELPFUL. Keep up the good work!! 😀

    Reply

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