How to Create a Powerful Thematic Message

Your thematic message (moral of the story) has two sides: the Point and the Counterpoint. The Point is the human quality under examination in your story (such as greed) and the Counterpoint is the opposite trait (such as Generosity), presented for contrast. Together, they play both sides of the moral dilemma (Greed vs. Generosity). But how do you go about making your thematic point to your readers or audience?

The most important key to a successful thematic argument is never, ever play the Point  and Counterpoint together at the same time. Why? Because you don’t want to come off as preachy and ham-handed with a black & white one-sided message.

Your thematic argument is an emotional one, not one of reason. You need to sway your reader/audience to adopt your moral view as an author rather than telling them to adopt it. This will not happen if you keep showing one side of the argument as “completely good” and the other side as “completely bad” and making that message by direct comparison. Such a thematic argument would seem one-sided, and treat the issues as being black-and-white, rather than gray-scale.

In real life, moral decisions are seldom cut-and-dried. Although we may hold views that are clearly defined, in practice it all comes down to the context of the specific situation. For example, it is wrong to steal in general. But, it might be proper to steal from the enemy during a war, or from a large market when you baby is starving. In the end, all moral views become a little blurry around the edges when push comes to shove.

Statements of absolutes do not a thematic argument make. Rather, your most powerful message will deal with the lesser of two evils, the greater of two goods, or the degree of goodness or badness of each side of the argument. In fact, there are some story situations (as in real life) where both sides of the moral argument are equally good or equally bad.

To create this more powerful, more believable, and more persuasive thematic argument follow these steps.

1. Determine in advance whether if you want each side of your moral argument to be good, bad, or neutral, in and of itself in regard to the situation your story is exploring.

Assign a numeric “value” to both the Point and the Counterpoint. For example, we might choose a scale with +5 being absolutely good, -5 being absolutely bad, and zero being neutral.

In our sample moral conflict between Greed vs. Generosity, we might assign Greed a value of -3.  This would mean to your readers/audience that greed is a negative when it crops up in your story.  In other words, when someone is greedy, it makes things worse.

Generosity (our Counterpoint) might have a value of -2.  So, in this story, Generosity also has a negative impact on things.  In such a message, you are saying that in your story’s world, folks shouldn’t hoard nor give away because either way will lead to bad consequences.  Both Greed and Generosity are  bad (being in the negative) but  Generosity is a little less bad than Greed since Generosity is only a -2 and Greed is a -3.  Still, it would be better to just keep what you’ve got and neither try to garner more nor give away what you may later need.  Pretty complex message.

Of course, you could still show Generosity as all good and Greed as all bad, but what about those real word situations where Greed is good- in other words, what if Greed is actually necessary to solve the story’s problems?  By using a scale ranging from Good through Neutral to Bad, you can fashion a far more realistic, believable, and practical message that your readers/audience can take back to the real world and act upon.

2. Show the good and bad aspects of both the Point and the Counterpoint.

Make sure you include in your story examples of each side of the thematic argument being good in some scene and bad in others.  In other words, just because a Thematic Point or Counterpoint turns out to be, for example, a +3 in the end doesn’t mean it is a +3 in every scene.  In some scenes it might even be a negative.   In fact, even if one side of the argument turns out to be good  in the end, it might be shown as bad initially. But over the course of the story, that first impression is changed by seeing that side in other contexts.

3. Have the good and bad aspects “average out” to the thematic conclusion you want.

By putting each side of the thematic argument on a roller coaster of good and bad aspects from scene to scene, it blurs the issues, just as in real life.  And, as in real life, the reader/audience will “average out” all of their exposures to each side of the argument and draw their own conclusions by the end of the story as to what the final rating or value is of each and how they compare to one another.

In this way, your thematic argument will move out of the realm of intellectual consideration and become a viewpoint arrived by feel. And, since you will have not only shown both sides, but the good and the bad of each side, your message will be easier to swallow. And finally, since you never directly compared the two sides in the same scene, the reader/audience will not feel that your message has been shoved down its throat.

–Melanie Anne Phillips

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