Stories are fun to read because they take us on a journey that, most often, we would be unlikely to ever go on ourselves. It’s an opportunity to feel immersed in the life of someone else who experiences struggle and has to overcome obstacles both inside and outside of themselves.
But is entertainment the only purpose for which fiction exists?
Fiction is Good for You
This has been one of the most-asked questions about storytelling since storytelling has been around. And research in recent years has shown that reading fiction isn’t just a fun escape for readers; it also holds the power to make them better people. Read some of the work by Jonathan Gottschall if you’re curious to find out more.
Almost every story you read or watch has some sort of underlying theme that the story is trying to communicate. And sometimes the theme that a reader or viewer gets isn’t even something the writer intended. Still, for many other stories, the writer herself discovers the theme only after the story is written.
The Moral Argument of a Story
The theme of a story is its universal message. John Truby calls it the moral argument.
Without sidestepping it in any way, the theme of a story is meant to encourage someone to live a certain way.
Take Disney’s Frozen for example. The theme of that story is actually verbally communicated to us by the words, “Only love can thaw a frozen heart.” The whole narrative of the story was about this one theme, and people are meant to walk away from the movie thinking, I need to be more loving to the people in my life who feel the need to isolate themselves from the rest of the world.
Not all stories have the moral argument so clearly laid out for us. Many times we have to infer it based on the events of the story itself. In the story about the boy who cried wolf, the theme of lying ruining our credibility to people isn’t clearly stated, yet we walk away with it firmly in mind because of the way the story works.
How to Make the Moral Argument of Your Story
The moral argument of a story is tricky, but here are some tips for doing it well.
1. Never Tell the Reader/Viewer How to Live their Lives
Your story is a story, and at no point should it turn into a sermon. Our job as storytellers isn’t to tell people how to live through our stories. We would be asking our stories to carry more weight than they’re meant to.
So avoid having any of your characters preach to another character or the reader about how to live.
Notice in Frozen that the theme is stated, but not commanded to anyone. Instead, the theme is meant to…
2. Make People Think about How they Live their Lives
People read stories because they want to experience a journey with a character, and many times people will choose a story whose character resonates with them, even if their particular struggles aren’t the same.
A man may read a story about an alcoholic who finally finds freedom and start to think about things completely unrelated to alcohol that are equally weighing him down. He may consider how the character handled the situation and try to find a way to personal freedom in his own life.
Stories are meant to make people think. People can find the right answers for themselves.
A story can be a catalyst to get people thinking, but it shouldn’t outright tell them what the writer believes is the solution to all their problems. We’re not therapists; we’re thought provokers.
3. Theme is Communicated by How the Protagonist Solves the Problem
In Frozen, the protagonist Anna has to save her sister from being hunted and find a way to reverse the ice curse on Arendelle. Earlier in the film, Anna hears that an act of true love is what will thaw a frozen heart. In other words, a display of genuine love is the solution to the problem.
So when Anna jumps in front of Hans’s sword meant for Elsa, the theme of the story is perfectly communicated by her actions.
No telling the viewer how to live his or her life.
Yet you can’t help but think about the way you live your life after watching the story played out.
That’s how fiction makes you a better person.