We certainly get our fair share of morals in fiction as children. Aesop’s fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, for example, tells the story of a shepherd boy who called out “wolf” just to see the villagers come running to help. When the boy actually found himself face to face with a wolf, his cries went unanswered because the villagers thought he was playing another trick. This warns children that it is hard to believe a liar, even when he’s telling the truth. Morals teach a lesson about right and wrong. While fables are rich with morals, other kinds of fiction don’t necessarily rely on them.
Instead, fiction should address a theme, a message that offers comments or insights about the human experience. These are not lessons, so much as underlying meanings. For example, status is an important theme in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Gatsby focuses on gaining wealth in order to win back his love, Daisy. Daisy’s husband, Tom, often discredits Gatsby by revealing his flaws in an attempt to make him look bad in the eyes of others. Most fiction will have more than one theme running through the work, with one or two central threads while others are secondary. This makes for a more complex and engaging read.
Keep in mind it is not important for readers to be able to state a story’s theme explicitly. While this is often the domain of high school English papers, it’s not important in the reading experience. Rather, theme will enrich the reading and is bound to encourage your reader to think and wonder about the human experience in specific ways.
As a writer, working with this concept of theme is tricky. If you’re too overt about it, the story will feel preachy. If the theme isn’t strong enough, the story might feel pointless. Many authors don’t even think of theme as they set out to write. Rather, they focus on individual characters and actions, and theme emerges from those. Still, meaning doesn’t always come out clearly on the first try. Often, writers will leave clues for themselves along the way. Coaxing out theme is a matter of looking for those clues and deciding how to best reveal what you've set up for yourself. I’ve found the following questions useful when theme feels hazy: What is this story really about? Why does it matter? What is important about telling it now?
Remember, this business of theme should come through action and dialogue rather than telling the reader what to think. Perhaps Flannery O’Connor said it best:
The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.
So don’t get caught up in excavating theme and holding it up to the light for inspection. In fiction, theme is best implied, running as a current underneath the characters and actions on the page.