We concentrate so much on novels here in Theme: A Story’s Soul that we’ve yet to discuss shorter forms of literature. This wasn’t a conscious decision, though. Novels contain an incredible variety of examples of literary themes in action, which makes them fantastic resources for studying a particular theme in depth. Yet short stories radiate themes as well. They may be more limited in word count (between 1,000 and 7,500 words) and have a simpler big picture. But when they’re crafted well, they can examine the same high-level concepts novels examine just as effectively.
So how do short stories present their themes convincingly despite their restrictions? And what tips should writers keep in mind in order to nurture themes in this type of fiction? The best way to find those answers is by studying how other authors have done the same in their short stories and see what techniques those pieces have in common.
Themes in Alethea Black’s “That of Which We Cannot Speak” (Romance / Contemporary Fiction)
“That Of Which We Cannot Speak,” from Alethea Black’s I Knew You’d Be Lovely, follows Bradley, a British expat still reeling from his divorce, as he attends a New Year’s Eve party in New York City. There, Bradley meets a young doctor named Samantha, and his immediate attraction to her (as well as other moments during the party) forces him to accept how his struggles with expressing himself may have caused his marriage to dissolve – and how he’ll need to overcome his fear if he wants a second chance at love.
How does Black successfully cultivate her themes in this story? Let’s highlight the three most prominent ones and the techniques she uses:
When the story begins, Bradley is sitting alone on a park bench. This moment of solitude acts as a prelude to Black’s delving into her protagonist’s physical and emotional isolation. Through dialogue with Samantha and Bradley’s unspoken thoughts, readers learn why Bradley left England for the U.S., and how his fear of being misunderstood makes it difficult for him to share his feelings (19). Flashbacks also illustrate the painful barrier his reticence forged between him and his now ex-wife, and how it led to him feeling “fundamentally alone” (12). Other moments from the party further underscore Bradley’s emotional separateness from others, while the ending, where Bradley and Samantha leave the party together, offers hope that he may have found the courage to overcome his isolation.
Bradley and Samantha’s first conversation is memorable in that half of it is written because Samantha (a pulmonary specialist, oddly enough) has temporarily lost her voice. It’s a playful yet symbolic introduction to the theme of communication before it takes a solemn turn. Like with isolation, Black uses on-point dialogue and flashbacks to reveal Bradley’s struggles with communicating with others, and how it led to his divorce (thus connecting communication and isolation). The theme resounds even more deeply due to Bradley’s internal conflict over whether he should call his ex-wife. When he does call her that night, he stammers until he finds, in his opinion, something meaningful to say (20).
It’s no surprise that love is a prominent theme in “That of Which We Cannot Speak.” It infuses every scene, from Bradley’s reminiscing about his marriage and the reasons he loved his ex-wife, to his immediate attraction to Samantha during the party. It also interweaves seamlessly with the isolation and communication themes. In fact, these lines from Samantha’s written dialogue strike at the heart of Bradley’s internal conflict, and tie all three themes together: “You shouldn’t be afraid to speak your heart. Not to a woman you love” (19).
Themes in Ted Chiang’s “Division By Zero” (Speculative Fiction)
“Division By Zero,” from Ted Chiang’s collection Arrival (originally titled Stories of Your Life and Others), is about much more than mathematical equations. Written in a nonlinear structure, the story reveals how Renee, a math professor, suffers a mental breakdown after unintentionally proving that mathematics is inconsistent. Her anguish eventually compels her to attempt suicide and damages her relationship with her husband Carl, who tries desperately to understand her pain since he, too, had once been suicidal. The ending might stun some readers, but it also shows Chiang’s mastery at reflecting complex ideas through character relationships and universal conflicts.
And what about themes? Here’s how Chiang explore these three in “Division By Zero”:
Chiang introduces this unusual theme by offering historical examples of discoveries that questioned the consistency of mathematics. He then uses Renee and Carl’s scenes to show everyday examples of “consistency versus inconsistency.” Renee in particular has been fascinated with precision since age seven, when she was “spellbound at discovering the perfect squares” of a relative’s tiled floor (74). She later finds spiritual meaning in the consistency of mathematics’ problem-solving methods – until the formalism she develops contradicts everything she believes about her field. Chiang also touches on the inconsistencies of human behavior, from Renee’s concern of being seen as “flighty or unstable” after her suicide attempt (85) to Carl’s desire to leave Renee despite his initial promise to support her through her recovery.
Mental Health / Illness:
Thanks to Chiang’s use of dual POVs, readers see how Renee and Carl are each other’s mirrors into mental illness. Carl, for example, reflects on his past suicide attempt while watching Renee’s downward spiral. His memory of a friend convincing him not to take his own life strikes him just as he pleads with Renee not to throw away hers (85), and he visits Renee daily at the psychiatric ward because it’s “what he would have appreciated” from his family during his own recovery (74). Renee, however, initially rebuffs Carl’s support. Her callousness toward him, along with a lack of focus and nightmares about mathematical formulas (82), is a symptom of the depression she plunges into after discovering the formalism. It’s only after her attempt that Renee realizes Carl was trying to help her, and that she’d never once thought of asking for his advice.
Yes, “Division By Zero” is a love story – or, rather, a story about the dissolution of romantic love. Readers witness this mainly through Carl’s scenes, as he gradually realizes his feelings for Renee have diminished. Chiang illustrates this change by contrasting examples where Carl shows his affection for Renee with his staggering moment of revelation near the end (“…[S]he had changed, and now he neither understood nor knew how to feel for her” ). Empathy, or the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings, also plays a crucial role in exploring love. Carl understands the transformative power of empathy, having received it from a (now former) girlfriend during his recovery (75). His attempts to practice it with Renee, however, fail because of her rejections. Thus, the final line of the story (“[T]his was an empathy that separated rather than united them, and he couldn’t tell her that” ) emphasizes how Renee and Carl finally arrive at a shared understanding, but at the cost of their love.
Four Keys to Nurturing Themes in Short Stories
In essence, short stories and novels don’t differ in how they explore theme. Short stories, however, require more care and finesse for those explorations to succeed. Here are four keys to nurturing themes effectively in short stories, based on our examples from Alethea Black and Ted Chiang.
Key #1: Keep the story simple, which will lead to fewer themes.
Since short stories are, of course, shorter and less complex than novels, they also explore fewer themes. (Case in point: “That Of Which We Speak” and “Division By Zero” highlight three themes apiece.) Your short story will also touch on only a few themes as long as it’s brief enough in length and limited enough in scope. If the big picture involves more than a few themes, though, you may want to simplify the story to decrease the word count or consider a longer form (novellete, novella, etc.) that will better serve the tale you want to tell.
Key #2: Don’t be afraid of thematic “mirroring” and repetition.
Because of a short story’s length, any repetition of elements that establish themes might be more noticeable to readers. So will any mirroring between characters. Don’t worry about whether this will make your story boring or predictable, though. By focusing on a few themes and using the right techniques to develop them, you’ll make the piece stronger and more memorable.
Key #3: Use the elements of story-telling effectively.
Every word matters, especially in short stories. So as you write your own, make sure all dialogue, flashbacks, symbolism, and other aesthetics serve a specific purpose. This will help you stay focused on what matters most in the story, and prevent you from adding redundant or unnecessary elements.
Key #4: Ensure your story’s themes are connected.
Did you notice how love, isolation, and communication interlink in “That of Which We Cannot Speak”? And how inconsistency, mental illness, and love do the same in “Division by Zero”? These connections likely didn’t happen because Alethea Black and Ted Chiang planned them. Rather, they happened because each author kept the main plot or conflict tightly focused (Key #1), chose their storytelling elements carefully (Key #3), and used repetition appropriately (Key #2). (This occurs in novels as well, though it’s less noticeable due to the novel’s length and complexity.) By capturing those first three keys in your own short story, you’ll ensure the completed piece fits within the recommended word count, presents literary themes that harmonize with one another, and lingers in the reader’s memory long after they finish reading it.
What are some of your favorite short stories and the themes they cover? How do they successfully examine those themes despite, or because of, their word count? If you’re writing a short story or have written short stories before, what are their themes and how are they examined?
Sara Letourneau is a speculative fiction writer and poet in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks copious amounts of tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and is hard at work on a YA magical realism novel. She also freelanced as a tea reviewer and music journalist in the past. Her poetry is forthcoming in Canary; and has previously appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, and Underground Voices. Visit Sara at her personal blog, Twitter, and Goodreads.