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Elements of Fiction: Theme

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February 2010

In the previous post, I wrote about setting. In this post, I will write about the theme of a story.

Theme is an important element of fiction, but not a necessary element.  The theme of a story  is its central idea. The theme is not the subject of the story. The writer incorporates the theme into the story from the subject. Sometimes the fiction writer has a specific theme or idea in mind before crafting a short story or novel. Other times the theme emerges as the fiction writer constructs the story.

This article covers the following:

  • Definition of theme
  • How the fiction writer can reveal the theme
  • Popular themes in fiction
  • Resources for fiction writers

Theme: A Definition

What do we mean by theme? The theme is the main idea of the story. It is an important idea that the fiction writer wants to convey to the readers. Sometimes a story has a single theme. Other times the story has several themes. Occassionally, the story is without a theme.

The theme allows the writer to comment on a particular topic. For instance, suppose the fiction writer crafts a story about war. The writer can reveal his/her own views about war by incorporating them into the story, and by crafting an ending that reflects his/her views about war. For instance, Timothy Findley, in “The Wars”, weaves several themes into the novel, one of which is “War is hell.” Another theme is that “innocent people die in war.” A third being “war is a waste of human life.”

How does the theme of a story emerge? Sometimes a fiction writer will set out, with a specific idea, and then write a short story or novel. Other times, the theme or main idea will appear as the fiction writer crafts his/her story.

Sometimes the fiction writer begins writing a short story or novel based on a particular topic. For instance, a crime writer might write a short about a murder. But this is not the theme of the book. The theme is constructed from the topic. The theme might be “anyone who commits murder must be executed.” Another theme might be that “crime doesn’t pay.”

The theme of the story can be explicit or implicit. Sometimes the fiction writer will state the theme explicitly, so that the reader knows what is the central idea. For instance, in “Paradise Lost”, John Milton writes that his intention is to “justify the ways of God to men.”

Other times, the theme is implicit. The reader will need to look for clues that reveal the theme. After reading the short story or novel, the reader can often identify the theme by asking the following question: What did you learn by reading the novel or short story?” In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert L. Stevenson, a man is transformed into a monster. The theme suggested by the writer is that human beings have dual personalities, both good and bad.

Sometimes the title of the novel or short story provides the reader with a clue about its theme, such as “Catch-22”, “The Scarlet Letter”, “Catcher in the Rye”, “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Frequently, the reader will have to look for clues in the story to determine what the fiction writer is suggesting about the theme.

How the Theme is Revealed

For a theme to have any importance, the fiction writer must reveal it to the readers, either explicitly or implicitly. Here are four ways a fiction writer can express the theme of the story:

1. Themes are expressed and emphasized by the way the fiction writer makes the reader feel. By sharing the feelings of the main character, the fiction writer can also share the ideas that go through his/her mind.

2. The fiction writer can reveal the theme through the thoughts and conversations of characters. The fiction writer can provide clues by expressing his thoughts through the dialogue of characters. Dialogue can be used to state the theme. The reader can look for clues about theme by looking for thoughts or dialogue that is repeated by characters throughout the story.

3. The fiction writer can suggested a theme through the main characters in the story. How does the main character act? What does the main character say? The main character usually illustrates the most important theme of the story. The reader can discover the theme by asking the following question:“What does the main character learn as the story progresses?” In other words, does the protagonist experience an epiphany? Another question the read can ask is:”How does the protagonist change or develop as the story progresses?”

4. The fiction writer can reveal the theme of the story through the actions or events in the story. The fiction writer needs consider what an action by the character will suggest to the reader. In other words, how will the action express an idea or theme?

Popular Themes

Colin Bulman, in “Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing” identifies several common themes in fiction, including:

  • Love will conquer all.
  • Marriage is a natural and desirable institution.
  • Man is alienated from society.
  • The family is often dysfunctional.
  • Men and women cannot get along.


Other common themes in fiction are:

  • Life is not always as it seems.
  • Believe in yourself.
  • People are risk adverse.
  • First impressions are often wrong.
  • War is hell.
  • Society socializes humankind to behave in a just and righteous manner.

Resources for Writing Fiction

There are several good books available to help you learn about the elements of fiction. The following books—and resources that I recommend— were used to research this article:

  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
  • Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing by Colin Bulman
  • The Art and Craft of Storytelling by Nancy Lamb
  • How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
  • The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
  • A Passion for Narrative: A Guide for Writing Fiction by Jack Hodgins

1 Comment

  1. Florentia says:

    That helps!

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