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?

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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.

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