If structure is the bones of story, theme is the marrow.
Plainly defined, theme is what our stories mean, and it is revealed through other literary elements such as character, plot, dialogue, perspective, setting, mood, and tone. Stories may have several themes. Oftentimes readers—and writers caught off guard—express themes as single-word motifs or a phrase that refers to philosophical-sounding concepts. Sometimes themes are so implicit, even the writer isn’t much aware of them. Other times, they are wonderfully obvious, such as when several characters in Moulin Rouge (2001) sing “Freedom! Beauty! Truth and Love!” to The Green Fairy. Throughout the film, different characters treat viewers to bittersweet dollops of “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” The themes of Moulin Rouge include the supremacy of love, the breaking down of social and economic barriers, and the freedom to self-determine one’s own fate.
What readers, writers, critics, philosophers, agents, publishers, and English Teachers Everywhere know is that theme strengthens story. Without a strong theme, a story tends to lack cohesion, characters act inconsistently, and conflict diminishes. Themes unify the elements of our stories into a meaningful narrative experience. Stories with strong themes provoke emotional and empathetic responses. They remain with us; we think about them long after we have experienced them: “Freedom! Beauty! Truth and Love!”
When I think about theme it is often paired with memories of filling blue essay books in my high school English classes with phrases like “love endures all things” or “the loss of innocence” or, more ambiguously, “man versus nature” in an effort to capture the essence of a canonical work. This is not an uncommon memory, and it is not a useless exercise. Many of us know what themes are, at least vaguely, because of this kind of reductive work. A friend of mine must have had a superb English teacher, because when she recalls her high school English class, she smiles and says with a sense of fondness that she “loved writing themes.” She is a cartographer, not a novelist—yet.
I like to think about theme as the worldview among the characters in a story. This worldview is the ideas and meaning they carry with them throughout the story. Inevitably, worldviews are going to clash with the worldviews of other characters or story elements—if we want to create conflict. When JK Rowling formed the four Houses of Hogwarts, she created a society based on four worldviews. Within those Houses, there is much room for individualism, but as an author, it was a very handy tool. It permitted her to create strong, deep themes with the latitude for nuance. Ultimately, the worldviews that triumph in our stories, the ones with keen resonance, are the ones that obtain enduring meanings.
How Do We Identify Theme?
We can discover or design theme, or if you are a writer like me, it’s something you manage during revision. You’re writing along or thinking about your story or in an editing phase, and Lo! There’s theme. It’s another one of those things I tend to write down on my editing list to check off, because I don’t really think about it, or rather it’s all I think about on the idea level when I’m first thinking about a story. Theme lingers underneath the surface when I’m thinking about other aspects of story, like character, plot, conflict and setting.
If theme doesn’t come naturally as you’re writing, here are some areas to explore to help bring those ideas to the surface.
Ask: “What is my story about?” Write down the first words and phrases that come to mind. Another way to think about theme is the age-old question since before Aesop: “What is the moral of my story?”
Understand the relationships among motifs, symbols, topics, and themes:
- A motif is a recurring idea or concept that develops and reinforces theme.
- A symbol is an object or thing that represents something else, including ideas, concepts, moods, and emotions. Symbols reinforce motif.
- A topic is the subject matter with which a piece of writing is concerned.
- A theme is how meaning is conveyed through the exploration of a topic along with elements such as motifs and symbols.
For example, in Jayne Eyre, fire is one of many motifs that recurs in different ways throughout the novel. There is the lack of fire and warmth when she is a child, both at Gateshead Hall and at Lowood Institute. This motif comes to symbolize a poverty of circumstance and emotion when she is a scorned and neglected orphan. The motif is further embodied in Jayne’s spirited, impassioned personality. Fire also symbolizes illumination, purification, and destruction. As a governess, Jaye explores Thornfield Hall by candlelight, the truth of her employer’s secret concealed in its shadow. Jayne saves Mr. Rochester from burning alive, and ultimately, it is Bertha’s destructive, purifying fire that aids Jayne in obtaining her ultimate desire. These motifs and symbols strengthen and develop some of the themes of Jayne Eyre that include the struggle between our desire and our duty when they conflict, the different moral expectations that apply to caste and gender in Victorian England, and above all, love and passion in its many forms.
Know Your Character’s Worldview: Characters reveal theme and worldview through actions, gestures, and dialogue (what they say and don’t say), what they wear, how they behave, what their secrets are, what they reveal to themselves and others. Forrest Gump is famous for one unforgettable thematic line: My momma always said, “Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” This is my preferred way to go about identifying theme. Ask yourself: “What is the worldview of my characters/story? What wins out in the end?” If you can boil your character’s worldview down to a simple sentence or two, you’ll have a starting point for theme in his or her story.
For more help identifying your theme, try word mapping or word association. Write down a list of five words from your story. Use each word in a phrase that refers to an essential or existential idea: the big ideas having to do with human nature.
Vehicles For Delivering Theme in Fiction
Symbolism: Symbols typically emerge organically in a work but sometimes not as often as a writer would like. During revision, pay attention to the symbols that are revealed in your story. What colors dominate, which objects are more noticeable than others? What actions do characters perform with more of a sense of significance than others? Are there seemingly mundane objects that make you think of other aspects of the story?
Repetition: the repetition of concepts, gestures, symbols, settings, phrases, or words indicate their significance in the story—they shouldn’t be distracting to the reader but should contribute to the overall thematic pulse of your work. Forrest’s box of chocolates, along with the recurring drifting feather, reinforce the theme of destiny—that life is a big collection of surprises that happen regardless of the person’s actions.
Setting: the setting can reinforce your theme or highlight it. Are you writing about revenge and the promise of its satisfaction as well as its pitfalls? Or how about good luck always running out? Observe how these kinds of stories work very well set in oppressive but stark settings like southern California or the bleak winters of Montana. Change your setting to experiment with how it strengthens or weakens your theme.
Contrast: This descriptive technique involves placing elements in opposition to one another in order to form a distinction. This can be accomplished with characters, values, setting, concepts, ideas, and even on the symbolic level. Going back to Forrest Gump, Forrest’s idea that life is a series of random coincidences is sharply opposed by Lieutenant Dan’s belief that everyone has a destiny. Differences can show competing themes.
Title: you can hint at or give away a great deal thematically in your title: The Age Of Innocence, All The Light We Cannot See, The Virgin Suicides, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Heart Of Darkness,Beloved.
Theme is one of the most misunderstood elements of writing, but when it comes to making your story resonate with readers, it can be one of the most important. Hopefully these tips will help you if you’re struggling in this area. If you have any suggestions for how you figure out the theme in your story, please share them in the comments.
For brainstorming help on possible themes for your story, see the One Stop for Writers’ Theme and Symbolism Thesaurus. (Pssst….there’s also a handy tutorial that covers the basics!)
April has a Master’s in Ethics from Yale University and studied Philosophy and Theology as a post-graduate scholar at Cambridge University. Her fiction has appeared in many literary magazines and has been nominated for the 2015 Best of the Net Anthology as well as the 2017 Pushcart Prize. She is the Associate Editor for Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine and Press and the Founder and Editor of Women Who Flash Their Lit. Find out more about April here, visit her website, and catch up with her online.