Every story has a theme. You may not know what it is. It could be vague or hidden. Or there could be multiple themes that make things unclear. But there is always a theme in there somewhere.
Theme is the underlying truth. What the story’s really about. But sometimes the underlying truth is the same as the overlying truth. This can lead to a feeling of being spoonfed or being told the obvious.
Some people are afraid of being too heavy handed about theme. They don’t want the story to be about an issue or force characters to behave in a particular way. But that won’t remove it from the story. There will still be a theme. It just might not be very clear what it is.
Or, if you’re lucky, it might all fall into place by itself. I think that’s what most writers hope for, but it really happens that way.
If you can get identify the underlying truth of your story, then you can harness it to make the events in your story much more powerful and affecting for the reader. And one of the best ways to do that is to try and prove yourself wrong.
If Buddy is going to fight in a war he doesn’t believe in, and it becomes apparent that the war is in fact a waste of time where horrible things happen for no good reason, the point would be better made if Buddy sets out a patriotic soldier and gets the scales knocked from his eyes.
Similarly, if the point at the end is that sometimes war is a good thing that saves lives, perhaps Buddy should start out jaded and misanthropic.
Both those examples are grossly simplified (although when it comes to war stories, grossly simplified is usually what you get), but if you’re making a suggestion that the world is a particular way—and that’s what theme basically is—it helps for you to make the counter argument as strong as possible.
Like any viewpoint, if you cheat the set up in your own favour, it only makes the results less convincing.
If Johnny finds it hard to talk to girls, his best mate should be able to charm them off their feet in seconds.
If beautiful Mandy can’t get a guy to be faithful to her, her ugly best friend should have the most faithful boyfriend ever.
These counterpoints aren’t just there to give the narrative some interesting places to go, they challenge the validity of the worldview you’re creating. And in doing so it will be much harder to dole out pat answers or generic clichés.
As you question the truth of what your characters believe and how they behave, the true theme will emerge.
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