Theme in Fiction and Memoir

Have you ever had a “Life Saver Moment’? A few years ago, the company that makes the candy Life Savers advertised its product by depicting a child having some kind of accident, making some kind of mistake, getting one’s feelings hurt. Then a father or grandfather would sit next to the crying child and offer a Life Savers candy. What followed we imagine was a little story. “Did I ever tell you about the time when your aunt Juanita. . . .”

Writers of short stories are like our friends or relatives telling us stories to make us feel better or to teach us something we might not yet know. The writer’s purpose is to entertain us by dramatizing his or her ideas about the nature of life and how we humans experience it. When we can in turn rephrase these ideas in a sentence or two, we have begun formulating what is called the theme, or the central idea, of the story.

How we think about theme can be illustrated by remembering a time when out our roommate watched us listening on the phone to a grandparent,  The grandparent tells us a long a confusing story about a time when someone tempted her to do something she normally would not have done. When we got off the phone our roommate asked, “What was all that about?” And we said, “I don’t know, but I think she was trying to tell me to be careful about who my friends are.”   In this case, we have formulated a statement of the theme for the grandparent’s story. The grandparent never told us to be careful, but by relating us the story she let us infer what the story meant.

Stories vary in how difficult it is to develop a theme for them. David Foster Wallace’s story “Suicide as a Kind of Gift,” though unusual in presentation, is fairly straight forward thematically.   The brief story is almost just list the various ways that a mother behaved toward her child.   But by the end of the story, we realize the story is a kind of warning about selfishness and cruelty and narcissism.

Some writers even directly guide us toward their themes. At the end of James Joyce’s “Araby,” the protagonist, who is looking back on a youthful obsession, states, “Gazing up into the darkness, I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”   While this is not a statement of the story’s theme, it does guide us in understanding the story as a comment about youth and love and memory.

To develop for a clear understanding of a story’s theme or central idea, we consider all the elements of a short story–the characters, the conflict, setting, point of view, language, and tone. All of these elements contribute to the theme. In some stories, like Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” setting is very important; in others, like W. Sumerset Maugham’s “The Outstation,” character and conflict are central to the theme. In a story like Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” language and point of view stand out.   The more short stories we read, the better able we will be at seeing how writers’ highlight particular the elements in story telling.

All the elements of fiction contribute to our understanding of the theme of a story. For the most part, they can work without our even knowing that that they are there in the story–just as we can enjoy a movie without noticing a particular use of camera angle or a repetition of a particular color. However, it is true for most people that the more they understand about the elements of fiction the better they understand and enjoy a story. By knowing what to look for in a short story, by knowing what tools writers have at their disposal, the more we will be able to see how a story’s construction guides us toward perceiving particular themes. Most writers have read many, many short stories; therefore, they know what others have done and they use and build upon that knowledge.  Sometimes they construct a strong, traditional story; sometimes they experiment, to make a story like no one else has made before. By becoming more familiar with the elements of fiction, we can recognize what writers’ purposes might have been. Certainly, we can read more fully and more creatively what we see on the page.

As writers, by becoming more familiar with the elements of narrative and how they all contribute toward theme, we will be able to control our own fictions and memoirs.  We will be able to affect our readers as we wish.


From Short Fiction:  Classic and Contemporary, 5th ed.  by Lyman Grant (Prentice Hall, 2002).

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About lymangrant

Lyman Grant is a professor of creative writing and humanities at Austin Community College. He has work at ACC since 1978. He is the author or editor of two textbooks, two books relating to Texas literature, three volumes and a chapbook of poetry. Recently he traveled the United States for a year in a 34-foot RV 5th wheel trailer with his wife and two younger sons.