Three Literary Elements: Theme

ThemeCiao, SEers. I’m going to round out my posts for the year with a discussion of literary elements and how they interact. There are probably as many opinions of the number of literary elements as there are authors who use them, but I’m going to focus on three in particular that work in tandem to strengthen a story—theme, subject, and symbolism.

Today, we’re going to talk about theme.

I’ve heard a lot of authors say “theme” is for literary fiction, not genre fiction, so they don’t consider it when they write. I’ve heard many others say they wait until they’re done with their story before even looking for their theme.

I maintain all fiction has a theme, and all authors have it in mind when they set out to tell a story (even if they don’t know it).

First, what is theme?

Theme (as it relates to fiction) is the ultimate message the writer wants to share with the reader. That’s it. People tend to complicate it and think it’s more complex or more high-brow (which is why some say theme is only for “literary” novels), but it really is that simple. It’s the point of the story in its most generalized terms.

Every story has a message, so every story has a theme. At their most basic, some examples are:

  • romance says love conquers all
  • legal fiction says crime doesn’t pay
  • war stories say good always triumphs over evil
  • sci-fi says humans are better than technology

If you can debate something, you can have that as a theme. If you’re looking for a theme to write about, consider headlines in the news:

  • life sentence versus capital punishment
  • NRA versus gun control
  • pro-life versus pro-choice
  • conservative versus liberal

It doesn’t matter what your stance is on these issues. It doesn’t even matter if you can prove one side right and the other wrong. Your stance on those issues becomes the theme of your story. For example, if you believe in capital punishment, your theme is justice above all. If you don’t believe in capital punishment, your theme is life is sacrosanct.

Let’s look at a popular use of theme in fiction. Take, for example, The Wizard of Oz. In its most general sense, the message the author is trying to impart is to always chase your heart’s desire. It’s a theme that could be portrayed in any number of genres in any number of ways. This isn’t about the vehicle through which you deliver your message. It’s merely about the message itself.

So, whatever you want your readers to come away believing (or at least thinking about), that is your theme. And in my following posts, we’ll discuss how theme relates to subject and symbolism.

Until then, do you believe you write a theme in every story? Do you think about theme before or during the writing process? Let’s talk about it.


Staci Troilo Bio

64 thoughts on “Three Literary Elements: Theme

  1. Pingback: Three Literary Elements: Symbolism | Story Empire

  2. Pingback: Three Literary Elements: Subject | Story Empire

  3. Thanks for sharing, Staci. Knowing your theme is important for memoir writers too.
    It’s one of the key literary devices that help to hold a story together.
    I don’t always know my theme at the start of writing – it becomes clear to me as I go along. But I wish I were disciplined enough to force myself to identify it going in.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post. I don’t have the theme fixed in my head in advance but the resolution at the end of the novel brings one to the fore and I can see retrospectively how important it’s been to the development of both characters and plot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that’s how a lot of writers find their theme, and there’s nothing wrong with that. (That’s how I come to it more often than not, myself.) It’s astonishing how the theme shapes the characters without us even noticing, isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I tend to unwittingly put a theme in. I’m writing away, making my story, then I write something near the end and say “oh wow, this ties in with something earlier in an unexpected way and makes an underlying theme!” I’m sure if I planned a theme it wouldn’t come off well!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I find myself thinking about theme more, the more books I write. I discovered my theme – nature v nurture – while writing the first in my series, and since then I’ve been more conscious of it and explored it more thoroughly in each subsequent book. It’s taken my characters in some fascinating directions and, I believe, added depth to my action-adventure fantasy tales, well beyond the superficial.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that’s fabulous that you found your theme and now you’re nurturing it. Nothing excites me more than adding depth to my work and seeing each book improve. It’s so thrilling to see other writers say they feel the same and are seeing similar results. Kudos to you!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Staci Troilo is starting a great new series on Story Empire about Literary Elements. This first post focuses on Theme, and how it relates to fiction. I think you’ll really enjoy checking out her breakdown and hope you’ll consider sharing it on your social media so other writers can learn more about this topic, too. Thanks, and thanks to Staci for another great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I don’t consciously think about theme before I start a book, but things that are important to me seep into the stories. And since I write mysteries, there’s always the general theme of justice, that taking a life deserves to be punished. Great post today. You always make me think!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What a great topic today, Staci! For me, the theme comes together in the creation of the story, but it’s always there. For example, in my second book which is set inside Leavenworth prison, the theme didn’t turn out to be about how horrible prison is or how crime doesn’t pay, but how one man made the decision to be, think and do only positive in a negative situation. That’s my theme – making lemonade out of lemons. But when I was writing it, I didn’t really know that. So, for me, the theme comes as I write. Great discussion! Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think there are two kinds of writers: those who know their theme and craft a story to explore it and those who have a story to tell then realize they told it to explore a them. Either way, the theme is in there. I love your take on the prison story; it’s fresh. Thanks for sharing.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Staci, I think a great deal about the themes of my books and they all have them, even the children’s books. Maybe I should be writing literary fiction, something for me to think about. Anyhow, these are the themes I wrote about in A Ghost and His Gold:
    The impact of greed and corruption on countries and people;
    Bad decision making and their effect on soldiers and civilians;
    Evil perpetuating the development of hatred and evil;
    The effect of war on the political and social development of a country;
    The individual mindset versus the group mentality including pro-war propaganda;
    Death; and
    The reality of war.
    An intriguing topic today. I think themes make a book relevant into the future.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love that you put thought into theme(s) before you wrote your book. And that there are so many of them. I agree; themes make books relevant into the future. Without them, they’re just trendy topics that fizzle out quickly. (Maybe that’s why I enjoy history.) Thanks so much for sharing, Robbie.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Excellent topic, Staci. I think theme is important. It’s the emotional thread that drives characters to pursue their goals. James Scott Bell advocates for writers to interview their characters to learn what’s important to them. By doing so, we know them as well as ourselves. Thus, we can choose a theme that’s important to them, even if it conflicts with our own beliefs.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. I think themes can naturally turn up just by having characters evolve. I’ve never intentionally aimed for one in my stories, but I can see where a reader can see one. For example, many of my adventure stories can be said to have themes of determination and friendship. That’s simply how it turned out because I had a group of heroes and they were facing brutal conditions.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I don’t always think about theme, but it’s there. In two of my books, however, I was fully focused on theme before I started writing. Both Eclipse Lake and Myth and Magic are about the power of redemption. That is a message and a theme I love.

    An informative post today, Staci!

    Liked by 3 people

  14. I spend more time on the theme than any other element when thinking about what the storyline should be. That’s why I write the last three lines first to cement the theme into both my mind and the story arc. Super post today, Staci

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Great post, Staci. I tend to think we live our message and for writers, that message finds a way onto paper. The theme may vary, but one way or another, it’s part of us. It’s this very fact that draws me to reading fiction or memoirs.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know. I tend to steer clear of the hot topics, too. They were just easy for demonstrative purposes. I think it’s great that you consider theme from the beginning, though. So many writers don’t. ( ✋ Guilty!) I admit, I usually don’t. I haven’t since college. I usually let it sort itself out as I compose. Thanks, Jill.

      Liked by 2 people

  16. I hadn’t thought about it before, but yes, I believe there is an underlying theme in all stories. Looking back at my books, there is one. Some readers may not pick up on it, but it’s there. Great post, Staci. Looking forward to the next one.

    Liked by 3 people

  17. I hadn’t thought too much about theme until I wrote FALLOUT. But after that, when I look back at my earlier books, I can see that theme was present, just that I wasn’t as acutely aware of it. I agree that every story has a theme … whether that’s overt or covert. Great post, Staci 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

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