By Ekta R. Garg
Theme is one of those funny concepts that gets talked about a lot but often isn’t understood. Most writers, when they get going on a new project, start with either character or plot. Some do start with theme either because they’re confident enough in their work or mature enough as a writer to pick a theme and then discover characters and a plot and story to work in tandem with that theme.
Neither approach is wrong, and neither approach is easy. Both can work for any writer, but sometimes it helps to know what we’re getting into before picking a theme and running with it. Because this topic is a little harder to get our heads wrapped around, I thought it might be helpful to list ten questions connected to the idea of a theme in your work.
1. What is a theme?
The theme of a story is the main underlying idea or meaning explored. It gives us the big picture behind a piece. There are a variety of things that can be used to convey a theme. Some writers focus on characters delivering the main message; some use a setting or drill into the dialogue to make sure the message gets across. The plot itself can also be the way the theme comes across.
2. Are theme and plot the same thing?
No. Plot has to do with the mechanics of a piece, and theme, plot, and story, another essential, are all connected in intricate ways.
A plot tells us what happened. “The queen died, and then the king died.”
A story tells us why it happened. “The queen died, and then the king died…of a broken heart.”
A theme tells us what the story meant in light of the events of the plot. “The king died from loneliness, because the queen was his one true love.”
All three—plot; story; theme—are necessary to make writing compelling, but unlike plot and story, you don’t have to go looking for the theme right away.
3. What are some basic themes in writing?
Here are six common themes we see in stories, books, and even TV and films:
Good vs. Evil—Where two factions clearly fall on one or the other side of a morality divide. One is positive or good; the other is negative or bad.
Love—Covers a wide range of all types of love, forbidden love; family love; unrequited love or love between friends.
Redemption—Where a character often has the most pronounced arc, because they learn where they were wrong. Sometimes a reformed character will sacrifice themselves by giving up freedoms, privileges, even their life.
Courage and Perseverance—When a protagonist has a major obstacle to overcome and the story details their journey of how they do so.
Coming of age—This is very popular in YA books, because it usually deals with a person growing up and/or encountering adult issues for the first time.
Revenge—Where a character’s whole goal is to get back at someone/something for being wronged. It could be on small level (tied only to their own home or town) or on a grander scale.
4. Can you have a plot without a theme? Can you write about a theme without a plot?
The answer to both is no. A plot without a theme is essentially an itinerary of a person’s day. A theme without the elements of plot to hold it down—characters/story/motivation—is just a TED talk or maybe an Oprah special.
Don’t get me wrong. I love TED talks, and Oprah is amazing. But if I’m coming to fiction, I don’t want something that sounds like a daily calendar of wise sayings. I want to go on a journey or an adventure. I want to find out how other people live and view the world. I want to be scared, to fall in love, to be upset, and to have a happy ending.
I also want to come away with a universal truth. Because, essentially, that’s what themes are: facts of life that have meaning to all of us.
5. When should I start with the theme?
Starting with theme makes more sense when you’ve reached the end of a first or second draft. The majority of writing instructors will tell you that when you’ve finished a story for the first time, you should put it away for a little while and come back to it with fresh eyes.
At some point during the revision process, you’ll see the theme of your story. When you do, you can play up that theme even more with added dialogue or narration or things like objects or colors. When a character is sad, for example, maybe grays or blues make their way into scenes in terms of what people are wearing or even the color of buildings or the sky. This is what we call symbolism—having something show up that represents something else. It’s basically a metaphor without using language.
6. Should I look for the theme in my story as I’m writing or let it emerge?
When we’re writing a first draft, our characters and our plots often surprise us. If we want our stories to be full and complete, we have to give them breathing space. That means sometimes we have to let go of the plan we might have had in mind and let the characters lead on what’s developing on the page when, clearly, we had no intention of going there.
When it comes to themes, then, if we sit down with a specific theme in mind, we might be restricting the characters, the story, and, ultimately, ourselves in what we end up with when the piece is done.
But—and this is a big but—that doesn’t mean you just let the story start flying off the handle. It’s important to trust your gut, because once you’ve spent any significant amount of time on a story, chances are that a lot of things will fall into place and become the anchors for your work in progress. Once those anchors are holding down the essentials, it’s actually okay to start looking for your theme.
7. Should I explain my theme?
If you’ve done your work in the writing, the answer here is no. You shouldn’t have to spell out your theme in blatant terms. The story and the craft part of your writing should do that for you.
You can have your characters state the theme in dialogue in some way or even have the narration mention it, but you shouldn’t need a huge neon-colored flag that says “Find theme here” in your manuscript.
For example, one of the themes in my novella The Truth About Elves was that Curtis, the main character, discovers that home really is where his heart is. He separated from his family, but he never stopped loving them. In the climax, he says to another person, “All I’ve wanted to do for the last eight years is come home.”
He’s stating this outright, and it’s one of the main themes of the book. Because this is a pivotal scene, though, and because I’ve given readers enough by this point to already figure it out, having Curtis say it out loud is a confirmation for readers. It reassures them that what they’d been guessing all along was, indeed, correct, and it contributes to the fuzzy feelings that I want readers to have by the time they get to this point in the story.
However, I don’t start out on page 1 of the book by having Curtis say, “I had a falling out with my family, and now I don’t know how to go back to them.” That’s something that Curtis, and the readers, have to figure out over the course of the story. In fact, at the start of the book he doesn’t even know that that’s exactly what he wants. He hasn’t been able to articulate it for himself in such clear terms. He just knows he’s been living with this immense pain and grief, and he just assumes he’ll always have to live with both.
Part of the beauty of reading is watching characters work for what they want and seeing whether what they want and what they need are the same thing, two different things, or whether they’re connected in some way. After all the craziness that a character has to endure, we get to enjoy it all come together in the climax of a story and the way things get wrapped up at the end.
8. How many themes should I have in my story?
This is directly related to the length of your work. If you’re writing a short story, you definitely want to stick to one main theme. When you’re ready to dive under the surface for revisions, look for or decide on that theme.
That doesn’t mean short stories can’t touch on more than one theme. Fully developed characters are three-dimensional and their lives are messy, so their stories are going to contain elements of all these things. But you want your characters to focus on one thing, because the length of a short story only allows for a few minutes or a half-hour or so of exposure.
If you’re writing a novella or a book-length work, then you have the freedom to explore more than one theme. You don’t want to get too crazy, though, because readers will get confused. Also, even though you have the freedom to delve a little deeper into more than one theme, generally speaking for most readers there will only be one main theme that speaks to them in a book. They’ll discover and discuss others, of course, but when they think of their favorite novels or nonfiction works they’ll remember one main idea.
9. Can I use the same theme in more than one work?
The short answer is, yes. The longer answer is, it depends.
Shakespeare’s work is divided very neatly into the comedies and the tragedies. In the comedies, the point was to amuse people. In the tragedies, Shakespeare wanted us to drill into the saddest, darkest parts of ourselves. Yet we still often refer to Shakespeare and even study him today. Why?
It’s because even though he may have included these elements and often all of them in one play after another, he didn’t repeat the same plot, line by line and scene by scene.
But how do you do that? How do you use universal truths and plots but not sound repetitive?
Focusing on the particulars of your plot—namely, the characters and the trouble they get in, as well as how that trouble gets resolved—makes your story fresh. You can use the same theme but bring it to light in an unusual way that will surprise readers.
Both Romeo and Juliet and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas share a basic theme: “love conquers all.” Even though Romeo and Juliet die, their love conquers the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. In The Hate U Give, Starr dates a white boy and hides it from her father, but her boyfriend is a solid influence in her life, someone she can depend on, and his love for her conquers Starr’s father’s suspicion and distrust.
So, can you use the same theme in different stories? Yes, you absolutely can.
10. Does my story have to have a theme?
This one’s a trick question, because, as I’ve said before, you don’t have to plan the theme for your story. You don’t have to go looking for it, and you don’t have to explain it to anyone after you’re done.
However, if you’ve done your work as a writer, then your story will inevitably have a theme of some sort. Good stories, no matter what length they are, leave the reader feeling something that can be directly attributed back to that story. Beautiful sentences can only take you so far. Beauty without context—without a story—is kind of hollow. We can appreciate it and observe it, but then we move on. When we pair those beautiful sentences with a character that undergoes some sort of hardship and survives, all of a sudden the pretty writing has an impact.
Books and stories help us connect to the writer, of course, and the characters, but they also help us connect to ourselves by reflecting life’s greater truths, its themes, to us. You don’t have to sit down and start writing with a theme in mind. But if you’ve done your job as the writer, then in all likelihood you’ll have one or even more than one theme by the time you’re done.