Often scholars will talk about theme in literature like it’s this highbrow, deeply intellectual feat of narrative engineering hiding between the lines of a novel or collection of poetry. “Theme,” they say, delicately sipping hundred-year-old brandy from crystal glasses, “is the intentional and philosophical confluence of story archetypes to convey a groundbreaking, politically or socially relevant ideal.” And you nod eagerly in agreement, because you would also like to try some hundred-year-old brandy.
Writers, on the other hand, will often talk about theme like it’s a clumsy animal that has somehow wandered into your story and, having proven itself to be only a minimal nuisance and actually kind of cute, has been allowed to stay and build itself a nest somewhere between your Midpoint and the first major plot point of Act Three.
Really, theme can be both of these things and more. Let’s look at what theme is in literature, how a strong theme can elevate a story, and how to discover the themes already brewing in your own work.
What is theme in literature?
Theme is the broad central idea supporting any narrative work. The work can be a novel, a short story, a poem, or even something like a song or visual art (many art galleries curate their collections based on a unifying central theme). Any medium that tells a story will have a theme—whether it was put there painstakingly by the artist layer by layer, or whether it grew organically from their unconscious experience as they created their work.
Themes can be concepts like redemption, sacrifice, true love, or family. Literature in particular has an enormous range of tools from which to draw themes, like setting, imagery, metaphor, conflict, and—most importantly of all—character. It’s through character that your readers will experience your theme and come away with a new understanding of why it matters.
Which comes first—theme or plot?
A question as old as the written word: Is it better to start with a meaningful theme or an engaging plot? Do you choose a theme and then build your story around it, or do you draft your story and then see what theme emerges? What if you have a story in mind but you don’t even know what the theme is?
Theme and plot are intertwined; neither one comes first, but rather they’re developed together. The moment you have an idea for a story, the theme of that story is already being born. The more you learn about the characters, motivations, and events of your story, the clearer its theme will become.
Writing a story is equal parts art, craft, and intuition. Theme is something that tends to reside in the latter category. While your cognitive mind is exploring roads of possibility in your plot, setting, and characters, your subconscious will be constantly reaching out and searching for deeper meaning in these things. Why is this story important? Why is this story happening here, now? Who are the people in this story, and why do they matter to me? That’s theme at work.
Why does theme matter in storytelling?
Okay but do I need a theme? Isn’t it enough to have a fun story and a loveable hero and a dastardly villain and a happily ever after at the end of it?
Well, yes, but even the simplest of universal tales will have some sort of theme bubbling under the surface. Every story needs to communicate something with the reader. This will usually be the same central idea that’s driving your protagonist towards their goal. It might be a simple developmental ideal such as the overt central morals in Aesop’s fables, or it might be a larger, more complex exploration of multi-faceted issues that we’re still facing in the world today.
Crafting a literary theme that resonates with readers on a deep, visceral level will help them feel connected to your characters and invested in what those characters are fighting for. A vibrant, engaging theme in a work of literature has the power to affect real change and make readers look at the world in a new way.
Classic themes in literature
Because stories are so universal, we’ll often see the same central themes being repeated over and over in different works. This doesn’t mean the stories that share these themes are unoriginal; rather, it means that they speak to deep universal truths that we all recognize and resonate with. That’s why we return to those stories again and again.
Most of these themes will fall under two categories: one central idea, or a contrast or conflict between two opposing principles.
Central Idea themes
Love is something that we all recognize regardless of our background, language, age, class, ability, or understanding of the world. Love is the greatest unifier of the human species, and it can be as bright and empowering as it can be terrible. Many works of literature deal with the theme of love, but Romeo and Juliet is one famous story that focuses on the intensity and destructive qualities of undying love. We most often associate love with romantic relationships, but focusing on love as a theme in your own work can also look at the deep, soulful love between two best friends, or even the journey towards discovering love for yourself.
Many of us have been betrayed in our lives by people we thought we could trust, whether that’s a friend, a family member, a partner, or someone we knew professionally. Just as antagonists are rarely single-faceted, betrayal is usually a very complex thing that can come from a wide range of different motivations. What one person sees as betrayal might feel like a natural progression to another, and so this theme can be useful for exploring the complexity of human needs and desires. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a famous work of literature that deals with strong themes of betrayal.
The theme of rebirth has figured into mythological cycles for a variety of cultures, most famously the rebirth of Christ in the Christian bible. On a microcosmic level, we often see rebirth as a dawn of hope and opportunity after a devastating experience such as a divorce, a failure, or the loss of a loved one. On a deep psychological level, we like to believe that there can be hope for us even when we ourselves have become lost. There are many stories of rebirth, but Charles Dickens’ famous holiday piece A Christmas Carol explores the rebirth of its central character after a lifetime of avarice and misery.
Modern popular culture has seen a huge resurgence in redemptive character arcs, most famously in “anti-hero” type characters. There is something so satisfying about watching a rascally ne’er-do-well make mistakes, learn from them, and grow into someone we wouldn’t be embarrassed to introduce to our mothers. Much like rebirth, redemption comes from a place of hope—the idea that there’s always room to grow, and that anyone can find the will to do better. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is a famous novel that uses this theme to create a dynamic character arc.
For many of us, our relationships with our families are quite complex. And yet, the bond between family members is a very universal idea that can teach us a lot about other cultures, generations, and ways of life. The relationship we have with our families can also teach us a lot about ourselves, and so this theme is very useful for character-driven stories and novels. The Book Thief, a novel by Markus Zusak, explores our connection to our blood families as well as the families we build around us.
Prejudice has always been a major societal issue, and those issues are being brought into new light. Prejudice can be found through race, class, and ability both in literature and in the world around us. For this reason, art of all kinds is a powerful tool in fighting against these poisonous ideas and helping people understand them in a new way. The newer novel Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid, is one of many powerful works that explore themes of racial and class-driven prejudice that is still prevalent today.
Often we discover that growing and learning about ourselves and the world means letting go of precious ideals or perceptions we once had. Knowledge is never an inherently negative thing, but coming to terms with it can be a less than comfortable experience. These themes often deal with the sacrifice of innocence and idealism in order to attain a greater understanding of ourselves and the world. The Great Gatsby is a tragic work of literature that follows the central character’s disillusionment—and, by proxy, the reader’s—with the glittering party lifestyle that was once so seductive.
Like prejudice, oppression is a very real problem in our world that has inspired a lot of powerful art and literature. Literary works that deal with this theme often seek to accomplish two things: the first, to enlighten people to a toxic situation that they may not have been aware of, and second, to show them that we can do something about it. Although they deal with very negative and difficult subject matter, themes of oppression are often found in stories full of hope for a better future. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one such groundbreaking novel that uses a speculative lens to draw attention to some of the problems we have faced historically and are still fighting against today.
The desire for revenge is a universal human impulse, and watching those impulses play out in the safe arena of fiction is both riveting and cathartic. However, revenge left to ferment and fester can be a very damaging thing and many of these stories teach us just how damaging these desires can be. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a revenge-driven tale that shows two different characters undone by their need for revenge above all else. These themes are often useful for examining the contrast of human strength and weakness.
On the topic of human weakness, corruption is one of the most vicious poisons to enter a human heart. Most corruption comes from a place of fear and survival instinct, and feeds easily from one person to another. George Orwell’s allegorical novel Animal Farm examines the way this theme takes root and spreads, turning the best intentions into destructive actions fueled by pride and greed.
On some small level, we all take little steps to try and make it through each day. But most of us have never been in a situation so extreme that we need to fight for our lives. Stories that explore the theme of survival are often a beat or two removed from our day-to-day understanding of the world, but they help us learn a lot about what we are capable of in difficult circumstances. The famous novel Robinson Crusoe is an adventure story that follows the central character cast away on a deserted island, pitting his strength and intellect against the whims of nature and fate.
Death and mortality are constant underlying themes in all works of literature as they are in life. The battle against the inevitability of death has been present in stories from all cultures for as long as there have been storytellers. Very often literature that deals with the theme of mortality doesn’t present death as something wholly antagonistic, but something with its own place in the cycle of the world. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, from the classic Arthurian Legends, deals strongly with themes of life, death, rebirth, and honouring our place within those themes.
Opposing Principle themes
Good vs. Evil
Themes that explore morality are some of the first themes that many of us are exposed to as children. The Chronicles of Narnia, among many others, is a story that shows us this polarity. This theme teaches us that we should always try to do good in the world, and that even when there are bad people doing scary things we can overcome them by being true to our own best natures. Even as we grow older and learn that the world and the people in it are more complex than we could have imagined, there is still some part of us that wants to believe in those ideals. We gather strength from believing that good can triumph over evil—whether that’s between two forces in the wider world, or deeper, more intimately, within ourselves.
Individual vs. Society
Tying into some of the central themes we looked at above like prejudice, oppression, and corruption, this theme will often explore those ideas by placing an individual protagonist at odds with the world around them. The reader will identify with the central character and use their journey as a way to examine the failings of the society in the story—which may, in turn, reflect some of the failings that the reader can see in their own world as well. The Hunger Games is a popular novel that places an individual in opposition with a seemingly insurmountable status quo.
Life vs. Death
While some stories include themes that seek to understand mortality and the place it has in our life’s journey, other stories may look at life and death as two opposing, contradictory forces. In the Harry Potter series, all of the events of the story unfold because the primary antagonist is at constant war with death. He treats it as an enemy to be overcome, even domesticated. Since death is unfortunately a very real part of our natural cycle, these sorts of themes rarely end well for those involved. However, fear of the unknown is also a very real part of our natural cycle and so this theme has arisen again and again in stories throughout history.
Fate vs. Free Will
How much of our path do we truly choose, and how much is preordained? This is a question we have been asking as long as there has been human consciousness—and people are still debating it today. Stories that explore this theme will usually follow a character who has seen a glimpse of what the future holds for them, and doesn’t care for it at all. Oedipus the King, a famous Greek tragical drama, follows a character trying to dodge a terrible prophecy about his future. He removes himself from the situation completely, only to find that those very actions are what set his fate into motion. This theme doesn’t have to be tragic, though; it works just as well if you give your characters the strength to choose their own destinies.
Tradition vs. Change
Tension has always existed between one generation and another, regardless of what culture, ethnicity, or era they might be from. Stories with this theme look at finding the right balance between honouring the traditions of those before us and allowing room to grow. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods takes a fantastical approach to this theme by pitting the old world gods of popular mythology against the new world of worship that people bow down to today, including media, technology, and the stock market. These themes teach us that there is wisdom to be learned from our predecessors as well as wisdom in new ideas.
Pride vs. Humility
Pride is one of the most seductive of human sins. It’s also one of the most difficult to break away from, even when we can see as well as anyone how quickly it’s tearing us apart. Themes of pride and humility are usually character-driven examinations of how we are all susceptible to this weakness, and the ways in which we can find the strength to overcome it. The appropriately named Pride and Prejudice is a good example of a story that shows two characters overcoming their pride in order to find the happiness they truly deserve.
Justice vs. Depravity
Any work of literature that follows a judicial system knows what a knife edge the threat of corruption can be. James Ellroy’s novel L.A. Confidential is a famous modern noir story that explores the thin line between righteousness and corruption, heroes and villains. Using this theme in your work is an excellent way to explore our strengths, weaknesses, and limitations as human beings in a fundamentally unjust world.
Morality vs. Fear
This is another staple theme of the “hero vs. villain” stories. We like heroes because they always try to do the right thing, but we sometimes forget that doing the right thing can be very difficult and scary. Stories with this theme show us that we all constantly battle between doing what is right and what is easy, and that choosing the brave or honourable path does not happen without fear—it happens in spite of it. Kristin Harmel’s WWII novel The Room on Rue Amélie follows a brave protagonist determined to play her part in the war efforts, even when she has every reason to feel afraid of doing so. From stories like this we learn how to be brave in our own lives.
How to find the theme of your own story
Unlike plot, theme isn’t really something you build from the ground up. Once you begin to see glimmers of a story, your theme is already beginning to take shape under the surface. It’s your job to excavate it and bring it to life.
To find the theme of your story, decide what central idea the story is trying to communicate with the reader. Try asking yourself why you’re writing it in the first place. Why does it matter to you? This can take time, and the answer may surprise you.
For example, if you’re writing about a girl who discovers she’s from a secret lineage of super spies, deep down you might be writing it as a way to understand your feelings about your own lineage. What sort of conflict is your main character facing? Has someone in her family been kidnapped by a rival super spy faction? Has she discovered some shady business in her family history that has her questioning her own values and perception of herself? In these cases your theme might be things like the importance of family, or the contrasting values of independence and tradition.
It doesn’t matter how fantastical or far-removed your story is—its heart, its reason for existing, will be something that you’re exploring or working to understand through the filter of art. It may be conscious or unconscious. Then, once you know what your story is really trying to say, you can share it with people who need your story to help them explore or understand these ideas too.
How to strengthen your story’s theme
Once you’ve figured out what your theme is, it’s time to find ways to make it shine even brighter through the course of your story. You can do this as you go, or you can go back and find ways to give it a nudge later in the editing process.
Every literary element in your story should help communicate your theme with the reader, and your protagonist’s journey should be a direct parallel to their relationship with the theme. If the theme of your story is “family,” you may need to put your protagonist through a series of obstacles to help them realize the importance of this idea and why it’s worth fighting for. The types of conflicts your characters face might all be different, but they should all circle back to the relationship they have with this central idea and how that relationship evolves through the events of the story.
When your characters grow to understand the theme in a new way, your readers will too. Making your characters do this is an important way of strengthening the themes of your story.
Literary devices like motifs, symbols, and repetition are also great ways to emphasize the themes in your story. Adding in recurring colours, objects, places, numbers, or cultural symbols will help intensify the theme for your reader. See if you can find ways to add little details that make your story’s theme even more prominent.
For example, if your central theme is “corruption,” you could use these literary devices to show a metaphorical corruption, or corrosion, of positive things in the story. You might have your character buy a new pair of shoes which gets steadily more worn down until they fall apart — this would be a repeated symbol for other things that are being “worn down,” such as the character’s hope, morals, or ideals. Certain motifs can also bring to mind this idea of corruption, such as tarnished coins or dirty water, and you can drop images like these here and there throughout your story to make the theme even more powerful for your reader.
These sorts of symbols can be used to emphasize all kinds of themes. If your theme is “mortality” or “life vs. death” you may have your main character come across a dead animal early in the story, and have them take time to reflect on their feelings and understanding of death before their journey begins. Conversely, if your theme is “family”, they might need to stop their car to let a family of animals cross the road in front of them. How do they feel about that? Enchanted? Annoyed? Frightened? All these sorts of reactions to the symbols you introduce will also give depth to your theme.
Theme is the heart of storytelling
Theme is one of the most important building blocks of powerful storytelling, but it doesn’t need to be approached from a place of anxiety or stress. Theme is simply a statement of why your story exists and why you need to be the one to tell it. Storytelling has a very real power to change the world for the better, and theme—sharing it, talking about it, helping people understand why it matters—is how we can begin doing that.