The Theme is the “Moral of the Story”


Picture from


Aesop’s fables are short, easy to read, and end with a moral.  “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  “Union gives strength.”  “Necessity is the mother of invention.” “Little by little does the trick.”  (See all at

It’s amazing to think that these short lessons are 2,000 years old.   It’s great to have kids read them just for the insights that fact brings.  Good storytelling endures.   And the world may have changed in two millennia, but people haven’t.

Reading the fables is a good way to introduce the idea that stories have a theme.  You can start by trying to guess the moral to a new fable and move on to attaching morals to fairy tales and movies that the kids know.

The theme of “The Three Little Pigs” is as obvious as those of the fables.  “Hard work pays off.”  Others are subtler.  “Hansel and Gretel” has really two themes: one dealing with the witch and the other with the stepmother.   They are similar though, something like “Wit and teamwork can overcome evil” for the witch and “All bad things come to an end” for the stepmother.   Apparently, it is okay to destroy a witch, but you must outlast a stepmother.

Picking a theme for “The Three Bears” is challenging.   Some jokingly suggest that the tale says “It’s all right to enter a strange house and try things out,” or “Kids can get away with things that would get you or me thrown in jail.”  I prefer “Creatures are more alike than appearances suggest,” but I’ve heard others as plausible.

Does every author build their book around a theme?  Yes and no.  The author doesn’t have to be aware of a theme, it just happens when he or she selects an ending.  A lot of kids’ literature has the same theme: “Be true and work hard and you will win the beauty contest/ball game/race and get the boy/girl of your dreams.”   Kids who aren’t exposed to more variety may “grow out” of reading fiction and feel it’s childish and irrelevant to real life.

In both my novels, Desiderata and Agnes, young women are thrust into lives not of their choosing and resolve to make the most of their lot.  I’ve had girls tell me that they like that ending better than any other book they’ve read; I’ve had women tell me they were disappointed that things didn’t work out better.  I think the girls appreciate they can adapt to trying circumstances; the women, mothers all, want an ending they’d like for their daughters.

Savvy, by Ingrid Law, has a wonderful theme:  “We all have unique gifts that we have to discover, control, and use.”  It’s something I really believe in.  I’d love to use it for a book one day.


The GiverWhy Read?

Ever had a kid tell you half-defiantly, “I don’t read”?  I’ve even had one who said, “I can read all right, but I won’t do it.”

Maybe they know we love challenges–they do bring rewards.  One new non-reader ended up finishing three books in his first two weeks–non-fiction books with lots of pictures.  My librarian knew boys.

One year, I had entire classes embrace reading.  While a teacher was on medical leave, I got students who could not spell–and most did not or could not read well.  For them, I chose Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a tale of a future without pain–no cold weather, no childbirth, no dead end careers, no old age. The cost was no excitement, no choices, and euthanasia.   Well, these kids hadn’t known there were books that you had to argue with!

When we were done, I gave them six choices for their next book.  They choose the darkest, Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, a story of a Jewish girl inside a Nazi death camp.  They wanted to feel.

When kids learn in order to get a great job someday, it restricts their interests. These are the greater gifts from reading.

Analyze character’s actions–would you have done the same thing?  Would you have risked death to hide Anne Frank in your home?  Would you have accepted your aunt’s reasons for marrying a humorless Puritan?  Would you have stayed with the plane or tried to walk out?

Pain is bad enough, but it’s harder to cope if you believe life is singling you out for ill treatment. So the kids at school make fun of your shoes, you can’t hit a basket with a bat, much less a ball, and your getting weary of hiding your mom’s alcoholism from the world. You are not alone. Others have survived–and grown–from such challenges.

Before you suffer great pain, books can help you learn what causes it and how sufferers cope. What would it be like to lose a parent or a leg? How would it feel to be trapped in a avalanche or lost in a blizzard? What if your parents’ divorce or your brother takes his anger out on you? It happens. And people have not one reaction, but a string of them–and authors write of them.

We must endure much more than we can imagine–but we can be strong, at least sometimes, and learn to forgive ourselves for the others.

Plot Structure


There’s a saying that 90% of published stories follow “the formula”—and the other 10% are great literature.

               So what is “the formula”?  So glad you asked–I’ve taught plotting for 15 years and need spend no time researching an answer in this busy season. 

               First, let me tell you why it helps to know.  If you’re acting as a teacher, it provides you with built-in questions about a book you’ve never read.  If a student has just started a book, you ask about aspects of the opening.  If they’re halfway through, you ask about character, conflict and one point of rising action. 

               If you’re acting as a reader, using the language from plot helps you state why you like or dislike a book.  The main character was inspiring or dorky; the conflict was interesting or weak; the climax was riveting or predictable. 

               If you’re a storyteller or a writer, what you need to know is that opening and conflict get the first 20%; the rising action and climax, the next 60%; and the falling action and denouement, the final 20%.   

               This is it—the basis of the majority of the world’s literature. 

               Opening/Exposition:  Introduces the setting (time and place) and the characters.  Recently, there’s a trend to having the first scene be a life-or-death action borrowed from later in the plot, but at some time the author has to get around to who and where.  

               Conflict:  The problem that must be solved before the story can end.  By the end of the third or fourth chapter, readers need to know there is a problem, one they care about, and have some idea what direction they want the story to go. 

               Rising action:  The problem gets worse—and worse—and worse yet.  New challenges arise and possible solutions disappear. 

               Climax: The point at which the solution is revealed.  Sometimes this is a breathtaking action—the poor hero hanging from roof’s edge manages to pull himself up and knock out the villian.  But it may be two starving children lost In a blizzard stumbling into campground and finding a half loaf of bread in the garbage.

               Falling action: The handling of loose ends.  The police arrive and take the villian away or the kids to the hospital.

               Denouement/Resolution: The “new normal” is revealed.  The characters go forth with new knowledge and understanding.  

               Now take a story you know—the simpler the better—and see if you can identify the elements of the plot.  I’ll use the “The Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs” as an example.

               Opening: Each little pig goes off to seek his fortune.

               Conflict: A hungry wolf decides to eat the pigs.

               Rising action:  The house of straw disintegrates.  The house of sticks follows.  The wolf is using all his wind power to threaten the house of brick.

               Climax: The wolf goes down the chimney and lands in a vat of boiling water.

               Falling action: Everyone realizes what has happened and celebrates.

               Denouement:  All of the pigs now understand the benefits of preparation and hard work and live happily ever after.               

               Admittedly, longer stories are more complicated with subplots and character development, but we tend to get disappointed if each of these major elements is not well done.

But What REALLY Happened?



Charlemagne presents Louis at court (from

               John Winston’s biography of Charlemagne says the King sent his son Louis away early in the campaign against the Avars.   That’s the kind of statement that gets a writers’ imagination going.

               Why was Louis sent to Regensburg?  Winston cites it as evidence the 14-year-old was little suited to warfare.  Still, it’s doubtful Charles just said to the King of Acquitaine, “Son, you’re useless here.  Wait for us at Regensburg.” 

               And we can be pretty certain Prince Louis didn’t disgrace his father by crying.  Charlemagne was said to have “the gift of tears.”   He cried on many occasions—after a battle or at a death in the family, even after a stillborn birth, and was regarded favorably for it.     

               Maybe Louis was hurt or ill?  Could he have been well enough to travel west weeks by horseback but too ill to precede eastward?  Maybe Louis vomited at the sight of blood and Charles wanted him gone before everyone learned he wasn’t really ill?  His efforts in later battles would be all the more laudable. 

               Maybe Louis argued tactics with his father?   Maybe a defiant Louis threw a tankard of ale at his father, and Charles knocked him down and choked him until five men pulled him off and one of his brothers said, “Run, now.  We can’t hold him long.”

               Now, that would be a scene fit for a movie.  Yet, chronicles don’t mention it.  They do tell us that four years later Charles called Louis cheap and Louis told him of his financial situation in Acquitaine.   You’d think accounts would give some hint if there’d been an earlier—and more vehement—argument. 

               So maybe it was a quiet contest of wills?  When Charles would say go left, Louis would go right?  And Charles finally made up an excuse to send him away?  And Louis was never sure if he or his father had won?    

               I would like to write of Louis one day.  As the only son who outlived his father, he inherited the entire kingdom. Much too soon, he divided it among his three squabbling sons and retired to a monastery.  What was the man thinking?

               If I ever understand enough to undertake that book, when I write of the trip to the Avars, I will have Charles receive word that his wife Fastrada is ill and he fears she will miscarry their child.  The distraught King will yearn to go to her but know that he has waged the wealth of his entire realm on this invasion.  While the others insist that Fastrada will understand and that Princess Hrotrud can look after matters, Louis will say, “Send me, Father.  Let me assure Fastrada of the depth of your concern and see she has the best care possible.” 

               And maybe Pepin will throw a flagon of ale at Louis and laughingly accuse his brother of cowardice and avoiding battle?  That would give us some action—and explain some of the later hostility between Louis’s camps and Pepin’s.

               Historical non-fiction focuses on what is known.  Historical fiction must add details and reasons.  Both, however, can point out differing views and interpretations.             

               (And, yes, in Agnes Louis is there after the battle at the ring.  I try, but sometimes I can only  apologize.)