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When writing a short-story, is it typically a better practice to construct a point to exemplify through the short-story when writing to highlight a certain truth?

In other words, construct the characters, plot and setting based on the point I want to portray, instead of focusing on plot first.

Although, I need to make sure the plot is engaging.

Is this a good practice?

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7 Answers 7

Try it and see if it works. Theme-led storytelling might give you direction and conviction. It's not how most people write but I would suggest that makes it all the more interesting to try. It's my go to method and I believe it's vaild. I have made my living writing professionally in film and TV for 25 years. As for the people suggesting you'll be hitting people with a sledgehammer ... Well, that's just bad writing. And that is a whole other problem that has nothing to do with being theme-led. Go for a swim, see how it feels.

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Two things:

  1. I prefer to read stories where there are no overt themes being highlighted by the author (or else they're so subtle I can't tell, or not noticeable because the characters and what's going on are too interesting). Choosing themes first then constructing a story to illustrate them will probably end up sounding contrived.

  2. I find when I focus on coming up with characters, plots and settings that I think are interesting, then just write about them, the themes emerge by themselves. These organically-grown themes seem to usually end up working better than deliberately pre-chosen themes (and, as @foggyone said, I can usually then improve the story by identifying and working with those themes from that point).

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Have to second the themes emerge by themselves. A guy at a writing conference I attended said you should be aware of things that come up as you write. However, once you find out what it is, make it intentional. –  foggyone Nov 25 '10 at 2:23
    
@foggyone agreed. –  MGOwen Nov 25 '10 at 3:54
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I could not agree more with the points presented. Especially the self-emerging themes. Usually you write and the theme suddenly pops up, and you realize: this is what the story is really about, and has been, the whole way through! The danger of pre-selecting a theme is that you will often force your characters to do things they normally wouldn't and readers might start doubting the integrity and logic of your world. Don't try to be preachy. When the reader realizes the theme, he should feel it came from within, from his own inner self. –  pHneuma Dec 2 '10 at 11:20
    
Overt themes. I think this is what happened with Life of Pi. –  Alexandro Chen Dec 6 at 3:17

Many of the critically acclaimed authors definitely do have a point (propaganda?), and they are using a story to convey that point. Who's to say how they go about it without asking. But, it seems very likely that Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was predicated on theme first. As well, 1984.

I agree with some of what Zayne is saying, though. For some stories, or authors, it might be easier to get the story out, and then do the craftman's work of sanding it down and polishing so that a theme becomes more apparent. Sticking to a theme would seem to me to be a difficult chore.

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Although both Brave New World and 1984 are novels, not short stories... –  Jürgen A. Erhard Mar 8 '11 at 22:59

Rather than focusing on a single point as if you are writing an essay, you may want to focus on an ethos you want to create.

View your story as world-building (this is something you will find Orson Scott Card, author of Ender's Game reference frequently). The world you are building will reward certain behaviors by your characters and punish others. The world you are building may have a certain "bent," to it.

As an example, the in Ellison's The Invisible Man, all sorts of random things happen to the protagonist that end up making his life more complicated. The result is a story that leaves the reader feeling as if the entire world of the story was meaningless and nihilistic. Rather than hitting the reader over the head with nihilism, Ellison showed the reader a nihilistic world.

It is also possible to construct an absolutely wonderful story that does not try to move the reader towards seeing the world in a different way. In writing these stories the author is usually focused on showing the reader a specific character in all of his or her loves, wants, needs, desires, dreams, and fears. These characters don't necessarily have to drive towards a point in their existence in the story. They have to be themselves.

You can combine both of the above, or use just one for a successful story. In many ways Victorian novels and good science fiction or fantasty epitomize world-building, while modern short stories such as Olive Kitteridge move towards the opposite end of the spectrum.

And then again, you can write a plot-driven work of pure action fiction - it works for some writers.

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"If you want to send a message, use Western Union." - can't remember who first said that.

If you find yourself changing anything in a story to make a point, you're probably making the story worse. If you make the story bad enough, nobody will want to read it, and anybody who does will be annoyed at an author trying to pound a point home.

If you write a story with characters you can believe in, doing things you can believe in, and with results you can believe in, then whatever truth you're believing in will probably come out in the story. The story will be better, and it will have more influence over anybody who reads it.

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As the other answers suggest, this is largely an approach to be decided upon by the author - will work for some, and not for others.

Stephen King said in "On Writing" that he preferred to get the story out and focus on theme afterwards. In fact, he considered it a part of revising and editing.

I tend to agree with him, in that I have discovered the more I focus on the moral point or theme or moral of the story being told, the less I focus on the really meaningful interaction of the characters with each other and their world.

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If you have a point that you do want to convey, this is certainly a legitimate practice. You shouldn't make artificial points just to have them, however.

It is important to ensure that your point does not become too contrived, as well. There are cases where everything should be a microcosm of your main theme, but they are rare, even in a short story. You do need to have a strong plot and characters and setting as well. The point will be lost if the writing falters because of it.

Many stories are written as an allegory of a specific point, but even if you do not take it so far as to be that obvious, there is nothing wrong with this.

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