Hint at story’s theme in opening lines

Even the most action-packed, blood-and-gore story has some message or point. A proposition that is argued or an aspect of human experience that is examined in your story is its theme. For example, the theme of the novel “Moby Dick” is revenge and obsession. Those dual passions and their costs are explored as Captain Ahab hunts and tries to destroy the great white whale that bit off his leg.

You want to hint at your theme on your opening page. This doesn’t mean you overtly state the story’s message or moral. Rather, as you know what the story’s message will be, you include underlying values that allow your theme to be revealed.

All stories convey underlying values. Like hues added as accent colors in a painting, they aren’t at the forefront of your story but subtly guide your reader.

The opening lines of your story ought to suggest these underlying values. This can be done in a variety of ways.

The simplest method is to pit the worldviews of your protagonist and antagonist against one another. As they attempt to top the other, their personalities manifest the values of their competing worldviews. For example, a hero might stop to help someone in need even though it means the antagonist gets away while the villain will show no remorse at being cruel because he believes the ends justifies the means. During your opening lines, you contrast these characters’ worldviews in the way the antagonist upsets the status quo and how the protagonist feels that this problem must be corrected.

Another way is through character development. In this case, the protagonist’s viewpoint changes to one reflecting the theme. For example, a soldier may start the story by believing force is necessary to bring peace to a country, but by story’s end he realizes that violence only begets more violence and that cooperation is the only way to bring about peace. If your story is told this way, the opening lines should show the protagonist expressing a worldview that contrasts with the theme.

A third way to suggest underlying values is symbolism. For example, suppose your protagonist is an unhappy person, never able to achieve perfection in anything despite being a high achiever; the theme of the story is that seeking perfection to achieve happiness is fool’s errand. Now add the symbol of chrysanthemums, which traditionally represent perfection. During the opening lines of the story, that character could be shown fussing with a bouquet of chrysanthemums on her dining room table, trying to make it just right but never being able to do so.

Whichever way you reveal the story’s theme, don’t use a “You see, Timmy.” This technique is named after a line in a popular TV show of the 1950s-60s, in which an adult explains to a child character the lesson learned in that episode. In short, the author directly states the theme in the narrative. While that may be fine in a children’s show, it’s insulting to adult readers, who are intelligent and sophisticated enough to infer your story’s theme. Just as you wouldn’t end your story with this Aesop-styled reveal, so you shouldn’t begin it by revealing the theme in the opening lines by stating it, such as It’s a truth well known that those who do not embrace hard work ultimately suffer or Those who aspire to govern must first learn to govern themselves and then set out to prove the premise through dramatic action.