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What Is Theme and Why is it Important?

Pub Date: Jun 28, 2016 | Columnist: Joan McCord (republished by popular demand from November 1, 1996)

“People sometimes confuse plot with theme.”

What Is Theme and Why is it Important?

By Joan McCord

Writing Lecturer, Teacher, Member DFW Writers Workshop

 A theme is a dominant thought, a unifying vision, a moral. It is the central idea behind your story.

Kirk Polking, editor of Writing A to Z, defines theme as “the point a writer wishes to make. It poses a question, a human problem.”

“A theme is a natural, unobtrusive part of a story. The writer starts with an idea; as the story develops, it is influenced by the writer’s own philosophy or observation of the human condition. This is the theme, the quality that brings with it a sense of values and drama.”

People sometimes confuse plot with theme. The plot is the series of events that proves or disproves the theme. Plot is a series of conflicts, literal happenings. Common conflicts are man against man, man against nature, and man against himself.

According to Laurie Henry’s Fiction Dictionary, “theme” is a broader term than “plot”. “Theme illustrates whatever universal idea the story puts forward, while plot has to do, instead, with the literal events that occur in the characters’ lives,” says Henry.

A theme is often not profound. It is usually simple and appeals to our emotion and intellect. Examples of common themes are:

The old ways are best The new ways are better Determination wins the day The champion never gives up Faith will see you through Father knows best Crime does not pay It pays to be frugal The more you give the more you get As the twig is bent, so the tree grows An over-protective parent cripples the child Technology will save us Technology will rob us of our humanity Put duty before pleasure Indulge yourself, life is short A small slight has huge repercussions Man is helpless against nature, society, women, etc. Man is the captain of his soul, the master of his fate A fool can get away with anything Honesty is the best policy Winning is all that matters Winning without honor is ruin

To state the theme of one’s work in a single sentence or phrase serves as the author’s mental preparation for answering the question: “What is your book about?” The theme statement keeps the author focused. It clarifies our scattered impressions of a rewarding story and solidifies the insights we have found in telling the story.

Theme communicates a kind of truth about the way human beings act, think, or feel in a way that word-for-word truth cannot.

A writer can, and should, identify the major and minor themes of his or her story. Formulating a theme statement is one way to make ourselves better aware of whatever we may have only vaguely understood.

1. Begin analyzing the theme of your work by considering the story in retrospect to see how story development leads to the conclusion. Write a statement of theme about the story. Does your statement hold true for the story as a whole, not just for part of it?

2. The theme usually concerns the main character and the changes he or she undergoes as a result of interactions with others. What has been learned, suffered or experienced is key to the theme.

3. Look for direct statements made by the main character, minor characters and characters who stand for ideas, or by an unnamed speaker (a commentary may guide us to an insight).

4. Note how plot, character, setting, point of view and symbolism support and create theme. Does the story contain especially curious objects, mysterious flat characters, song titles, significant animals, repeated names? Any of these may hint toward meanings larger than themselves.

5. Examine key positions for meaning. The beginning, the title, chapter titles, and particularly the ending should lead to a dominant meaning.

6. Do you, as the author, make any general observations about life or human nature?

If the common themes listed earlier seem trite to you, reconsider. Novelist and teacher, John Gardner, says that old, familiar beliefs cast in new contexts are satisfying stories.

Copyright 1996, Joan McCord