(Third lesson in my writing class, discussing Setting and Theme. I've gone over Setting more in depth Here but I didn't discuss the Theme's relevance to the Setting.)
Every good story means something. If it doesn’t, it won’t be remembered. What’s the meaning of a story? It’s theme. But what’s theme? Theme is the idea that goes just under the skin of the storyline.
Every good story impacts you in some way. The story could be advocating against abortion, or maybe promoting a ban on smoking.
The theme is the message of the story. Do you want to warn the world of animal abuse? Then your plot and story have to flow with the message - that’s theme.
Creating a theme is probably one of the more difficult parts of writing anything - even a short story. The reason for this is because you don’t want to be preachy and just stuff the story with the message, and you don’t want it to seem contrived either. The theme has to be something you really feel like you need to write, because if it isn’t, then it won’t impact the reader. So what makes your blood burn? That’s what you need for your story theme.
Probably the most important thing about making a theme is that you can’t outright tell the reader “Abortion is evil” or, “there’s lots and lots of mistreated animals out there.” No, instead, you have to hint at it. Subtle hints. For instance, maybe your character sees a poster advocating some company which keeps animals in confined cages all day - the character scowls at it, but nothing more. He or she doesn’t outright tell the reader what the message is, or that will get preachy.
Trust me, the reader will see what the theme is even if you don’t tell them outright anywhere in your story. In fact, they’ll probably realize the theme even clearer, because they’ll understand it if you hint and it gently.
Throughout your story, you need to think up dozens of ways to hint at the theme, but not tell the theme.
Another very good way to hint at the theme is through the setting. If the theme is a darker one, the setting should be a gloomier setting as well. This doesn’t necessarily mean dark purple clouds on the horizon, or fog enclosing all around, this means that the weight of the story is heavier. This is a very advanced technique because it too involves only hinting, not telling.
Hint at the darkness in your character’s world, raise the stakes by endangering something the main character of the story cares about - a family member? A freedom he dearly values?
Then again, maybe your theme is more lighthearted, in which case you don’t want to lower the stakes, but show that, unlike in a gloomier setting, there is a hope shining in the distance.
One of the main differences between a darker setting and a lighter setting is that the darker one seems like all hope is lost, whereas the with the lighter setting, there is hope, but it’s far off and the character must struggle for it.
The theme is the message - what kind of a message do you want to tell?