Themes are not just for high school English class. Theme shows up in the novels that stick with you past The End. They’re what illustrate the author’s point of view, and ideally, they make you think about life. Whether you’re working on commercial or literary fiction, thinking explicitly about what you’re trying to say in the larger sense will make your work memorable.
What is a Theme?
Theme is more than the topic of a piece of writing, and it’s definitely distinct from plot. Theme is defined as an idea that recurs in or pervades literature. Theme is the 10,000-foot level of what the story is about. Writers, for instance, might have something to say about greed or love or revenge or sibling dynamics. The concept that a reader is left with after finishing the whole book or movie is the theme.
Let’s look at the classic ‘80s movie, Wall Street, for an example of how theme differs from topic or plot. Wall Street is about life in the fast lane, specifically, what it’s like to work on Wall Street (that’s the topic). The plot of the film is what happens. In this case, a young man hustles to get his dream job before finding it’s a nightmare. His charismatic boss pushes him to commit crimes, and the young man must determine how far he’s willing to go for wealth and glory.
The theme of this movie is greed. When a viewer gets to the end of the story, they’re supposed to be left with a warning about the slippery slope of the desire for money and more money and still more money. The viewer will ideally think twice about the allure of wealth-at-all-costs. (Of course, many movie goers famously thought Michael Douglas’ character Gordon Gekko should be taken literally when he said, “Greed is good.” So, keep in mind that theme is understated enough that not every reader will pick up what you meant to convey.)
The best books (or movies) have a theme, and the reason this makes them better than their counterparts is that these works linger with the reader or viewer. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing with the goal of entertainment, but don’t feel like just because you’re writing commercial fiction that you don’t need theme. Romance novels are often about love conquering all. Mysteries could be about police corruption or greed or mental health. Any genre can contain a theme. However, that theme—or greater point you want to make as an author—needs to be woven in with a deft hand. Need more help developing the theme of your story? Here’s more to explore: 5 Tips for Choosing a Great Theme.
There’s nothing less entertaining than being force-fed a theme. If you’re super obvious about it or have one of your characters make a soliloquy about the importance of education or give a warning about drug use (or whatever theme you’re going for), your book won’t seem sophisticated, it’ll be didactic. The best way to use theme is indirectly. That means creating characters, consequences, and events that make your message clear without beating a reader over the head with it. If theme is the meaty part of the story, don’t let your audience realize you hid some vegetables in there.