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The Theme of a Short Story

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May 2011

One of the useful aspects of reading fiction, whether short fiction or a novel, is that it often provides a commentary on human nature or the human condition.  The writer comments on some aspect of life through the theme of his short story or novel.

The writer can explicitly state the theme in the short story, or the writer can implicitly suggest a theme through the title of the story, setting, plot, conflict, actions or mind of the main character.

Most short stories have a theme, implied, embodied, or explicitly suggested by the writer.

In this post, I discuss the following aspects of theme:

  • Definition of theme
  • How to identify theme
  • Crafting a short story with a theme

What is the Theme of a Short Story?

The theme of a short story is simply its meaning. It is the main idea explored in the story by the writer. It answers the question: What did you learn about the human condition or human nature? For instance, in “Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, the theme is about a woman who has lost her freedom and identity to her husband and marriage. In Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”, the theme is about a protagonist who freezes to death because he panics and is unable to problem solve. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, the theme is about an unplanned pregancy, and the decision to abort the pregnancy.

The meaning of a story can be implied, explicitly suggested or embodied in the story.

How Can You Identify the Theme of a Short Story?

Sometimes a writer crafts a story with a central idea, in which the theme is easy to identify and understand—such as love, hatred, death.

Often, though, writers craft stories in which the theme is implied, not easily identified. And so, the theme can often be understood in the plot of a story, through the characters of a story, by understanding the conflict. The reader must analyze the story to determine its theme. Here’s are several suggestions:

  1. Understand the main conflict of the short story. “In Hills like White Elephants”, Hemingway writes about unplanned pregnancy and the need for an abortion. The theme is implied through a conversation between the man and his girlfriend.
  2. Understand the epiphany. Usually, you can the theme of a story once you understand the epiphany—what does the protagonist learn, what is the revelation.
  3. Ask yourself: How does the character change from the beginning of the story to the end of the story?
  4. Ask yourself: What does the story suggest about human nature? Two common themes are good versus evil. Another is that the human heart cannot endure the burden of guilt. Another is that we have a dark side, alter ego, that can do wicked things, commit evil acts.
  5. Ask yourself: What does the story suggest about the human condition? The literature of short fiction includes several themes that are often repeated.
  6. Sometimes the theme is suggested in the title. For instance in Hemmingway’s Hills like White Elephants, we understand that a “white elephant is a symbol for something that is not wanted. In Susan Minot’s “Lust” we quickly understand that the story is about lust, sex.
  7. Look for key phrases or sentences. Sometimes the writer reveals the theme by repeating symbols or motifs.
  8. A common way to understand the theme is by identify the “big idea”, what the story is about—love, death, crime, abortion, lust, human nature, divorce, abuse, and so forth.
  9. The theme of a story can sometimes be understood by its setting. Where does the story take place? What historical time frame? Did social change occur during this period?

Crafting a Short Story with a Theme

Most writers begin with a topic, such as misadventure, suicide, lust, love, death, then write a short story. Sometimes the writer explicitly suggests the theme by embodying it in the short story.

Other times the writer suggests a theme through setting, plot, conflict, character, epiphany. And so, the reader must decipher the theme.

Sometimes the writer begins writing without any particular theme in mind. The theme emerges as the writer writes the story.

Other times the writer has a particular topic and theme before he/she begins writing the short story.

Sometimes a writer has only a theme for a short story–but doesn’t have a story idea.

The theme is the shared meaning, universal truth, lesson learned, epiphany. The writer writes about theme by selecting a particular topic or story idea, then writing a short story.  As the writer crafts the story, he/she ought to think about its theme—what is the universal truth of the story? What lesson can be shared to the reader? What moral truth can be communicated through the story?The writer has many ways to find an story idea and theme for a short story:

  • Freewriting
  • Keeping a notebook
  • Writing a short story based on a newspaper or magazine article
  • Writing a story about what he has seen, observed
  • Writing a story based on personal experience
  • Writing a story based from memory
  • Writing a story from a photograph
  • Writing a story about the human condition or human nature
  • Writing about a story from what you see or hear or read in the pop culture, such as movie, song, social media

One of the marvelous aspects of writing short fiction is that the writer can make up the details once he/she has the story idea and theme, by use of imagination, memories of true events, his/her creative spirit. That is why short fiction is one of the most popular forms of creative writing.

Once you start reading short fiction, you will discover that short fiction has many themes that are repeated, such as love and hate, crime and punishment, revenge, the difficulties of old age, the oppression of marriage.

If you write a short story, not sure of its theme, seek out the following:

  • Universal truth
  • Shared meaning
  • Lesson learned
  • Epiphany—revealation
  • Change in the mind or actions of the protagonist

To summarize, the theme of a story is its meaning. Meaning is the lesson learned, universal truth, epiphany, change in the behavior or character of the main character. Meaning is what we learn about human nature or the human condition.

The writer can explicitly write about the theme through the story idea, or the writer can implicitly suggest the theme through the setting, plot, conflict, change in the mind or actions of the main character.

The theme of a short story ought to always be important to the writer who can use it to express an opinion, share views on values, interests, topics, ideas important the writer himself and humankind—such as love, abortion, crime, good, evil, death, and so forth.

The theme of a short story is important to the reader who can learn a lesson, discover something new about human nature or the human condition.

In short, the theme of a story can teach us how to live our lives.


  1. Glad to have stumbled across your blog. I’m currently trying to write some short stories and must say that I’m struggling a bit – mainly because I tend to write poetry or longer fiction….getting the balance right with a short story is currently evading me!

    I’d love to read your future posts, so thought I’d subscribe.

    Have a great day!
    Chloe xx

  2. This is useless ,so its stupid. 😦 chpz!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  3. im bored .so don’t mind me 🙂 😦

  4. […] his site, Dave Hood walks us through the very idea of theme: how to find it in someone else’s story and how to craft […]

  5. Michael alex kirabo says:

    Thats cool that youre writing and you shd keep it high. For ashort fiction just focus on xter,plot,point of view and setting and always remember to introduce your conflict earlier. Jah bless you

  6. glad to have found this — looks like a great resource!

  7. John says:

    The theme for a “story of an hour”, is incorrect. It is instead talking about the oppressiveness of marriage and the results of femenism.

  8. “you can the theme” careless writing

  9. Nona says:

    Thanks for every other informative web site.
    Where else may just I get that type of info written in such a perfect approach?
    I have a project that I am just now running on, and I
    have been at the glance out for such info.


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