“How is topic different from theme?” This question bubbled up while I was working on my previous Theme: A Story’s Soul post. Even though I briefly explained the difference between those two terms in that article, I realized the question deserved greater exploration. Then, as I began researching this subject (no pun intended!), I discovered something alarming:
Writers often confuse the terms “topic” and “theme” and, as a result, use them interchangeably.
The truth is, topic and theme are not the same. Each has a distinct role and function in the craft of writing – and one of them, oddly enough, is a means of infusing the other into our work. So today we’ll learn how to distinguish the differences between theme and topic and what we should keep in mind about both terms when we’re writing.
What Is a Theme? And What Is a Topic?
In our first Theme: A Story’s Soul post, we offered this working definition for “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.
In other words, a story’s themes are part of the story’s central message. Themes allow readers to look at the main conflict from a broader perspective. They reveal the universals that help readers connect with the characters. They raise questions and evoke emotions that cause us to laugh, cry, or say to ourselves, “I know exactly what this character is going through.”
So what, then, are a story’s topics? And how do they differ from themes?
In our recent post on identifying themes in the poetry we write, we introduced topic as the facts that explain what a poem – or a piece of writing in general – is about. It’s another word for “subject matter”; and it tends to be specific and concrete, while theme is more conceptual. As a result, a story’s topics are clearly stated and can be identified more easily than its themes.
Think about the difference between topic and theme in terms of the five Ws and one H (who, what, where, when, why, and how). We’ve already established that a story’s topics answer the question, “What is this story about?” Theme, on the other hand, explores a story’s big picture and universal ideas, which reveal why these struggles matter to the characters and why they might matter to the readers as well. As a result, theme answers the question, “Why is this story important?”
The most important difference between topic and theme, however, might surprise you: Topic is a vehicle for illustrating theme. When you demonstrate the facts of the story in action through the main conflict and character interactions, you don’t simply state those facts. Instead, you infuse deeper meaning into those facts by showing the challenges that your characters face during the story and their reactions and emotions along the way. In this way, the story’s “what” makes the “why” possible. The writer just needs to give it the right amount of attention and nurture throughout the process.
Questions to Ask When Identifying a Story’s Topics
Even though it’s easy to spot a story’s topics, it’s good to know what questions you should ask to help you identify them. So before getting started, here are some questions to keep in mind:
- Who is the story about?
- What is the main character’s story goal?
- What happens to the main character(s) during the story?
- What kinds of struggles, conflicts, or challenges are suggested by the title or jacket copy?
- What does the main character(s) do that’s important to the story’s outcome?
- How does the main character’s ethnicity, geographic location, passions, hardships, and other distinctive aspects influence what the story is about?
- What words or phrases repeatedly come up in the jacket copy or the story’s text?
Notice anything about these questions? Several of them require information about the characters and the setting, since some of the story’s facts will answer the three remaining Ws: who, where, and when. In this way, these Ws provide additional context for the story’s topics that the “what” can’t always provide on its own.
Distinguishing Topic from Theme Using a Book’s Jacket Copy
Believe it or not, you can identify most (if not all) of a book’s topics by reading a book’s jacket copy. The trick, of course, is knowing what to look for – but that’s where the above list of questions comes in handy. (*wink*) So let’s try it using the jacket copy of this edition of Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray:
Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they’ve known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin’s orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.
Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously–and at great risk–documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father’s prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives.
Concise as this example may be, it reveals these four topics of Between Shades of Gray:
- The Soviet Union’s genocide of the Baltic peoples of Eastern Europe during World War II, as implied by the year, location, and references to Joseph Stalin, the Soviets, and labor camps
- The separation of families during times of war, which is one of the challenges Lina will endure based on the jacket copy’s contents
- The hardships of life in labor / prison camps, another of the challenges that Lina will face as implied above
- Art as a means of communication, thanks to Lina using drawings to deliver messages to her father
More topics will emerge as you read Between Shades of Gray. But once boiled down to their essences, these four facts hint at several of the book’s themes: war, morality and integrity, family, the power of art, and survival. They don’t hint at all of the themes (love and sacrifice are also major themes in this story), but that’s to be expected. What is expected is that these topics tell the reader what the story is about – and they do, accurately and effectively.
What to Keep in Mind About Topic and Theme as You Write
The main thing to remember about topic is that it pertains to the story’s “what.” It’s driven by facts and specifics, whereas theme deals with the big picture and overall meaning that reveal why the story matters. So as you determine the topics and themes in your own work, ask yourself the questions that we posed earlier. What are the facts of your story? Who is it about? What kinds of conflicts does the protagonist face? How do the setting, time period, and other defining characteristics influence what happens?
Chances are you’ll identify your story’s topics just by reviewing your pitch, synopsis, or other summary that explains what your story is about. And once you do, you’ll find it easier to dig into the meat of your story – the characters, dialogue, plot points, and so on – and recognize the themes you’ve been cultivating all along.
How do you distinguish the difference between topic and theme? What are the topics of your current story? How do these topics usher in the story’s themes? And, of course, what are your story’s themes?
Sara Letourneau is a freelance editor and writing coach based in Massachusetts. She’s currently taking clients with manuscripts in speculative fiction, literary fiction, or YA, though she’s open to other genres as well. She’s also a poet whose work has appeared in Amethyst Review, Canary, Muddy River Poetry Review, Soul-Lit, and elsewhere. A Massachusetts resident, she can often be found performing her poems at local open mic nights, reading good books, and enjoying a cup of tea. Learn more about how Sara can help you with your writing at Heart of the Story Editorial & Coaching Services. You can also connect with her at her writer website, Twitter, Goodreads, or Instagram.