What The Heck Is “Theme”, Anyway?

If a plot could be compared to the body of a race car, the theme would be the engine turning its wheels“.

A story’s theme is the fundamental and universal idea behind its plot. In King Lear, for example, one of its main themes is “authority versus chaos”.

Sometimes people confuse a story’s subject with its theme. The subject of a story would be a one-word descriptor of its main idea. “War”, for example, would be the subject of many stories. A theme would be an opinion related to that subject, such as “In War, everyone loses.” (See Joe Moore’s excellent post on the difference between subject and theme)
Some writers approach theme almost as an afterthought–or worse, they forget to factor in a theme at all, which can result in a story that seems aimless or shallow at its core. Having  a well-crafted theme adds dimension, depth, and cohesion to stories.

Writers often use minor characters to explore a story’s underlying theme. I call this method the “360-degree” approach to developing theme. In this approach, the secondary characters represent various aspects of the main theme, and they act as foils to the main character’s experiences. For example, the theme of one of my stories was “Mean Girls Suffer The Last Blow.”  That theme was explored through the story arcs of several characters. One woman had been victimized by bullies in her youth; another was herself a bully. Another character was a protector of abused women.  Each of these characters explored different facets of the subject of bullying and  emotional abuse.

How do you explore theme? What’s the theme of your WIP? How are you working that theme into your narrative?

15 thoughts on “What The Heck Is “Theme”, Anyway?

  1. This is one of my favorite topics! Imho, your theme is so very important. Yes, you can have a book (even published!) without one. But there’s a odd hollow feeling to novels like this, like a zombie — yes, it’s up and moving around but it has no heart, no real reason to exist. It has nothing to say.

    But how do you find your theme? Do you start with one and build from there? Or do you start with a solid premise or concept and let the theme find your characters — and you? I’ve had it work both ways. Some of my books have begun life as a theme like “If you lose your true self, you lose everything.” Other themes have emerged only as we get deep into a book.

    Funny you should mention this today because I am working on my next post which is about the discovery process of rewriting. We are now on page 403 of our WIP (in denouement territory) but it has been only within the last 50 pages that our theme became crystal clear. I trust it was always there, humming softly along in the background as we moved along, but we didn’t hone in on it until the climax was over, the bad guy was vanquished and the survivors were left to pick up the pieces. Then it was like — bam! — here is what the book is REALLY about at its heart. So now we have to go back in rewrites and make critical changes that support this.

    I always go back to Stephen King when theme comes up. Here’s what he says about it in part: “When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”

    • I think people struggle with theme almost more than anything else, Kris! And one can find hidden themes lurking in any story. Which reminds me of a talk I gave recently at a high school career day –the most impassioned question came from a girl who was frustrated by an English teacher who kept wanting them to identify multiple themes in classic stories– she looked so happy when I suggested that critics sometimes find themes that were unknown to the actual author ?.

  2. This is one of those topics that makes my head hurt. I have deep admiration for people who can think in these terms about their work, but I cannot. I write to entertain. Hard stop. Interesting characters doing exciting things in interesting places.

    After 16 books and a 17th on the way, I’d be hard pressed to state a theme for any of them. I guess one could say that the theme of Nathan’s Run dealt with inequities of the juvenile justice system, or that the theme of Friendly Fire was that the best of intentions can have the direst consequences, but those are determinations made after the fact, and only when forced to cite a theme. That was not what the book was *about*. They were about interesting characters doing exciting things. Larger-canvas ideas such as theme are nowhere near my consciousness when I write.

    I wonder sometimes if the perceived need to identify such larger-canvas ideas is a major contributor to the distress I hear from so many MFA graduates when the time comes to try and write professionally.

    • See my comment to Kris regarding overzealous theme seeking, John! It’s possible to get carried away in the search for a higher meaning…

    • I’m going to disagree with you (I know you are making your surprised face right now.)

      In the Jonathan Grave series, you have a strong undercurrent of right and wrong and the constant tension of having to execute acts that terrify and disgust many in order to achieve what’s right.

      In the militia book (sorry, title is escaping me over lunch) when the team realizes that she is enjoying the violence too much, there is stock-taking by Grave and, even though she is frightening in her efficiency, that’s not what they are about.

      That balancing and tension is your theme.

      So, “tastes great” is my answer and I’m sticking to it.


      • I think good writers have themes despite themselves, John. You can’t help it. 🙂 That’s how I felt about Nathan’s Run when I read it years ago.

  3. My main theme is this, a detective’s job can destroy the person. I use the secondary characters to recognize what the detective can’t accept.

    • Or to illustrate variations on that theme, perhaps? Thanks for joining in today, Brian!

      • It’s not how the detective works the case, it’s how the case works on the detective. — Joseph Wambaugh (paraphrased)

  4. Like John Gilstrap, thinking about theme is painful. I want people to escape reality for the time it takes to read the book, and when a theme appears, it’s almost always discovered after the fact. I always get nervous, thinking I’m writing the same book over and over. Character must discover inner self to find happiness. “The trouble with running away is that you take yourself with you.” Only the events are different, and whether it’s a primary or secondary character.

    I just finished the first draft of my 19th novel. I think it’s got the same self-discovery thing going on, too.

  5. Mine developed and applied itself to my book without a lot of thought. And if you want to get all Freudian, it’s also the theme to my life.

    The value and price of loyalty.

    In the superb HBO series Rome, there is a scene which says (heavily paraphrased,) “he raises loyalty to the level of vice.”

    Several times in book 1, my main character is fuming at herself, “why am I doing this?” Even after discovering her father was neck deep in the central crime, she stayed out of loyalty. And at the end, in the “sort of happily for now” ending, she has to cope with the betrayal of that loyalty.

    Writing as therapy. Terri

    • Ah, yes. I think my “mean girls get their comeuppance ” theme may have been a bit of purging of 8th grade demons on my part.

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