What Is the Theme of a Story? Definition and Mistakes to Avoid
A theme is, broadly speaking, a story's central idea: a concept that underpins its narrative. Theme can either be a definitive message like, “greed is the greatest force in human culture,” or abstract ideas like love, loss, or betrayal.
As a writer, it’s helpful to stay conscious of your story’s themes to equip yourself with a compass to show you what’s important in your story. This will guide you toward creating moments that engage readers and deepen your story’s significance — so let’s take a look at why themes are important and how you can tell what a story’s theme is.
Themes make specific stories universal
All stories are about the human condition. Characters are bound by common universal truths of humanity.
Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman may not at first seem like an entirely relatable book. Its protagonist is someone who grounds her entire identity and purpose in being a convenience store worker — to the point where she wishes society accepted that as her ultimate aspiration and stopped pressuring her to date and get married.
I wished I was back in the convenience store where I was valued as a working member of staff and things weren’t as complicated as this.
While Murata's story is peculiar, the central conflict of her story (individual vs. society) is universal. It should resonate with most readers, making them more invested in the protagonist’s struggles, even if they don't share her specific experiences.
Authors can tackle complex ideas through narrative
Sometimes, the theme of a book will take the form of a hypothesis where the story plays out as a “what if” experiment. Here, authors have the chance to use characters as imagined case studies of human behavior, examining, for example, how different people react to the same events.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies takes human morality as its central theme. It focuses on a group of boys stranded on an island and forced to fend for themselves. The children soon create their own micro-society on an island, with power structures, internal politics, and, eventually, violence. In short, the novel's thematic statement — its hypothesis — might be “If isolated from society, human beings would not act ‘morally’ anymore.”
By showing each character’s slightly different experience and perception of events, Golding explores how complex “morality” is — contrasting his characters' desire to conform with their sense of behaving correctly. In this way, the complexity of morality becomes the book’s organizing force, the central source of tension that propels the story forward.
A theme can organize and unite separate narrative strands
Not all books have a very tight focus on a single character or mission. Many novels and anthologies contain multiple, seemingly unrelated narratives or points of view united only by common themes.
James Joyce's Dubliners is made up of fifteen short stories, each set in the Irish capital in the early 20th century. His characters are all, in some way, touch by a sense of social paralysis or futility — something that readers have taken to be representative of Joyce's view on Ireland at the time. And as we meet more of these characters — the schoolboy obsessed with his friend's sister, the unfulfilled poet who's jealous of his old classmate, the bank teller who spurns the chaste affections of a married woman — this sense of stagnation and dread only grows.
Much like a music album will have a central concept that elevates it above being the sum of its parts, so too can themes connect disparate story strands in meaningful, insightful ways.
It can be hard to pin down what a story’s theme is, but if you're up to the task, here's a quiz to test your theme-detecting skills with! 🕵️
Test your theme-detecting skills!
We hope we’ve shown you how indispensable story themes are. They’re much more than just a fun trick — stories simply are not the same without them.
In the next part of this series, we reveal some of the most common themes found in literature. When you're ready, let's continue our journey.