I recently completed a five thousand word short story for an anthology. I used to only write short stories until last year and since then I’ve really only written novels so it was interesting to go back to writing shorts. It is certainly a different discipline, you have to cram everything in, keep the interest, build character and have a well-rounded story in but a few pages. Something I’ve noticed in short stories that take them from being merely a glimpse into a small scene and turn them into a more complete story is theming.
By this, I mean when an author introduces certain themes in from the very beginning and subtly keeps them up throughout, it helps to tie the story together. For example, the short story I just completed was about a fireman (the guy who stoked the fire of a steam engine) who is on a journey which ends with him flying off on the back of a dragon. Throughout the text I have several themes in place. The colour black – the fireman is coated with soot, the people on the train are all dressed in black and the dragon is a black beauty. Also the theme of fire is prevalent though not profuse. Finally there are themes in dialogue, the instructions that the engineer barks at our hero at the beginning of the journey are the same words the fireman uses to command the dragon at the end.
Now I’m not saying that I’ve written the best piece of literature in the world here, but I’ve had good feedback from it, and I’m as sure as can be that the theme’s therein are a large part of its success. The trick is to include themes without making them obvious. You can’t simply keep repeating one concept, themes need to be weaved into the narrative subtly, they need to be seamless to work.
You can take this approach and apply it to novels as well, keeping themes spread throughout a book helps to tie one chapter to the next, one character to another and to bring the whole book together. A good example of themes in books – specifically in character – is the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, drugs and alcohol are consumed frequently by our hero. The theme of justice through use of intelligent deduction rather than heroic muscle power, Holmes does not rush around town beating up the bad guys, he outwits them at every turn.
Alternatively, if you prefer a more modern example then let’s look at Harry Potter. Arguably the largest themes in the books are love, family, and death. For a more subtle theme, consider that none of the Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers last more than one year in their post.
Themes are important in stories and the very best writers will include them without even knowing they’re doing it. It is easy to go overboard though, so take heed.