If you’re like most people, the last time you discussed Literary Themes was in high school English class.
Perhaps you discussed the Theme of death in one of Edgar Allen Poe’s many short stories, or picked apart the use of shame in The Scarlet Letter.
Or maybe, like many, you were lost when finding the Theme of a story.
Understanding the importance of Themes can elevate your writing. Without a Theme, your story might be interesting but it won’t carry a deeper meaning.
If you struggle with how to strike a balance between your Theme being too obvious and too vague, you’re not alone.
Let me try to help you learn to effectively use Theme.
What is a Literary Theme?
In short, the Theme is the why, the reason for the story. It’s the idea that the story explores.
When an author chooses a Theme for their novel, it’s because they want the reader to walk away with a specific message — without being beat over the head with it.
Most importantly, Themes in literature make a story memorable. Who would remember the Aesop fable, The Tortoise and the Hare, if it weren’t for its Theme: the danger of overconfidence? Would Charlotte’s Web be the same without the Theme of the inevitability of death?
Without their Themes, even the most beloved books would become forgettable.
Theme vs. Plot vs. Topic vs. Motif vs. Moral
Theme is often confused with plot, topic, motif, and moral. Here are the differences:
Your Literary Theme is the why of your story.
Your plot is the what of your story — what occurs.
Your topic is the subject. The death of your father might be your topic, but the underlying Theme might be learning to deal with loss.
The motif is a recurring element in your story. One motif in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is lions, as the main character often dreams of them when he misses his childhood off the coast of Africa.
The moral is the lesson. It can overlap with the Theme, but they bear distinct differences.
For example: The Theme of The Ugly Duckling is the search for identity. The moral is to not judge a book by its cover.
15 Examples of Common Themes in Literature
These stories about a teenager or young adult wrestling with the emotional changes of looming adulthood often cover their loss of innocence and coming to terms with their new life and maturity. Examples include The Catcher in the Rye and The Outsiders.
Good vs. Evil
Perhaps the oldest literary Theme, this is the battle of the morally righteous character against a tyrannical villain. Examples include Harry Potter vs. Voldemort in the Harry Potter series and Despereaux vs. Roscuro in The Tale of Despereaux.
Betrayal & Revenge
These stories revolve around characters deceiving, backstabbing, and seeking retribution on one another. Notable examples include Hamlet and Moby Dick.
Life and Death
Stories dealing with the mysteries of existence are incredibly popular, from Jesse Aarons’s grief over the loss of his friend in Bridge to Terabithia to Pi’s gratitude for living in The Life of Pi.
This Theme concerns both the making and breaking of familial bonds. The Bundren family’s dynamics in As I Lay Dying and the strength of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath are examples.
Faith vs. Doubt
This Theme isn’t limited to inspirational literature. It can concern a character’s faith in himself, others, or the status quo. It’s one of the main Themes of my own Left Behind series, and is the driving force of the Pevensie children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Hubris & Overconfidence
Common in the horror genre, this Theme deals with the punishment of a character who believes they are too powerful for consequences. The most famous example is Dr. Frankenstein struggling with the monster of his own creation.
Knowledge vs. Ignorance
Does your character have proof of something others refuse to believe in? Or is he in denial? Examples: Guy Montag’s fight against technology in Fahrenheit 451 and Charlie Gordon’s fear of intelligence in Flowers for Algernon.
Courage & Perseverance
When the going gets tough, the tough get going has become a cliche, but novels with this Theme revolve around characters pushing themselves to the limit for what they believe in. Examples include Beowulf and the Cowardly Lion in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
This Theme can vary widely from romance to friends and family. It also includes tales of heartbreak and betrayal. Stories with this Theme can be as tragic as Romeo and Juliet or as uplifting as The Notebook.
Who is in charge, who is not, and the dynamic between the two is reflected in literature such as 1984 or Holes.
The obsession with remaining beautiful is the Theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray, while Pride and Prejudice explores the turmoil caused by early 19th-century beauty standards.
Within this greater Theme lie stories of death, hopelessness, loss, and courage. Two well-known war-centric novels: Slaughterhouse Five and The Red Badge of Courage.
Novels featuring this Theme have become popular, especially since the release of The Hunger Games.
Change vs. Tradition
In these stories, characters must either choose one, or live with both. The best examples are Their Eyes Were Watching God, in which protagonist Janie Crawford rejects the racism of the early 20th century, or the clash between old and new cultures in A Fiddler On the Roof.
3 Ways to Develop the Theme of Your Story
Express your Theme through literary devices
Use Conflict to reinforce your Theme
Conflict, the engine of fiction, drives your story. Your Theme should be tied to the major conflicts in your story.
Let your Theme speak for itself
The easiest way to bore your reader is to beat them over the head with your Theme.
Your readers are smart. They don’t need everything spelled out for them. Be subtle, and weave the Theme throughout your story.
Stick to Your Literary Theme
Before you begin to write, have your Theme in mind. Think deeply about what you want readers to learn from your story.
Jot your Theme on a sticky note to keep it visible as you work.
If you’re interested in more advice like this, take my free short quiz. You’ll receive a video with feedback directly from me, tailored to your specific situation and helping you unlock your writing potential.