Five Questions to Ask Yourself When Your Story’s Theme Lacks Subtlety

Few flaws can kill a story’s theme and message as much as blatancy.

We’ve all read books that constantly hit us over the head with the author’s beliefs. Afterwards we resolve never to do this as authors.

But then we sit down to write and realize how easy it is to make this mistake.

5_Questions_to_Ask_Yourself_When_Your_Story_s_Theme_Lacks_Subtlety

Why Subtlety Is Important

As I explain in my article, “Is Fiction Inherently Worse Than Nonfiction,” literature’s thematic power lies in moving emotions, not reason. Generally speaking, stories don’t change readers by presenting new logical arguments. That’s the role of nonfiction. Instead, fiction changes readers by showing what it means to live morally versus immorally, and what the results are.

If you’re writing a logical argument, you can be obvious with your intentions because you’re addressing a reader’s rational side. But in story writing, you’re primarily communicating to a reader’s emotional side. People’s emotions tend to be more affected when intentions are not completely spelled out. That’s partly why flirting is prevalent when two people like each other—dancing around the issue can engage the emotions more.

If you bombard the reader with your theme, his rational side will react instead of his emotional side, and you’ll have forfeited your story’s potential.

Subtlety is therefore crucial to telling an engaging story with a compelling message. However, this raises a question: how do you avoid hitting readers over the head?

Here are five questions to contemplate the next time you’re wondering if your story lacks subtlety.

Question #1: Are You Stating Your Message Too Directly?

Although some people might disagree with me, I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem if a writer has a specific message she aims to convey through her novel.

However, I doubt that such a message should ever be explicitly stated within a story.

Reading a book should be similar to a treasure hunt: readers should have to work to unearth the story’s message. Recall some of your favorite stories. My guess is that you enjoy those stories because you glean new insights every time you reread them. This happens because the authors don’t disclose all their intentions through the first reading.

Good stories provide enough clues to hunt for the message, but allow you to do the work of pursuing it. Look for places where you may be blaring your story’s message. Give readers something to wrestle over.

Question #2: Would the Character Actually Say This?

This problem has two variants. The first is when a character says something he wouldn’t intrinsically believe. As authors, sometimes we’re tempted to put our beliefs into the mouths of our heroes. But if a character wouldn’t believe a certain truth, even if it’s a great moral line, he shouldn’t verbalize it.

The second variant is perhaps less obvious: a character says something he believes, but he phrases it unnaturally. For example, would a rebellious teenager who feels that his parents are being unfair launch a robust philosophical attack on parental authority? Probably not. He may think his parents’ authority is illegitimate. But he needs to express it in his own words.

This was one of the gripes I had with Lex Luthor in Batman vs. Superman. At one crucial point, Luthor defends his actions by drawing on the problem of evil: “If God is all powerful, he cannot be all good, and if he is all good, he cannot be all powerful.” In the movie, it makes sense why he would believe this. But because of how his character was set up, this line seemed painfully awkward to me; it sounded like a quote from a philosophy textbook. The scriptwriter was so driven to reveal Luthor’s ideology that he failed to write the dialogue in a way that suited Luthor’s character. As a result, this line felt forced and the thematic potential it could have had died.

Whenever you’re working on thematic dialogue, ask yourself if your character truly believes his own assertions and whether he’d voice them that way. If the answer to either question is no, cut and revise.

Question #3: Is Your Poetic Justice Too Over-the-Top?

One of the concepts we discuss at length in our Theme Mastery course is how poetic justice is essential to determining a story’s theme. Most of a story’s theme stems from setting characters up with different experiments in living and then showing the consequences of these experiments over the course of the story as the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished.

However, while poetic justice is an effective method for imparting moral truths through fiction, it can also be taken to the extreme.

Around the turn of the eighteenth century, a group of writers known as Rational Moralists tried to write literature that would teach children good morals. One of these writers, Maria Edgeworth, wrote a story where a girl decided to buy a purple jar instead of new shoes. Her old shoes then deteriorated so that she couldn’t walk without experiencing pain and couldn’t do any fun activities. Another writer, Jane Taylor, wrote a poem about a boy who enjoyed watching fish “writhe in agony” on fishing hooks and had a meat hook “catch him by the chin” as punishment. Children’s literature can be less subtle than other genres, but even though poetic justice is accomplished, both stories are heavy-handed in nature. They tell readers how wrong the characters are. In addition, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Does a girl deserve to be unable to walk because she wanted a purple jar, or a boy deserve injury from a meat hook because he liked to watch fish writhe? I find that doubtful. Although these are extreme examples, the principle applies to your stories as well. Beware of making poetic justice too severe for a crime.

Question #4: Are You Afraid Readers Won’t Get Your Point?

Unlike the previous examples, this isn’t a weakness to look for in your story, but a mindset to guard against.

As writers, sometimes we worry that readers will miss our message. So we emphasize it more, and more, and more, until the story’s message becomes so flagrant that no one could even pretend to miss it.

I can sympathize with this, because I wouldn’t want readers to overlook my message either, but we ought to avoid this mindset—especially in view of Christ’s storytelling tactics.

When Jesus told his parables, he could have made the spiritual lessons apparent. But he didn’t. In fact, he purposefully used stories to mask the truth from some people. As he says to his disciples in Matthew 13,

“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. … This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”

Why didn’t Jesus want people to decipher his parables? As he explains later in the passage, he knew some people had closed their hearts to him. So he didn’t try to speak to them.

As Christian authors, we ought to cultivate a similar mindset. We don’t need to reach everyone with our book. We just need to meet our specific audience. Some people will understand our message while others won’t—and that’s fine.

Question #5: Are You Being Too Simplistic in Your Depiction of the Truth?

If you don’t spend any time researching or considering alternate viewpoints to your idea, you’ll often end up creating strawmen who have lame arguments for their position and are generally nasty characters.

Over-simplification can also occur when you view an issue as black and white. Although Scripture defines certain moral principles, when we have to live them out, it isn’t always easy to discern what’s right. Unfortunately, sometimes Christian fiction portrays these gray issues as more clear than they really are. As writers, we want to shed light on these gray areas, but we shouldn’t pretend that handling these issues isn’t difficult.

Search for places in your story where you may be presenting your message too simplistically. Sometimes a story may be too simplistic because you erred in a scene. But simplicity can also indicate that you don’t understand the depth of a theme and need to think about it more. If beta readers warn you that you’re presenting a complicated moral theme in too simplistic a fashion, it may be time to step back and make sure you understand all the sides involved before continuing to write your story.

Writing Subtle Yet Powerful Themes

If you apply these questions to your story and realize your theme isn’t subtle, don’t despair. Balancing subtlety with power in a story’s theme is tricky, and even published authors struggle to do it well!

Remember, writing is a craft that requires lots of practice and hard work. Even the best writers need to perform multiple rounds of revisions on their novels. This is why it’s important to write regularly. Only through practice can we learn how to write themes and messages that are both powerful and subtle and artistic.

Put in the effort, and you may be surprised how rewarding the outcome is.

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Josiah DeGraaf started reading when he was four, started writing fiction when he was six and hasn’t stopped doing either ever since. After growing up with seven younger siblings, he eventually found himself graduated and attending Patrick Henry College, where he plans on majoring in literature with a minor in pedagogy (it’s a fancy Greek word for education).
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels that have worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as fun as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. Plans for obtaining those impossible goals include listening to a lot of Hans Zimmer, ignoring college work so that he can find time to write, and avoiding coffee at all costs.
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Comments

  1. Cheers, Josiah. This is a helpful reference sheet.

  2. Great article! I’ve never actually thought about this subject along these terms before, but now I know to look out for it.
    This is the billionth time I’ve heard someone mention the theme mastery course, and I can’t wait to get into it. When’s it available?

  3. *winces* I… have problems with the second part of #2…
    And that’s a great point about over the top poetic justice. I hadn’t thought about that. Now that you mention it I see a lot of that in old literature… for instance, the Evil Queen in the original Snow White being made to dance herself to death in red-hot iron shoes. *cringes* And these were children’s stories—? 😛

    • Yeah, it’s actually rather shocking what kind of literature was marketed for kids back then! I tend to think that perhaps people back then had a better view of what children can handle than we do today, but even then some stories seem more-than-a-bit extreme. =P

  4. “We don’t need to reach everyone with our book. We just need to meet our specific audience.” Thanks for that good point.

  5. Okay, but this is perfect. I constantly flipflop between writing themes which aren’t subtle, and writing stories without themes at all. This is so wonderful. I’m gonna have to have a really serious conversation with my stories about these five questions.
    Thanks so much!
    A note on #2. That doesn’t just apply to dialogue. I’ve found myself explicitly stating my novel’s theme (or at least parts of it) in character and narrative voice, as well as in documents and dated records in my story world. Just because it’s not in quotes, doesn’t mean it’s okay.
    Thanks again!

    • Hope those stories don’t talk back to you when you begin that conversation with them. 😉
      Yep–great point there. Quotations or no quotations, either way you don’t want to do it. =P

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