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What is Theme

on October 24th, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on April 11, 2012

What is theme?

When students of literature are asked to identify elements of a novel or short story, they’re pressed to pinpoint what the story is about.

They could answer with plot details, something about the actions of the characters.

However, they could also go for a behind-the-plot meaning, something less about events and more about significance, perhaps even a conclusion they’ve drawn from the book.

I’m talking about theme.

Plot is the events of story; theme is the meaning behind or revealed by story.

Theme is sometimes defined as the moral of a story, though theme doesn’t have to be a moral. Morals that double as theme include these: cheaters never win, honesty wins the day, and good guys finish first.

Of course, a story may just as easily prove that cheaters often win, liars quite often succeed, and bad guys beat out the good guys.

But a story’s theme may not come out as a moral at all.

Themes are often a declaration of the human condition. Or a truth that explains human behavior.

Consider an author whose books seem similar. You may even tire of them, saying they’re all the same. What do you mean by that?

Maybe each is about mothers and daughters. Maybe the author pursues the same theme in every book—the relationship between mothers and daughters is complex.

There’s no moral there. But there is a theme to the body of work and to each story in that author’s list of books. The theme is a recognizable one that speaks to the human condition.

Themes may deal with a specific grouppre-school boys are fearless; immigrants are both clannish and brave; pirates live out the maxim, I’m looking out for number one.

Themes may deal with principles and abstractions rather than people—love means sacrifice, hope is painful, death stalks each of us from the moment of birth.

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Themes don’t have to be true in the real world—they are true in terms of the story they come from. That is, you don’t have to believe the theme is true in your daily life; you may actually hold the opposite viewpoint. But if the story has been written such that the theme is obvious to readers, the theme is true in terms of the people and events in the story.

Theme is often stated in absolutes: someone/something is/does something.

Themes tend to be universal. The theme love conquers all can work for peasants in 1350 Europe, wealthy owners of a 1880 New York townhouse, colonists on Nebulus 5 in 3535.

Themes tend to be serious, even in humorous works. When you describe the way people behave or how big concepts (such as love) work, you’re getting into people’s beliefs and strongly held opinions. You might hear an argument from a reader who disagrees. You might hear from legions of fans who agree. You might start a war between factions from both sides. (Which could only help sales and bring attention to your writing.)

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Writers can decide upon theme before writing: this story will be about the hypocrisy of love, the blindness of love, the pain of love. Then the writer crafts words and scenes and character and events to point to his theme, love stinks.

One problem with deciding theme before writing a story is that the book can come out very, very preachy. With everything pointing to the foregone conclusion, there’s no opportunity for characters who disagree or situations that might lead to a different conclusion. Stories written with a theme clearly in mind are often heavy handed. (Not always, of course. But especially true of new writers with a cause to promote.)

Writers can write with no theme in mind, waiting until the first or second draft is complete before determining where the story went, what theme has emerged. Then, the writer can tweak—with a light hand—phrases and scenes to highlight the theme.

Writers can also completely ignore theme, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. And readers will. They will usually finish a book and have strong thoughts or feelings about it. Theme is something they’ll take away without intending to. When someone asks what the story was about, they may tell the plot. Or, they may report the theme—it was about love conquering in the face of hatred. It was about fear being stronger than common sense. It was about how strangers can work together to overcome a common enemy.

Stories that are written well always have a theme. Maybe several. Well-written books are tied with threads and common elements that speak to theme, that allow readers to draw conclusions about life.

Poorly written books, with unrelated plot threads, characters, and events, may not have a theme. The story elements may be so far apart that the reader can draw no conclusion about the tale. The story may lack unifying elements and cohesion. There may be no theme. A story that’s not about anything is probably not one readers will remember. It’s probably not one writers want to write.

A good theme can be a unifier. An ill-formed theme can make a book incomplete and unsatisfying.

Books may produce several themes. One reader, going through a divorce, may read one theme from a story. Another reader, one focusing on the freedom of being away from home for the first time, may read a different theme.

If you’re asked about theme for a school project, be ready to defend your choice for theme. Look for character dialogue or thoughts that lend themselves to theme—what conclusion does the character make? Look also to characters’ actions—characters act on what they believe. What they believe is an indicator of theme. Study the change in a character, how he’s grown throughout the story. What made him change? What conclusions has he drawn about life? Character growth and insight also point to theme.

Themes can be old, new, reworked, and restated. They can be softly spoken or boldly shouted. Themes from one book to the next—even for the same author—can be contradictory. Remember, a theme is true for the book it comes from, not necessarily for life or for other works of fiction.

A writer doesn’t have to believe a theme he writes into a story.

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Familiar themes—

Greed is bad                       Life is fragile

Hope deferred hurts            Children are innocent

Quitters never win               People will let you down

Evil men can’t change          Everyone lies

There’s no such thing as love

You could, of course, play with these—

Greed is healthy                  Living is for the tough

Hope is an illusion                Children are born in sin

Quitters live longer              People are good at heart

Reformed men know how to toe the line

People want to tell the truth

Love touches everyone at least once

Variations on a single theme—

Everyone lies                        Lies are painful

The truth is painful               Liars want to be caught

Lying is healthy                    Lying is unhealthy

Lying breaks up families        Lying bonds people

A lie is in the eyes                The truth hurts

The truth is always best

The truth isn’t always best

A lie will always be exposed

People want to tell the truth

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Theme is a natural product of good storytelling. It doesn’t have to be planned, but it can be enhanced. Overemphasized, it makes for bad story. Played just right, with the right emphasis by character and situation and revelation and word choice, theme becomes another satisfying element in good fiction. An element that will remain with the reader far longer than plot or character quirks, setting or dialogue.

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14 Responses to “What is Theme”

  1. Dana says:

    I have never consciously inserted/woven a specific theme into any of my works, but I think whatever it is that lurks in my subconscious tends to come out.

  2. Vivian A says:

    Funny timing, Beth. The story I wish I had time to write right now is a theme that is seen from multiple viewpoints and leaves the reader to choose their own.

    Eventually, my time will free up a bit and the dreams screaming the story will get so loud that I’ll just stop sleeping to get it out of my head.

  3. Judi Fennell says:

    You know, I always hated analyzing books in English class, so when I found themes in my work, I was pretty stunned. I guess those lessons did sink in. ;)

  4. I’m one of those who doesn’t write themes on purpose and am surprised to discover them in my work. Usually on the tenth read through or after. Great post, Beth.

  5. Hi Beth. In my view, themes are very important to give a story substance, to make it more than just the interaction of a few characters. A short story might just have a single theme, but a novel can be more powerful if multiple themes are interwoven. And as Dana said, some themes will emerge unbidden as the writing takes place.

  6. Beth says:

    For many, themes just emerge. As Dana said, it comes out of our subconscious. What we think on, what we believe, makes itself known whether we intend to let it out or not.

  7. Beth says:

    Vivian, I hope everything stops screaming at you soon! There’s no peace when characters and their stories insist upon being heard.

    Judi, I didn’t like studying some of those topics in English class. I always wondered how the teacher just knew what the theme was. Of course, now I see that many are quite obvious. But as we’ve discussed, many come out without conscious effort.

  8. Beth says:

    Olivia, you definitely have themes to your work. Guess they come very naturally to your writing. As James said, themes give a story substance. Many of the extras of writing are what give story depth and punch and resonance. Here’s hoping our stories continue to resonate.

  9. Kat Sheridan says:

    Um, I’m supposed to have a theme? I’ll have to take a look at your fabulous lists here and see if anything fits. Mostly, I just have dead bodies and hot sex (not at the same time!)

  10. Beth says:

    Kat, some themes for Ashes–love is stronger than hate, love defeats confusion, a parent’s love is greater than death. So many options…

  11. Pat Bertram says:

    Hi, Beth! I was researching themes, looking for a pithy way to state the theme of Light Bringer (something more dynamic and thematic than simply “searching for buried truth”) and came across this article. Hmm . . . maybe: “lies are painful but the truth is even worse”, except that won’t work, because lies are painless if you don’t know the truth. You’ve given me much to think about. Thank you.

  12. Pat, I’m sorry the theme didn’t just pop out at you but glad to be of help.

    Lies are painful but the truth can kill? Lies may destroy slowly, but the truth can kill?

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