Posted by: nancycurteman | July 27, 2010

What is Theme in Literature?

Defining theme in fiction can be difficult. Sometimes it helps to define what it is not. It is not the plot (what characters do). It is not the story subject (the topic the author writes about). It is not usually stated directly.

Now that we know what theme is not, let’s examine what it is. The theme of a book is an idea about life or human nature or elements of society that the author shares with her readers. Often it is the lesson or moral underlying the plot.

Themes may be major or minor. A major theme is an idea the author returns to frequently in the novel. Minor themes are ideas that may appear a couple of times in the story. For mystery writers a major theme is “crime does not pay.” A minor theme might be “overcoming adversity”—despite failed relationships a character finds a new romance.

The theme is usually inferred. It is revealed through subtext, subtle details, and events not mentioned directly.

Authors express themes through the
• feelings and thoughts of the main character
• conversations between characters
• changes in the attitude or view of the main character as the story progresses
• actions of the characters in the story

Examine your beliefs, attitudes, opinions and goals, and you will discover your theme.

More writing tips:

Developing Characters is No Mystery
Author’s Voice: How to find it?

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Responses

  1. More good tips for us. Thanks. I fowarded your blog address to my critique group.

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  2. […] Defining theme in fiction can be difficult. Sometimes it helps to define what it is not. It is not the plot (what characters do). It is not the story subject (the topic the author writes about). It is not usually stated directly. Now that we know what theme is not, let’s examine what it is. The theme of a book is an idea about life or human nature or elements of society that the author shares with her readers. Often it is the lesson or moral unde … Read More […]

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  3. Thanks for sharing my post. I really appreciate your interest.

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  4. It seems to me that the theme then would be
    ‘what the book or story is about’, perhaps philosophically. Thanks for making me think about this again. Maybe it’s sort of ‘why’ you decide to write the story.

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  5. One way to look at theme is as an abstract noun like goodness, regret, hope. For example the story might be about war but the theme is the uselessness of it.
    I like your idea of the theme being the philosophy behind the story.

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    • Thanks Nancy. Philosophies can be difficult to articulate sometimes…..

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  6. Interesting post, thanks Nancy!

    I immediately thought of A Christmas Carol by Dickens.

    Themes: redemption, all the money in all the world won’t buy happiness, kindness echoes, etc.

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  7. I am eager to look at my writing with “theme” in mind. Do writers often demonstrate the same theme running through their novels and short stories?

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    • Great question. I think most do. Theme relates to an authors basic view of life, her belief system and her concepts of right and wrong. Most authors will take the opportunity to share these personal “themes” throughout their writing in one way or another. Of course, many of our personal themes are also universal themes.

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  8. The last few books I’ve read I’ve tried to pinpoint theme and how well it was incorporated into the story. If overdone or applied too heavily then the reader tires of hearing it over and over. If not mentioned enough it is in danger of being lost.

    It all come back to finding balance.

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  9. You’re absolutely right. Too much emphasis on theme and the novel becomes a sermon. Too little and the novel teaches us nothing.

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  10. As an idea person fascinated by human nature, the theme is the most important aspect of a novel for me.

    I think a writer’s handling of plot and character can reveal their understanding of the themes they are tackling. Sometimes I am impressed, like when Hemingway explored the definition of self versus the other in Old Man and the Sea. Other times I am disgusted with how the writer has taken a universal truth they’ve only heard about and tried to cram it into a story. It shows, and it’s painful to read.

    I think this is why you should write what you know, and garner life experience to be a better writer. You can’t borrow understanding of a particular theme. You have to know it by your own experience.

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  11. You make an excellent point when you say authors should write what they know when developing their theme. I also believe that when we write from our personal experiences theme emerges effortlessly.

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