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.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.