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The Difference Between Theme and Message

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.


Writer’s Work

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.

The Star Monster

I leaned back and looked up at the millions of stars in the night sky. It was one of those rare moments when I felt so small because the universe was so big. Yet at the same time, I felt connected to it.

Sitting there in the quiet darkness, staring up in awe, I experienced what some would call a spiritual moment. There were just so many stars! Then, they started to move.

At first, they moved almost imperceptibly. But the motion increased little by little, until it seemed that the stars stopped moving and my body began to travel in the opposite direction. It was as though I was traveling through space.

The stars orbited the North Star, going around and around. I had to shut my eyes to stop the dizziness. From somewhere in the distance, meditative music was playing softly, and a deep voice said, “Hello.”

“Hello, and welcome to the planetarium.”

It was not my first visit to this wonderful star theater. My grandfather was a member of the science museum and gave me a junior membership for several years. On many summer days, after walking through the museum watching others wonder at the exhibits that I had viewed a hundred times, I would go to the planetarium.

The planetarium had a small vestibule that guaranteed no outside light would enter during a show. This transitional space gave me a sense that I was entering a special place. The darkened space inside the second set of doors felt almost like a church. This feeling was enhanced by “celestial” music.

Next came the most memorable part of my visit, my meeting with the Star Monster. In the center of the dark, round room was an enormous black machine. This star projector was about 12 feet long and had large spheres on each end that were more than two feet in diameter.

Attached to the end of each sphere was a smaller ball about six inches wide. It reminded me of a giant dumbbell, but it was much more intimidating.

Dozens of small lens were scattered over the black metal surface of each orb. They looked like dark eyes and gave the impression that the machine could see you no matter where you were in the room.

The center bar that connected the two large spheres was not solid, but a framework of rods and metal strips. A wide metal ban wrapped around the center of the machine had marks and numbers inscribed on its surface.

The projector was supported at its center and was suspended six or seven feet above the floor by a metal frame. The four thin supports looked like spider legs. Placed here and there on the frame and the support platform were various lights and machines that must have been other projectors.

During the planetarium show, the different spheres on the projector would rotate to move the stars on the ceiling. Sometimes, the entire machine would seem to move, its dark image only visible because of the projected sky on the other side of the room. My imagination didn’t have to work overtime to make me believe that the entire apparatus would break free of its support platform and begin walking on its thin metal legs. Look out! Here comes the Star Monster!

This was as much a part of the experience as seeing the stars. Because of our modern computers and optical technology, the planetarium projector today is simply a small box with a dome lens measuring maybe a foot in diameter. This small light source can project the entire universe onto a dome sometimes measuring more than 70 feet or more across.

When I visit a modern planetarium, the dark lens (or glowing ball, if the planetarium is a bit older) in the center of the room seems mysterious and arouses curiosity. Yet, it can never compare to the Star Monster I knew as a youngster.

P.S. [added March 21, 2008] Here’s One in Berlin.