Theme is difficult to define in that unlike other elements of writing—plot, characterization, and conflict, for example—it is abstract in nature. The theme of a story refers to its main topic or central idea, its underlying concept. Theme can usually be stated in the form of a message, lesson, key idea, or morals.
Themes can often be expressed in one or a few words. Here are some common themes in fiction:
Coming of age
Courage and heroism
Good versus evil
Individual versus society
Power and corruption
A book's theme is the main idea that flows through the narrative and connects the components of the story. The events in your story may be intriguing, but without some connection via a central theme, they run the risk of disengaging readers. Theme is the pulse of the story that happens beneath the surface—something the reader shouldn’t notice but would miss if it wasn’t there.
The following examples show how theme can manifest itself in a story.
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet—the classic tragic tale of forbidden love.
Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook—a “love conquers all” story involving a common laborer and a wealthy young socialite.
Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones—a story told from the perspective of a dead girl trying to come to terms with her own death.
John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars—the story of teenagers coming to terms with terminal illness.
Good versus evil
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings—pits men, hobbits, and elves against an army of evil creatures.
Charles Perrault’s Cinderella—features pure and innocent Cinderella having to deal with her cruel stepmother and stepsisters, who treat her like a servant in her own home.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm—involves animals taking over their human oppressors. The more power the animals get, the more human-like they become.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings—Characters compete for a ring that has been lost in a riverbed for more than two thousand years. The ring’s power over the characters creates the theme.
Establishing a theme before you start writing and maintaining it throughout the story are important. Not only will it keep readers engaged, it will also help to keep you focused and on track as you write.
It is not always easy to identify the theme of your story, especially since most stories contain more than one. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help identify the theme.
What is your main character passionate about? If it’s another person, the theme may be love. If it’s about making money, it may be power.
What type of conflict is keeping your main character from reaching his or her goals? If it’s an abusive spouse, the theme may be survival. If it’s a parent, it may be alienation.
How does the main character change? If it’s in a physical way, the theme may be loss. If it’s internal, it could be spirituality.
How does the main character affect other characters? If it’s in a positive way, the theme may be heroism. If it’s in a negative way, it may be betrayal.
What message do you hope to send to your readers? If it’s surviving one’s youth, the theme may be coming of age. If it’s about overcoming low self-esteem, it may be self-discovery.
Theme adds dimension to the story and, when done effectively, will result in a peeling away of the layers to reveal people, places, and/or events for what they truly are, leaving readers with something to think about after they’ve finished the final chapter.
Symbols and Motifs
Symbols and motifs can be used to strengthen the theme of your story.
A symbol is a concrete image, character, object, or figure that represents something beyond whatever is just on the surface. The Wizard of Oz is chock full of symbols: the yellow brick road symbolizing one’s journey through life; the ruby red slippers symbolizing Dorothy's unrealized potential; the cyclone representing things in this world that are beyond our control. The list goes on.
A motif, on the other hand, is a recurring, usually abstract idea that provides clues that contribute to the theme of the story. In Oz, the primary characters—Dorothy, the lion, scarecrow, and tin man—each has a mission, and they feed off each other in their individual quests. The recurring motif element in this story is the courage one needs to continue the quest for something he or she desires.
Following are examples of symbols and motifs for some of the examples listed above.
The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks—Birds symbolize freedom. Water represents life. Allie’s painting represents her independence to do what she wants to do. Noah’s house on the water symbolizes Allie.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold—The reference to bones throughout the beginning of the novel represents destructive behavior but later shifts to healing.
Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien—The motif of hope is illustrated with both the character Aragorn, who can rightfully use the seeing stone, and Estel, whom he affectionately calls his queen. The temptation motif of the ring is the motivating force behind most of the characters—fighting temptation, nurturing it, denying it, or preventing someone else from giving in to it.
Animal Farm by George Orwell—The farm symbolizes the Soviet Union under Communist Party rule with a government (the pigs), a police force (the dogs), and a working class (the other animals). The barn, on whose outside walls the pigs paint the Seven Commandments, represents the collective memory of a modern nation.
Symbols and motifs can give your story a sense of structure and continuity by creating patterns that recur throughout the work. Weave them in throughout the story to subtly remind the reader of certain ideas you want to get across in your story telling.
Integrating Theme into the Story
Theme is almost always character-driven, so the first thing to do is ask yourself these questions about the main character:
· How would you describe the main character at the beginning of the story?
· What are his or her flaws, fears, excuses, or history that keeps goals out of reach?
· How do the events of the story change the character?
Once you've answered these questions and identified the theme that arises, the question then becomes how to weave the theme into the story. Characterization for sure—dialogue, internal thoughts, and actions as well as how they change throughout the story define the theme. Incorporating motifs and symbols also help to develop theme. Taken together, these three things are powerful tools when it comes to making sure the theme is easily understood and constantly present in your story.
It’s best to establish the theme before you start writing, but if you can’t, it’s better to start writing and let it come later naturally. In other words, don’t get so caught up in trying to develop the theme that you neglect good storytelling.
Theme can be a powerful tool in writing, as it makes a statement about the topic(s) your book addresses without being preachy about it. And by making good use of theme in your novel, you create an emotional connection between the characters and your readers that hooks them into the story. A well-incorporated theme will provide readers with something to think about, something that will stay with them long after they’ve finished the final chapter. That is the power of theme.