There are some elements to writing that can be confusing, even to experienced writers. This can include the ideas of Theme and Message. Both are difficult to define since they are ideas that can be interpreted in many ways.
A theme is sometimes defined as the moral or message of the story. This is a simple way of trying to explain a complex idea, but it can cause problems for a writer, because theme and moral are two very different things.
What is Theme?
A theme is the controlling idea or the driving concept in a story. An author uses a theme as he develops the plot, the setting, the characters, and the dialogue. Everything that characters do and say is usually determined by a theme. Conflicts and events are also controlled by the theme.
One of the themes in Romeo and Juliet is Fate. Shakespeare stated it in the Prologue, and throughout the story, no matter what the star-crossed lovers tried to do, they were destined to die in the end. The story is driven by Romeo and Juliet’s attempts to defy their Fate.
What is the Message or Moral of a Story?
The words message and moral are often used to mean what a reader or audience member learns from a story. The moral can usually be expressed in a sentence or proverb that teaches a lesson.
There are many ways to interpret a story, and sometimes, different readers may come away with different lessons. This is why in older stories, the moral was stated at the end, as in Aesop’s Fables. For example, the moral of “The Tortoise and the Hare” is usually stated as “Slow and Steady Wins the Race.”
Today, audiences are considered sophisticated enough to figure out the message on their own, and a moral is usually only added at the end of a story if the author wishes to be ironic.
Theme vs. Message
Theme and message are both ideas that are often implied without being explicitly stated. It is no wonder that they often cause confusion for both writer and audience.
Perhaps it is best to think of Theme as something an author can use from the beginning of the writing process to direct the plot and characters in his work, while Moral is what the audience takes away from the work when it is finished.
As an author, coming up with a theme for your work can be a difficult task, but it will be the driving force leading your story to its conclusion. Of course, after developing your theme, you then must create the setting, characters, and plot actions and combine them – using the theme – to make a story.
This often happens on an unconscious level, but it is one of the best reasons why an author should always write the ending of a story first. You need to know where the story is headed and why.