What is a Theme and How Can We Identify It?

What do the words “family”, “war” and “love” all have in common in creative writing? Better yet, what do these words mean on their own? The movie Lilo & Stitch talks about the importance of family while the book The Things They Carried is written about the negative effects of war; William Shakespeare taught us readers and writers of forbidden love in Romeo and Juliet. These words are all themes. A theme is the central idea or message in a literary work. The main idea or message that is found under the writing. Not all literary work has a theme.

The theme does not appear just once, but several times throughout a story. This is known as the major theme. The author will continue to visit the major theme in his work. In Romeo and Juliet, the families of Romeo and Juliet forbade them from seeing each other. Shakespeare’s message was true love conquers all.

The minor theme is an idea that appears once or once in a while during the story. Again, in Romeo and Juliet, the minor theme Shakespeare touches on the ridiculousness of fighting that can in the end, end in tragedy (the deaths of Romeo and Juliet). Another minor theme in the story is young love never runs smoothly. Romeo and Juliet were proof of that.

People have trouble understanding the difference between the theme in a story versus the subject in a story. The subject is the topic the writer has chosen to talk about in his or her literary work. The theme states a fact or opinion on that subject. For example, I could write a book about music and how it can be a positive way to express yourself. The subject is music, but the theme is the idea that music can be something used in a positive manner.

A writer has to figure out how to express a theme in a way that the reader can understand or figure out. There are four main ways to express a theme in a story:

  1. Thoughts and conversations of characters.
  2. The feelings of characters in the story.
  3. The lesson the character(s) learn at the end of the story.
  4. The actions going on in the story.

Themes are presented in thoughts and conversations of characters because each word is written by the author with good reason. Thoughts that are repeated throughout a story can contribute to the theme. The same can be said with the feelings of the character, or characters. The way the author makes us feel as we read about the thoughts, conversations, and feelings can make us want to continue reading.

As already talked about, the themes in the story come from how the characters interact with each other. It is usually the main character that details the main theme in the story. One way to figure out the theme is by asking yourself, "What did the main character learn in the story?" Another thing to add is the events that take place in the story can make the main character come to a conclusion. An author knows that how a character acts or thinks can translate into a message for the audience.

Lesson Question:

Think of a story you have read or seen in a movie. What was the story's theme?