“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.”
— Herman Melville
I have mixed feelings about this quote.
On one hand, Melville has a point. As I’ve said many times, there’s a message in your fiction. Always. One of the keys to being an effective writer is cultivating an awareness of your own messages and delivering them as effectively as possible.
But there’s a potentially darker side to this piece of advice.
For many writers, the temptation is to go after a deep theme first. It’s as if you’re baking a cake, and the theme/message is the flour. All the other ingredients make the thing taste good, but the flour is the substance of it. Without that, you have a sugary mess, but not a cake.
Writing, however, is not like baking. There’s no recipe. You’re romping through uncharted territory. You can’t map it before you embark. No, first you have to explore.
In my experience, that’s how the theme emerges. Not by design, but in practice. I rarely know the message of a piece of fiction until I’m well into it. The story tells me its message, not the other way around.
Granted, that’s how I write. It may not be how you write, and please, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t think I’m telling anyone they have to write like I write. You don’t.
Still, I think it’s worth considering that often other elements come first. The theme/message may not reveal itself until after you’ve finished the first draft.
The important part (at least for me) is keeping my eyes open so I can play into it when I find it. Trying to force a message into a story will almost always come off as preachy.
In other words, it very rarely works.