Do All Stories Have a Moral?

Discussion in 'Writing' started by goldhawk, Dec 25, 2007.

  1. goldhawk

    goldhawk aurea plectro

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    Do all stories have a moral, even if it's a subtle one?

    I once was taught that all stories need a theme and that a theme was: The proper way to live right, as expressed by the characters. Of course, each character may be a good example (how to live properly) or a bad one (what to avoid).

    But that sounds like a moral to me.

    So, is the theme separate from the moral or is the theme just a subtle moral?
     
  2. Malik

    Malik New Member

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    Yeah. the moral of mine is: dragons can be killed with machine guns.

    Okay, I made that up.

    Maybe.

    Seriously, though. I don't think that stories require a moral. I'd be hard pressed to tell you what the moral of my novel is. It's a coming of age story; it would take me five pages to explain the changes that happen to the protagonist, and probably twenty to list all the lessons he learns.

    God, I hope no kid ever has to do a book report on my novel. :eek:
     
  3. goldhawk

    goldhawk aurea plectro

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    I'm not saying all stories have a moral. But I think they all have something similar to it but with less intensity. I call that something a theme.

    A 'Coming of Age' story has a theme that is exposing the child on how to become an adult. But isn't that also a moral issue. Coming-of-age is also becoming a "good" adult?

    I'm not asking does a story need a moral; I'm asking if its theme is a moral, perhaps a subtle one, but one none the less.
     
  4. Malik

    Malik New Member

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    My apologies; I misunderstood your question.

    I don't think the theme is necessarily a moral; the key to a dynamic character, though, is one whose responses to situations change -- ideally, improve in the long run -- over the course of the story. So some of the lessons the characters learn can be construed as morals. But I don't necessarily think that the story arc itself has to be a moralistic one.
     
  5. goldhawk

    goldhawk aurea plectro

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    I agree. But you have said nothing about theme. So, I take it, by your posts, that you think moral and theme are totally separate? That you don't think that theme is just a subtle variation of moral?
     
  6. Dawnstorm

    Dawnstorm Master Obfuscator

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    You know why that sounds like a moral to you? Because it is a moral and not a theme. A theme is a single statement, say:

    "Friends stick together."

    The theme can be explored in various ways. There can be a conclusion, but there doesn't have to be one. There can be a deconstruction of the constituent terms, so that you start the story taking the theme as a fact and leave the story uncertain what a friend's supposed to be and why people stick together.

    A moral is a lesson. What you describe above is a moral, a specific way to treat a theme (affirmation; secifically affirmation through character, which is only one of many ways). A theme isn't a moral, because the work of fiction doesn't have to evaluate the theme. (It can merely show up various attitudes to the theme, not choosing between them. What's the moral, then?)

    Basically, what I'm saying is that "theme" is merely a statement. To turn it into a moral you have to affirm it, rather than to just explore it, or play with it. So if you have a moral, you have a theme; but if you have a theme, you don't necessarily have a moral.
     
  7. lin

    lin Banned

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    Morals and themes are not something for a writer to waste a lot of time worrying about. (Unless you're writing a fable)

    These are things the reader or critic sees. Of no use to writing the book.

    I mean, does anybody REALLY sit down and say, "I think I'll write a book on the theme of 'Friends stick together'?"
     
  8. Power to the J

    Power to the J Catacomb Kid

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    Yeah the majority--I know there are exceptions--of themes and sumbolism are found by people looking for them, not by the writer. I think every fiction must have a theme to be a story at all, but not a heavy one.
     
  9. Bluestar

    Bluestar Voracious Reader

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    It's actually pretty fun to have people credit you with all kind of deep stuff you didn't even think about when you wrote the story. :)
     
  10. lin

    lin Banned

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    I find that to be an amazing statement.

    You're either saying that a story isn't a story unless it contains some element that is projected onto it after the fact....

    Or that all stories have some theme that can be figured out and articulated. And thus it's like "you can't have a story without using words and letters".

    Again, these are NOT useful concepts for writers to worry about.
     
  11. Dawnstorm

    Dawnstorm Master Obfuscator

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    I agree that time spent worrying about theme etc. is time wasted. But that's got to do with the worrying rather than with "theme". I'd say the same thing about "character" or "plot". These are all descriptive categories applied after the fact.

    With me, when writing, theme is more of an organising principle than plot. Most of my characters develope around theme. You're right that I never sat down to formulate it. I said stuff like it's about "faith vs. taking a chance" (mostly to myself), something which could easily be worked into a statement to meet the requirements of "theme". The theme is replayed on all levels: between factions, within factions, between individuals, within individuals. The theme revolves around a single "motif", "the Aimless One", a near-blank slate for projection. So, yes, I am aware of my themes while writing.

    As a reader I notice theme less. I tend to only notice it if it's overdone or if it's treated to simplistically (near to a single-minded moral, actually, heh!). But as a writer, theme is an organisation priniciple, much like a musical theme in Jazz. It's the idea that gives substance to the improvisation.

    Again, theme is not moral. Moral is the affirmation of a theme. I tend to explore my themes in a rather playful manner. To do that, I need characters. Doing that is fun.

    As always, I dislike rules. "A story must have a theme," is a silly thing to say, because you're either stating the obvious in form of an order, or you're insisting on your pet approach. But that doesn't really license a statement like, "Don't think about theme while writing," because, who knows how other people think?
     
  12. Power to the J

    Power to the J Catacomb Kid

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    To me a theme is this: the theme is a cat likes a dog. I think I'm wrong, though, so maybe I should revise my thinking...
     
  13. lin

    lin Banned

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    Let me put it this way: you hear people talking about "character-driven" books, and "plot-driven books" and "location books".

    Did you ever hear anybody raving about a "theme-driven" book?
     
  14. Bluestar

    Bluestar Voracious Reader

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    How about 1984 and Animal Farm?
     
  15. lin

    lin Banned

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    Try this experiment: next time you're in a group of literary people pass out paper and ask them all to write down the theme of 1984 or Animal Farm, then pick up the paper and see if any two of them are the same.
     
  16. goldhawk

    goldhawk aurea plectro

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    I too dislike rules. I have said that teachers like rules, professors like debate.

    When I'm writing my first draft, I'm having too much fun to worry about rules. But when I'm editing, I need to worry about all those things called proper English.

    As others have said, "'Friends stick together.' is a theme." But isn't it also a moral? "Friends stick together." could be a mantra, a principle to follow?

    I believe that all stories must have a theme. Without a theme, your readers loose focus and stop reading. That's mainly because your writing looses focus.

    All writing is an example of life but all writing is mucking through a swamp of moral issues. And I say that the mucking through is the theme and the dry hummock is the moral (that's if you can find a dry hummock.)
     
  17. Fred Gallney

    Fred Gallney The Writer of Fantasy

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    Each book should have a theme. Especially, if its in a series. Each book's theme should add to the overall plot.
     
  18. Dawnstorm

    Dawnstorm Master Obfuscator

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    Well, yes and no.

    "Friends stick together," is a moral. "Friends shouldn't stick together," is another moral. "'Sticking together' has nothing to do with frienship," is yet another moral.

    What they all share is a common theme: one affirms the theme, another denies it, the third declares it irrelevant. If you balance all three views against each other, you're still dealing with the theme, but you don't have a moral.

    A theme offers much more liberty than a moral. A theme doesn't have a negation. Both it's affirmation and negation are different ways to express it.

    So, if you're saying: "A story must have a theme," you're merely stating that the story must deal with a question. But if you're saying: "A story must have a moral," you're saying that you must choose a position. This is a much stronger claim. People who ask for a theme don't necessarily ask for a moral. (Occasionally, they ask for a "motif", which is much like a theme, but instead of being a statement, it's an image. "Motifs" are very often called "themes", too, so if you include both "motifs" and "themes" under the heading "theme", the claim becomes even weaker [and would include, say, impressionism much more easily].)

    Personally, I couldn't even write the first draft of my WiP without being aware of its theme. I very much doubt that readers would call my novel "theme driven". Theme is nothing that's directly visible. It expresses itself (but hopefully doesn't dominate) in characters, plot, setting.

    (The problem with editing to rules is that you risk taking out what's interesting in favour of what's supposed to work.)
     
  19. Hellsfire

    Hellsfire Registered User

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    I don't think all stories have a moral. I remember reading Howard's Conan and Flemming's Bond and those stories have no morals. They're fun, adventurous reads but that's it. I think stories now should have a moral but that's because it's a different world.
     
  20. lin

    lin Banned

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    Perhaps you could give us an example of just how that works?