Writing

How to Develop a Theme for Your Story

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Dec 3, 2019 • 4 min read

A short story, novella, or novel presents a narrative to its reader. Perhaps that narrative involves mystery, terror, romance, comedy, or all of the above. These works of fiction may also contain memorable characters, vivid world-building, literary devices like metaphor and foreshadowing, and even some random quirkiness. But is that all that novels, novellas, and short stories offer? In short, the answer is no. The best works of literary fiction are driven by an overriding theme.

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What Is a Story Theme?

A story theme is a broad conceptual philosophy that an author wishes to convey through their literary work. To extract a story’s theme, a reader must go beneath the surface of the action that’s described on the page.

You might be tempted to equate a primary theme with the moral of the story—yet while these literary concepts are certainly related, they are not quite synonymous. A book’s moral is a lesson the author wishes to impart upon their audience. (As such, morals are often key components to children’s books and young adult literature.) By contrast, a book’s theme is not so much its lesson as it is an idea the author hopes the audience will mine for deeper meaning.

For instance, the main theme of a story may be a statement on the human condition. If a science fiction author writes about a future where humans are enslaved by robots that provide them with entertainment, the novel’s theme may simply offer commentary about human nature as it relates to machines. This could be the basis of a powerful theme statement. However, the novel does not necessarily offer a moral declaration that “dependence on machines is a bad idea,” although that moral may be simultaneously implicit depending on the author’s story goal.

4 Examples of Theme in Literature

The field of creative writing is filled with compelling story themes. Here are a few theme examples that recur throughout novels, novellas, and short stories:

  1. Humans are naturally free and society restricts that freedom. This Enlightenment era theme stems from the philosophy of Europeans like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. It is the primary theme of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is ostensibly a coming of age story centered on a young boy growing up in the antebellum South; the story, however, has a deeper meaning that goes beyond the exploits of its main character. It offers thematically clear insight into the meaning of human freedom.
  2. Human nature is naturally wicked, and society must protect us from our animal instincts. This theme, grounded in the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, is the major theme that anchors William Golding’s bestseller Lord of the Flies. Through the events of the novel, Golding suggests that traits like selflessness and morality can be overruled by competing instincts to survive and attain power.
  3. You can’t grow powerful without your share of secrets. In Dan Brown’s New York Times bestseller The Da Vinci Code, the Catholic church harbors dark secrets that help explain its cultural dominance. Brown mines this storyline and its related subplots to offer a larger point of view on institutions and the general idea that it’s wise to question authority.
  4. Good triumphs over evil in the end. This is a common theme that has existed over the course of human storytelling. Other popular themes include “true love conquers all,” “humans must bow before nature,” and “hubris and arrogance can bring down even the strongest people.” When writing your own story or novel, you can draw from this list of themes, or you can pick your own.
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How to Develop a Theme for Your Story

Sometimes you’ll have a clear thematic core for your story before you begin the writing process; other times the theme of the story will reveal itself to you after you’re well into your first draft. If you’re struggling to recognize a theme for your story, consider the following tips:

1. Seek Universal Themes.

Ask yourself: What aspect of my plot recurs in the stories of people of all ages, races, genders, and walks of life?

2. Choose a Theme That Sticks With Your Reader.

Consider what ideas you want your reader to keep thinking about long after they’ve forgotten the specific plot of your book.

3. Start With Another Story Element.

While the theme of your story can elevate it above other books with similar narratives, few authors start a good story with a theme. Typically, they begin with another story element—a captivating premise, an amusing main character, a touching love story, or a real life event—and build from there. Some authors even embark upon a first draft without fully knowing what their overall theme will be.

4. Create an Outline.

To ensure that a good theme is present throughout your own novel, make your theme part of the outlining process.

5. Weave Your Theme Throughout the Narrative.

As you fill in the details of each act, make sure your main character encounters situations that highlight the theme. If you’re balancing multiple story lines, see if you can make your theme manifest in each of those narrative threads—ideally in a different way in each story line.

6. Include Multiple Themes.

Many books and stories aren’t rooted to a single theme. Some authors begin writing with a central idea they wish to convey but, over the course of the writing process, uncover a different theme that also resonates within the boundaries of their narrative.

7. Don’t Limit Yourself.

Take care to not limit your thinking to the way themes have been expressed in past novels, novellas and short stories. While some would argue there are a limited number of themes in fiction, every story is different. Even the most universal of themes can appear quite different in the context of different stories.

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