The Complete Guide to Narrative Theme in Literature: Definition, Examples, and Writing How-To

Written by MasterClass

Mar 15, 2019 • 3 min read

How do some stories draw you back again and again? Compelling characters and authentic dialogue play a role, as do heart-stopping action scenes and heart-rending romances. And while the best stories ever written have a mix of these elements, there is one ingredient that stands out above the rest, catapulting works from commercial stardom to critical success and canonical status: a universal narrative theme.


What Is Narrative Theme?

Narrative theme is the main idea a writer explores in a story, by way of characters, setting, dialogue, and plot. A story’s theme is also known as the moral of the story.

6 Common Themes

The best narrative themes explore human nature on a universal level. It’s no surprise, then, that multiple books may share the same central idea. The following popular themes reveal the human condition:

  1. Good versus Evil. The classic battle between altruism and antagonism, this theme stretches back to Biblical times and pits two or more characters directly against each other. Examples include: Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
  2. Redemption. Previous failures or tragedies set the stage for a sad story, but the central character’s quest for righting wrongs makes for an ultimately uplifting, redemptive tale. Examples include: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
  3. Courage and Perseverance. This theme celebrates the triumph of the human spirit, through sheer determination, grit, and gall. Examples include: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden.
  4. Coming of Age. Otherwise known as bildungsroman, a classic coming-of-age story follows a character as he or she is growing up. He or she may experience everything from a loss of innocence to gaining self-awareness until she finally reaches adulthood. Examples are not necessarily always in the young adult category; they include: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume.
  5. Forbidden love. Yearning and disapproval collide in forbidden love stories, which often find star-crossed lovers hurtling towards a tragic fate. Examples include: Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare and Atonement by Ian McEwan.
  6. Revenge and Vengeance. A master plot in literature, the revenge story sets up a conflict between the main character and his enemies as he journeys to avenge their wrongs. Examples include: The Iliad by Homer and Carrie by Stephen King.

How to Create the Theme of a Story in Creative Writing

Incorporating a solid narrative theme into your work won’t happen by accident, but it doesn’t have to be incredibly difficult either. Whether you’re writing short stories or working on a novel, incorporate the following literary devices to better convey the theme of the story:

  1. Choose from the above examples of theme. Dig into the truths of human nature to select the major and minor themes you wish to explore in your work. What do we want? What do we need? What stands in our way or threatens those basic human needs (including ourselves)? Make a list and select the most interesting.
  2. Reinforce the image with motifs. A motif is a recurring image or idea that sheds additional light on the theme and also offers a reminder of its existence. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for example, Gatsby’s lavish parties emphasize the theme of excess, materialism, and the pursuit of the American dream.
  3. Represent the main idea with symbols. Symbols are images, objects, or ideas that are used to represent something else (while, again, supporting the narrative theme). In The Great Gatsby, a green light represents Gatsby’s dreams for a better life with Daisy. In the beginning of the book, he reaches toward it; in the end, it seems unreachable.

These references can be planned in advance as you think about the overall idea you want your story to communicate. But as you layer them in, they should be as subtle as the theme itself.