Fiction writing: Theme

THE THEME of a work of fiction is an idea that is central to a story—a message that the writer wants to communicate to readers. A story may have more than one theme. Along with plot, character, setting, and action, theme is one of the main components of fiction. A theme can often be summed in a single word (e.g. love, death, betrayal). The theme reflects the author’s worldview, which is developed by showing what a main character does, says, thinks, and experiences in response to particular circumstances wherein he/she is involved in a deepening conflict. Every story must be driven by a conflict of some kind.

Some of the most common types of conflict are person vs. person, person vs. self, person vs. society, person vs. nature, person vs. fate, and person vs. technology. Many others are used.

Themes often explore historically common or cross-culturally recognizable ideas such as ethical questions that are usually implied rather than stated explicitly. An example is whether one should live a seemingly better life at the price of giving up parts of one’s humanity, which is the theme in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

You will find a wide variety of themes in literature including:
• Alienation – The effects of, the loneliness of, ways to cure it.
• Ambition – getting what you want, stunted by, thwarted.
• Betrayal – the pain of, in love and friendship.
• Coming of age – loss of innocence.
• Courage – courage to deal with conflict, lack of, developing, conquering with.
• Deception – how to deceive, results of.
• Discovery – what does it take to discover new places, inner meaning, strength, even treasure.
• Escape – from life, routine, prison, family pressures.
• Death – how to escape, facing, what happens after, consequences of.
• Fear – driven by, dealing with, conquering.
• Freedom – loss of, gaining, handling, fight for.
• Good versus evil – survival of one despite the other, triumph of one over the other.
• Isolation – physical and emotional.
• Jealousy – trouble caused by, denial of, driven by.
• Justice – the fight for, injustice, truth versus justice.
• Loss – of life, innocence, love, friends, to avoid.
• Loneliness – no man is an island, or hell is other people.
• Love – love fades, is blind, can overcome all obstacles, lust for power, for sex. • Power – the search for, the loss of, what we are willing to exchange for.
• Prejudice – racism, bigotry, snobbery, dealing with.
• Security – the loss of, the finding of the need for, how we act when security is shattered.
• Spirituality and God – the struggle to find faith, live without faith, etc.

Here are a few examples of themes:

Moby Dick
Complex and elusive themes about existence, morality, and the nature of reality.
Of Mice and Men
The Great Gatsby
The decline of the American Dream in the 1920s
The Catcher in the Rye
Coming-of-age struggle
To Kill a Mockingbird
Judgment, all people have the capacity for good and evil, and coming-of-age struggle
Lord of the Flies and Jurassic Park
Survival and good and evil
Gone with the Wind
Survival, initiative, perseverance, overcoming adversity with willpower
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Moral and ethical beliefs during war, loss of innocence, the value of human life, romantic love as salvation
The Odyssey, The Three Musketeers, and The Hobbit
Harry Potter books and Lord of the Rings
Good and evil, power, and corruption
Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, and The Notebook
Love and loss
Hamlet, Macbeth, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
Power and manipulation
Atonement (movie)
Animal Farm and Macbeth
Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Any mystery novel

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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