What is Theme, and Why is it Important?

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

Giving examples of themes in literature isn’t too difficult. Love, good versus evil, loss of innocence – and the list goes on. However, what about defining the term “theme”? Or, picking out themes in your own work? That can be more of a challenge, but it’s one you don’t have to confront alone.

Today I’m thrilled to launch Theme: A Story’s Soul, a monthly DIY MFA column that deconstructs theme in novels and writing. Some articles will act as case studies, focusing on a particular theme in classic and contemporary literature. Others will cover techniques to help identify themes in stories. Most importantly, each article will end with something fun and creative for you! We’ll give you the chance to study theme on your own with questions to ponder and writing prompts to spark new ideas.

First things first, though: Let’s make sure we understand a) what theme is, and b) why it’s important.

What Exactly Is Theme?

Knowing how to explain what “theme” means in a reading and writing context will help us find what we’re looking for later on. A dictionary can be a good place to start – sometimes. Here are the first two definitions Merriam-Webster gives for the word “theme”:

  1. The main subject that is being discussed or described in a piece of writing, a movie, etc.
  2. A particular subject or issue that is discussed often or repeatedly

Hmmmmm. As you can see, the phrasing of Definition #1 makes it dangerously easy to confuse theme with plot. Definition #2 is more accurate; a novel’s main concepts will pop up frequently as the plot progresses, and in various ways. However, to develop a clear understanding of theme from a reading and writing perspective, we should consult – who else? – other writers.

Writers’ Perspectives on Theme

Author and editor C.S. Lakin has written a plethora of articles on theme at her blog Live Write Thrive. She often calls theme “the heart of a story.” Think about that for a moment. What must theme accomplish in order to be the heart of a story? Maybe it presents a fundamental idea or moral lesson that the character learns as a result of the plot. Maybe it teaches the reader something as well. Even better, maybe it does both.

Story and script consultant Michael Hauge (Writing Screenplays That Sell) offers his own take on theme here: “[T]heme is the prescription for living that the writer wants to give the audience or the reader.” He goes on to explain that theme is connected to the protagonist’s journey. The lessons learned by the protagonist propel her character arc and illustrate her transformation for the readers, thus allowing the readers to learn those lessons as well.

Let’s use the theme of home in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as an example. During his search to destroy the Horcruxes – and, ultimately, his nemesis Lord Voldemort – Harry visits other characters’ homes as well as the many “substitute” homes from his childhood. The idea of home has always been foreign to Harry, an orphan who struggled with his sense of belonging throughout the series. Yet, here’s what Harry realizes when he learns he must make the ultimate sacrifice to defeat Voldemort and defend his beloved wizardry school Hogwarts: “He wanted to be stopped, to be dragged back, to be sent home… But he was home. Hogwarts was the first and best home he had known.” (697) Discovering where he truly feels at home, Harry chooses to turn himself over to Voldemort in hopes of saving the people and place he holds dearest. His thoughts and actions here show readers that the idea of home is worth defending, at any cost.

A Working Definition of “Theme”

Whew! All of this information from Merriam-Webster, Lakin, and Hague is a lot to digest. However, we can take what we’ve learned and create a working definition for “theme,” one that captures all the important points discussed above and that we can refer to in future articles for A Story’s Soul.

Theme: An idea, concept, or lesson that appears repeatedly throughout a story, reflects the character’s internal journey through the external plot, and resonates with the reader.

So… Why Is Theme Important?

It’s great that we know what theme is now, but that’s only half the answer to our two-part question. Why is theme important in novels and writing? Simply put: If a story lacks theme, the reader might not connect with it.

Remember that theme is connected to the protagonist’s internal journey. It ties the character’s concerns and passions – the character’s soul, figuratively speaking – to the external plot, while giving readers something to care about and someone to root for. What happens when that link is missing? What if the protagonist doesn’t have a goal to strive for? You’d have a plot that goes nowhere and readers losing interest – in other words, a story without a soul.

Theme helps a good story become a compelling one. It represents Katniss’ incentive to fight her way through The Hunger Games, Santiago’s desire to seek buried treasure in The Alchemist, and Frodo’s motivation to destroy the One Ring in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Most importantly, theme allows readers to relate to the characters and their struggles – and to feel invested in the outcome. That’s why we read novels and write stories to begin with, right?

Come back on Monday, December 29, when we’ll explore how dissecting a novel’s title and synopsis can help you identify its themes!

It’s Your Turn!

What are some topics you’d like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #AStorysSoul.

…………….

Sara Letourneau 1 croppedSara Letourneau is a Massachusetts-based writer who practices joy and versatility in her work. In addition to writing a fantasy novel, she reviews tea at A Bibliophile’s Reverie and is a guest contributor for Grub Street Daily. She’s also a published poet whose works have appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. Learn more about Sara at her personal blogFacebook, and Twitter.

 

 

  • I think theme is very important, but it’s something that is hard to do, because it can’t really be forced. It has to just happen on its own as the story develops.

    I love that, the heart of a story. That’s why theme is so important. No theme = no heart.

    As to your question, maybe more about disecting a theme in a story. Like you did here for Harry Potter. On the surface it’s good vs evil, but it’s really more than that.

    • Sara Letourneau

      Thanks for your comment, Molly! And that’s a good point about theme. We can’t force it too much in our writing, but it’s something we can think about a little more consciously as we write or read.

      We’re going to get into actual case studies of themes in novels, so there will be lots more like the Harry Potter example. 😉 The plan is to start that with the third article (the one after the December piece), and maybe alternate between case studies and articles that provide tips to help us identify themes in stories.

      • Samwel William Ndayahoze

        Thank you sister Sara for profoundly defining the word “theme” and helping others to identify the themes from stories, movies or any written material. Complimenting you, I would like to add that a theme is also a central idea of an author/character/speaker in written material, movies or any speech whether political or theological.

        • Sara Letourneau

          Thanks, Samwel! Yes, I agree. Theme is important is political or theological works as well as informative or entertainment pieces. DIY MFA will focus exclusively on stories and novels (since that’s the purpose of the site), but some of the things we have discussed (and will discuss later) in this Theme column could probably be applied to other types of writing as well.

  • just a ninja frog

    Great artical

  • Mary Van Everbroeck

    Hi Sara: Just like to say that I am excited about reading your Posts on this Topic. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and wisdom. M

  • Keith Maletta

    I was always taught that a subject can be stated in a word or two: friendship, love, the power of defiance…but a theme must be a statement: Early friendships shape all future relationships. When in love, one must suffer. One defiant act can change the world. Thoughts?

Enjoyed this article?

Spread the word: