In Short Story Prompts by Popular Genres, Bridgette gave us a rundown of popular genres in literature and provided a list of fun writing prompts to inspire our next epic short story. Now, along with using genres to help you write a cohesive, purpose-driven short story, you can also center it around a specific theme.
So, what is a theme? A theme in a story helps us to recognize and relate to personal and social issues that humankind has and will continue to face. It enlightens us to the complexities and beauty of our relationships with others, ourselves, and even our planet. Simply put, it is the key lesson we take away from a story.
In novels, you will find more than one theme, since authors will put their characters through various conflicts before reaching the climax of the story. In a short story, however, it’s best to stick to one theme to avoid losing the main message you want to convey to your readers.
To help you better understand how themes work, I have compiled a list of common themes you will find in many stories with writing prompts inspired by each. I have also included an example of a book and a play to illustrate how themes anchor each story (PSST! These are some of my favorite books, by the way, and I highly encourage you to read them).
A theme on forbidden love revolves around two people who cannot be together because forces outside of their relationship are keeping them apart. A popular story with the theme of forbidden love is Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Having been born into rival families, Romeo and Juliet secretly plan a way to be together forever. Their plans rarely run smoothly and are eventually foiled by their violent families.
PROMPT: Write a short story about two people who do everything in their power to be together, despite their families, friends, or society forbidding them to do so.
Good vs. Evil
“Are we born inherently good or evil?” and “What does it mean to be a monster?” are two of the many questions we have about the nature of humanity. In stories that question our perception of good and evil, characters face challenges that pressure them to choose the path of righteousness or wickedness. It is in the end when we realize which path conquers the other. In most stories, good conquers evil, but in some tragedies, evil conquers good.
In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, groups of children stranded on an uninhabitable island find themselves in war against each other. Our perception of children normally paints them as creatures of innocence, but the savagery of this war makes us question if evil resides in every one of us.
PROMPT: Write a short story from the perspective of a villain.
The Coming of Age
Coming of age stories follow the journey of a character, usually a young one, who matures because of a significant event in their life. They learn that the safety and comfort of their childhood is not theirs forever, and it is the acceptance of this realization that welcomes them into adulthood.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is the perfect novel to exemplify the coming of age theme. Holden Caulfield, the book’s protagonist, is a character you’ll hate upon introduction, because his negativity and resistance comes off as immaturity. Eventually, as he learns to surrender to the pressures forced upon him by his family and society, he becomes easier to relate to. We realize he’s just like anyone else trying to figure out what their place is in this big, complex world.
PROMPT: Write a story about a character who runs away from home and the valuable lessons he or she learns about life along the way.
Stories about people overcoming adversity are some of the most inspirational ones to read. Oftentimes, these are stories about everyday people who face similar difficulties we face, yet through courage and determination, they are able to conquer and thrive.
When I ask my middle-schoolers for their recommendations on books about courage, most rave about Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Auggie, the ten-year-old protagonist in Wonder, was born with a facial abnormality, yet he overcomes his fear of humiliation and rejection by never giving up and by simply being himself.
PROMPT: Write a short story about a character who beats all odds despite having a disability.
Prejudice is the discrimination of a group of people based on their race, age, sex, or social class. The theme of prejudice allows us to question our internalized beliefs about our differences, and urges us to confront our role in the power struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a novel that challenges its readers to examine and dismantle their prejudice. Although the novel is centered around the unjust imprisonment and murder of an innocent black man, it also dives into other serious topics like society’s intolerance for people with addictions, people who are considered lower class, and people who defy norms.
PROMPT: Write a short story describing a day-in-the-life of a character who faces prejudice every day.
I hope you enjoyed reading through today’s post as much as I enjoyed putting it together! I do believe that a better understanding of themes, especially the five I’ve mentioned above, will make reading a richer experience for you. I also hope it will open up new worlds of possibilities for you as you write your next epic short story.
Can you name more themes than the ones we mentioned today? We’d love to read them in the comment section below!