Don’t confuse the question of your conflict with the question of your theme.
“Will Luke Skywalker Destroy the Death Star and live happily every after, or will he die in the attempt?”
This is the question of the Conflict – I.E., the Physical Layer. It’s a good question, and should lead to a strong Conflict. Which is great, and what you want as a story teller.
However, that’s not a Theme.
The theme is the “human element.” It’s the intangible visceral connection between the story and the reader. It’s the message the reader can apply to their own lives or it won’t fulfill the unknown expectations the reader has. Without these emotional needs being fulfilled, the reader will not care about the story.
The depth at which the writer understands this is the difference between an amazing story, a mediocre story, and a piece-of-crap story.
Theme vs. Conflict
The above question is an event. “Will the whiny moisture farmer survive or not?” Well, in the end, who gives a crap? The answering of this question does not, in any way, affect the reader’s life. It teaches the reader nothing. Even if the writer does a great job, and the reader really likes this Luke character, it still does nothing to move them at a visceral level. Sure, if Luke survives, they’ll feel good for him. If he dies, they’ll feel bad. But in neither case is his win or loss anything the reader can apply to their own life.
I doubt very seriously any reader shall be fighting any Death Stars anytime soon.
That’s where Theme comes in, and why a story is not a story unless it has one (or more).
The Theme is the message the reader consumes “because of the event.” The reason so many new writers get confused about this is because a Theme is often a question posed by the story, and it’s normally answered at the same time the question of the Conflict is answered.
But they are very, very different.
I’ve had tons of people tell me, “I wrote a story, one that had a cool, relatable character who did some pretty cool and amazing things, and my grasp of grammar and English are solid, but no one likes my story.”
They say they get a lot of, “Well written, but I didn’t like it.”
Because the writer is focusing on the wrong thing.
Events vs. Theme
Theyre’ focusing on the Events of the story, and totally forgetting about the only thing that’s important.
Look, all the Physical Layer stuff that happens in your story (the Events)—the characters, their dialogue, what things look like, the world around them, their conflict, the situation, their mothers, etc., all the things that make up your “story”—are totally worthless.
They don’t matter.
Well, they do (especially your mother). But that’s the rub. They matter because your Physical Layer elements have to be interesting and make your story feel unique and keep the reader reading. But they DON’T matter when it comes to whether the reader feels your story was good or bad.
In other words, if you create an amazingly written story of a young farm boy who saves the universe by blowing up a Death Star you will fail to please the reader every single time.
However, if you create the same story, but force the reader to consume a humanizing message they can apply to their own life through the transformation of that young farm boy, they will sing your praises to the heavens. Themes are complex, and not something I have time to fully describe here in a blog. If you want to read 12,000 words of me describing them, pick up a copy of my Dynamic Story Creation here.
List your questions in the comments!