There are dozens of books and websites dedicated to the discussion of theme and what it is and isn’t.

Theme is one of those components that often gets overlooked, despite the fact that it is the glue that holds a story together!

So, what is theme? Well, quite simply, theme is a story’s main idea. However, this is not to be confused with subject as subject is the method chosen to explore the theme.

For example, a writer may choose to write about the subject of slavery. The theme will reflect the writer’s feelings/opinion/research on/or experience of slavery.

Then there is plot. Plot is the framework upon which subject and theme are built. It is the series of events a writer choses to explore the theme using the chosen subject.

When we think about theme in terms of storytelling, we tend to think of things like love, hate, jealousy, revenge, beauty, change, courage, deception, justice, survival, circle of life, fate versus free will, etc. The list is endless.

However, these things are really emotions, actions, symbols, and motifs that play out beneath the umbrella of one of the four actual themes which are:

~ pride before a fall
~ loss of innocence (getting of wisdom)
~ power corrupts
~ the unattainability of desires

All of your stories will have one of these as its over-arching theme. Some of your stories will touch on two of them, or possibly even three. Every story that has ever been written has one of these as an over-arching theme. Let me give you an example…

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare:

SUBJECT: young lovers cannot be together because of their families ongoing feud.

THEME: there are two over-arching themes in Romeo and Juliet: the unattainability of desires (Romeo and Juliet cannot be together because their families are enemies), pride before a fall (both families lose their children to suicide as a direct result of their pride).

EMOTIONS (expressed beneath the umbrella of these themes) include: love, passion, hate, pride, longing, anger, confusion.

ACTIONS (that play out beneath the umbrella of these themes) include: courtship, deception, marriage, revenge, murder, suicide.

SYMBOLS include: religion.

What about Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte:

SUBJECT: a young woman cannot bring herself to marry the man she truly loves because he is from a lower societal class.

THEME: there are two over-arching themes: pride before a fall and the unattainability of desires (Both Catherine and Heathcliff’s pride causes them to lose or destroy everything they desire and everyone they love).

EMOTIONS (expressed beneath the umbrella of this theme) include: love, passion, desire, jealousy, anger, hatred, pride, corruption.

ACTIONS (that play out beneath the umbrella of these themes) include: corruption, cruelty (mental and physical), revenge, birth, death, marriage.

SYMBOLS include: the moors, lineage. 

It might take a while to actually figure out what your story’s theme is, and often the same theme will appear in your stories over and over again. For example, my main theme tends to be ‘the unattainability of desires’. This theme often proves to be challenging as it has the potential to make your protagonist self-centered.

Now, you may agree with this description of theme or you might not—and that’s perfectly fine. There are no absolute rights or wrongs when it comes to the craft of storytelling. Whatever, the case, please feel free to share your thoughts with us.


By Susannah Farlow

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