What is Theme?

Question: I've read that theme can be an opinionated message or a one-word concept that the story explores. Which one is it? For example, is "revenge" a theme, or is "revenge is unhealthy and can lead to unhappiness" a theme?

Answer: Unfortunately, "theme" has several definitions, which causes a bit of confusion. When people talk about the theme of a book, they may be referring to...

1. The subject matter being explored. This can be a particular mileau, such as the world of horse racing, Silicon valley startups, or fashion. It can be a social issue or topic like gay marriage, artificial intelligence, or surviving cancer. Or it can be a principle, such as "revenge."

2. Motif. This is a repeated illustration or feature of the story world that binds or unifies the story. For instance, in James Joyce's short story "The Dead," music is a motif. Throughout the story, characters are either talking about music or performing music, so that music is a constant element.

3. The thematic message. This is the message, premise, or "moral" of the story, such as "power corrupts" or "love conquers all." Many writers are taught to use a premise as the starting point for designing a plot.

Dramatica points out that the thematic message is usually an evaluation of opposing principles, such as "self-interest" versus "morality." Different events in the story will illustrate why one or the other is better and the reader is invited to decide which of the two is more desirable or advantageous.

Adding to the complexity, each throughline can have its own thematic argument. The overall throughline will evaluate the values of the community or story world. The main character throughline will evaluate the main character's personal values. The impact character throughline will look at the impact character's values. And the relationship throughline will evaluate the values that are shared by the main and impact characters (which the rest of the story world may not).

This creates a complex web of values and evaluations, which lets book clubs and English students get into great arguments over what is "the real message" of a given story.

Comments for What is Theme?

Click here to add your own comments

Apr 24, 2014
Re: What Is Theme
by: Todd Rogers

Theme should also not be mistaken for genre because theme is a precise element whereas genre is more nebulous a concept.

Click here to add your own comments

Join in and submit your own question/topic! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Questions About Novel Writing.

 Step-by-Step Novel Planning Workbook

NEW! Make Money Writing Nonfiction Articles

"I've read more than fifty books on writing, writing novels, etc., but your website has the most useful and practical guidance. Now that I understand how a novel is structured, I will rewrite mine, confident that it will be a more interesting novel." - Lloyd Edwards

"Thanks to your "Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps," I was able to take a story that I simply just fooled around with and went willy nilly all over, into a clearly defined, intriguing battle where two characters fight to keep their relationship intact, and try to find a balance in control of themselves and their lives. Thanks to you, I'm not ashamed of the poor organization of my writing." - Nommanic Ragus

"I am so glad I found your site. It has helped me in so many ways, and has given me more confidence about myself and my work. Thank you for making this valuable resource, for me and my fellow writers. Perhaps you'll hear about me someday...I'll owe it to you." - Ruth, Milton, U.S.A.

"I never knew what to do with all the characters in my head, but since discovering Dramatica I am writing again in my spare time. Thank you for making this available. Yes, it is a bit complex, and it does take time, but I love it because it works." - Colin Shoeman

"I came across your website by chance. It is a plethora of knowledge, written in a simplistic way to help aspiring writers. I truly appreciate all of the information you have provided to help me successfully (relative term) write my novel. Thank you very much!" - Leo T. Rollins

"I can honestly say that this is the first website that is really helpful. You manage to answer complex questions in relatively short articles and with really intelligent answers. Thank you for taking the time to write these articles and sharing them so generously." - Chrystelle Nash

"...had no idea that a simple click would give me such a wealth of valuable information. The site not only offered extremely clear and helpful instructions but was a very enjoyable read as well. The education from your wonderful site has made me a better writer and your words have inspired me to get back to work on my novel. I wish to give you a heartfelt thanks for How to Write a Book Now, sir." -- Mike Chiero