By Mary Kole
When writers are casting around for story ideas, they often turn to the best teacher they’ve had: life itself. After all, the adage of “write what you know” exists for a reason. We all have had experiences—some emotionally impactful, some “stranger than fiction”—that we’d like to pass on to a wider audience.
Starting with your lived experience is a great way of committing to a short story, essay, or even novel. (Obviously, life experience factors heavily into memoir.) But there’s something else at play when inspiration comes from real life: the moral of the story. We often write about our experience in order to learn from it ourselves, but also to pass insights onto others. Just a few days ago, I spoke to a writer who wanted to leave a cautionary tale of sorts for her daughter, but in fictionalized form.
In picture books and books for young readers, it’s very easy to point a finger to a theme or moral that’s stated on the page. Writers who come to the page looking to teach young readers manners or facts about the world or lessons about mindfulness are often not subtle about it. For the record, I strongly discourage over teaching in children’s books because readers hear lectures all day long at home and school. There’s also a perceived unequal power dynamic, where we are the older/wiser writer, and they are the vessels needing to be filled with knowledge. Unfortunately, moralizing tends to disenfranchise young readers. (You can read more about this in these two posts: https://kidlit.com/preaching-in-picture-books/ and https://kidlit.com/picture-book-wisdom-from-without-vs-within/)
The Difference Between Moral and Theme
Things get a little bit less clear-cut when we write for an audience of our peers, who aren’t necessarily in need of schooling. Yet most books still have “something to say” that goes deeper than a good story.
Also less clear-cut is the difference between moral and theme. Both deal with a larger central idea. Both come from a writer’s desire to communicate and be heard. But one is desirable, and the other, less so.
Moral is the outright statement of your story’s point. Whether a character says something along the lines of your intended message, or it’s explained in imagery or direct statement (usually at the end of the story), this is meant to direct your reader, in no uncertain terms, to your intention behind writing the story. Having a moral is not bad. As I said, everyone has a point they’d like to make when they sit down to write. But in most cases, I would not state it outright in the story itself. Why?
Readers thrive on the joy of discovery when they read. They want to play detective. This is why “show, don’t tell” is such a mainstay of the fiction craft. You’ll want to show a character who learns to love against all odds in your plot if your moral is “love conquers all,” rather than trotting out this truism with them in conversation or at the end of the last chapter. Or the character can be faced with a choice of whether to pursue a relationship or career, and choose their relationship, in their commitment to love above all. The character may realize that they value love above all in an emotional turning point. Then this decision informs the rest of the story.
This is where we get close to theme. Whereas the moral is stated outright, the theme is the “mission statement” of your story as expressed in imagery, character, and plot choice. It’s your decision about the main ideological thrust of the story, and how it might play out in everything from your choice of location, your word choice, setting, character backstory, and past and present action.
It’s not a bad thing at all to have an idea driving your story. The liability only comes if you don’t trust your reader to follow along. How much of the theme do you need to explain via a stated moral? I’d recommend not explaining it at all, and running it past a beta reader or two. Then ask them what they think your story is about. If they nail it, good—your ideas are coming through well. If they can’t pinpoint it, see if you can plant the theme more in your character’s thoughts or actions. You have a lot of options that don’t include explaining your moral outright.
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Former literary agent Mary Kole founded Mary Kole Editorial in 2013 and provides consulting and developmental editing services to writers of all categories and genres, working on children’s book projects from picture book to young adult, and all kinds of trade market literature, including fantasy, sci-fi, romance and memoir. She founded Good Story Company in 2019 with the aim of providing valuable content—like the Good Story Podcast and Crit Collective writing forum—to writers of all categories and ability levels.
She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and has worked at Chronicle Books, the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and Movable Type Management. She has been blogging at Kidlit.com since 2009. Her book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, a writing reference guide for middle grade and young adult writers, is available from Writer's Digest Books.
Now I know the difference between moral and theme. And no, no one wants to be hit over the head with a moral, even kids.
Thank you for the important distinction! Very valuable information.
Very interesting post to read, will remember much of this I'm sure.
Great tips on how not to be preachy about teaching a lesson. I like your tip about asking critique partners what they think the theme is.
As a reader, I appreciate being able to tease out what's behind the story. Thanks for the clear distinction between theme and moral.
Lessons can be taught without preaching.
"Something to say that goes deeper than the story..." So true!
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