What is the Theme of Your Story? A Guide for Authors
[Last updated: 08/07/2018]
Pop quiz: what is the theme of a story? Let's get the obvious answers out of the way. It's not the song that comes near the start, nor does it relate to decor and costumes (like in a 'pirate-themed' party). Theme in literature relates to what a book is about.
“What is your book about?” someone might ask at a party.
Most authors will automatically launch into a mini-plot synopsis, such as: "It's about a teenage boy who joins a circus back in the 30s."
This is straightforward enough, but does it really say what the book is about?
“It’s about a teenage boy who joins a circus run by fellow orphans.” That’s better. We’re starting to hint at something here...
“A boy finds a new family in a traveling circus run by orphans.” Ah! Now we can now see that this is a story about families and the need to belong to something: a concept that’s universal.
How you answer the question “what is your book about” quickly reveals your perception of your book’s themes. After all, your story needs to be about something and by identifying its themes, you can equip yourself with a compass that shows you what’s important in your story. It will guide you towards creating moments that resonate with readers, making your entire book that much more compelling.
In this article, you will learn to better understand the theme of books you read and how you, the author, can handle and explore themes within your own works of fiction.
What is the theme of a story?
A theme is a universal concept that pervades and recurs throughout every piece of fiction. It is the meaning behind the story and is expressed through the plot and through the character's journeys. Some will describe it as the ‘heartbeat’ or ‘soul’ of the story.
The overarching theme of a novel often isn't mentioned explicitly — after all, you don't want to spoonfeed everything to your reader. But as certain ideas keep bubbling up again and again over the course of a narrative, they will build up into something that the reader perceives. It will have an impact on your reader, whether they are conscious of it or not.
Themes reflect the human condition
All stories are about the human condition. Characters are bound to — and by — common universal truths of humanity. Even if a book is about robots, dinosaurs, aliens, or gods, the engine that drives the story will actually reveal something about human nature. (Feel free to disagree in the comments below!)
The theme of your story can be as broad as ‘love’ or ‘loneliness’ or as narrow as the idea that ‘death is the unifying human experience’. It can also be a universal statement about humanity that an author investigates or explains through the course of a story. These might be statements like “Greed is the greatest force in human culture” or “Human behavior is the product of upbringing and experience” (which you may remember from writing class as ‘nature vs nurture’).
The theme of a book may often be about certain groups of people or man-made systems and their effects on human. They can be expressed as hypotheses like “Baby Boomers are to blame for the state of the world” or “humans secretly fear technology.” And if indeed, the theme of a book is a hypothesis, then its story will be like an experiment, putting that theory to the test.
Using stories to explore ideas
To use an example we’ll hopefully all know, let’s talk about the film Titanic. The plot is about an upper-crust society girl who meets a working-class boy aboard a doomed ocean liner and the resulting star-crossed romance. However, thematically speaking, their story is a vehicle used to explore the idea of social inequality in the early part of the 20th century.
Jack and Rose’s romance, despite being a piece of fiction, allows an intellectual idea to resonate with an engaged audience. It makes us understand this social inequality through emotion: an intellectual idea brought to life via a relatable, human story. This is the power that fiction can have over us.
And speaking of the Titanic… let’s go full steam ahead to an infographic that illustrates the relationship between theme and story.
Infographic: The Story Iceberg
Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, we’ve created a diagram that illustrates the relationship between the theme of a book, its story, and the plot. Like the portions of an iceberg beneath the surface, theme may not be immediately apparent to the reader — but it is implicitly conveyed through the writer's craft, using story, character conflict, and symbolism.
If this infographic floats your boat, please share it with the tweet below!
So, now that we've spent some time looking at what constitutes a theme, let's see some of them in action.
10 Examples of Theme in Literature
A well-written book in any genre will have something going on under the surface. Let's take a look at a random sample of popular novels and their primary theme.
1. The Lord of the Rings
Story: A hobbit is tasked with destroying an all-powerful ring coveted by all who encounter it.
Theme: The addictive and corrupting nature of power
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four
Story: A man strives for love in a world where individualism is a sin and thoughts can be a crime.
Theme: Freedom and Privacy
3. Don Quixote
Story: Fuelled by romantic stories, a Spanish hidalgo loses his mind and embarks on a flight of fancy to a world where windmill are dragons and prostitutes are respected ladies.
Theme: Rationalism vs Romanticism
4. Gone Girl
Story: A woman goes missing from her suburban home. Her husband becomes the prime suspect, and in her absence, she becomes a media sensation.
Theme: Stifling modern expectations on women
5. Animal Farm
Story: A group of barnyard animals take over the running of a farm and try to build a better society.
Theme: “Power Corrupts”
Story: A middle-aged man becomes infatuated with an underaged girl.
Theme: The nature of obsession
7. Of Mice and Men
Story: George and Lennie eke out a living as migrant workers in the Great Depression. George, while protecting his friend, also seems to exploit him.
8. The Great Gatsby
Story: A mysterious tycoon reinvents himself to woo his childhood crush amidst the backdrop of the New York’s decadent 1920s.
Theme: The failure of “The American Dream”
9. We Need to Talk About Kevin
Story: Through a series of confessional letters, a woman deals with the aftermath of mass killing committed by her teenage son.
10. The Da Vinci Code
Story: A professor hunts for the truth of the Holy Grail and finds himself at odds with the Catholic Church.
Theme: Faith vs Knowledge
Naturally, many of these books will deal with more than just one theme, but notice how certain subjects seem to pop up again and again (power, obsession). This is not a coincidence.
Top Tip: When reading fiction, always ask: “what is the theme of this book?” Bonus points if you answer in under 6 words.
A theme doesn’t have to be original
Just as there are countless books that deal with love and death, there are as many ways to flip these concepts over on their sides. You could write about love for decades and never run out of unique perspectives: Is love a transformative power? Can a person really love more than one person? Is our concept of love determined by our specific culture? And so on…
Authors spend entire careers chiseling away at a single notion. Isaac Asimov’s work focuses on how technology will affect human civilization. Bret Easton Ellis’s six novels revolve around the vacuous, amoral, and entitled upper classes in America. Wherever an author finds fertile ground, they can continue to plant their crops. And it goes without saying that books often have multiple themes — opening up infinite opportunities for combining and contrasting ideas.
As authors, it’s great to be able to identify the theme of a book you’re reading, but that doesn’t mean that they’re easy to work into your own novel.
How do you write about a theme?
Every author should want their novel to be about something, but how do you actually go about applying this to your book?
Option 1: Have a theme in place from the start
Many books start from a kernel of an idea. At this stage, the author has only the slightest idea of a plot, but they already know what they want to say about a certain subject.
Jonathan Coe’s novel What a Carve Up! is a furious piece of satire. It proposes that the social woes of the late 80s Britain can be attributed to the feckless upper classes. To create a single target for all his thematic strands, he creates the Winshaw family, a dynasty of influential men and women. Between them, they represent how the banking sector, the arts, farming, health care, and the news media have been corrupted by greed to the detriment of society. You can almost imagine Coe creating characters and storylines as a way to examine each point in his thesis.
One way you can do the same is by mind-mapping: start with your core idea and come up with all the ways in which characters might be affected by your theme. If you want to write about loneliness, you might think of a scenario where a woman moves to a busy city yet feels more isolated than ever — or a child at school who becomes gradually detached from his classmates. You might think of small snippets of dialogue, or abstract images, or pieces of music that could potentially inspire other plot lines and characters. All of these things will go onto your mind map.
Once you’ve vented everything you can think of, the next step is to see which of these ideas are good and can be connected into a satisfying narrative.
Option 2: Write a draft and see what happens
Of course, you don’t have to predetermine the theme of a book. You can always start by writing a story and then seeing what concepts arise. You might have a great story about a man who falls in love with the girl next door. After the first draft, you might notice that the idea of obsession keeps popping up, and you’re intrigued. Then it’s a matter of going back in the rewrite and seeing what you can do to emphasize these themes and maximize their impact.
Whichever approach you choose, you need to find out what you want your novel to achieve in relation to your theme. Do you want to persuade the reader, explain the idea of an issue, analyze a problem, expose a hidden truth, or to simply entertain? Your decision here will determine how subtle you must be in plotting your thematic points.
Option 3: You can try to ignore themes
You can choose not to seek a theme, but writers are human and we instinctively work towards patterns. We’re willing to bet that at the end of any first draft of a novel you write, you won’t have to look too deep to find a recurring idea.
Theme is there to help, not hinder
You shouldn’t be losing sleep over the theme of a book you’re writing. Despite any pressure to ensure your book has a thematic thread, being able to articulate what your book is about will guide your rewrites. Remember this while you're tapping away at the keyboard, and you’ll always know when you’re straying off course.
Share your results in the comments below!
How do you approach themes when writing fiction? Do you start with a theme in mind, or do you look for common threads as you’re writing? Or are themes not necessary to all forms of fiction? Share your thoughts in the comments below.