A Guide to Themes in Writing and Literature (2023)

Think about your favorite book. What’s it about?

Maybe it’s about a young woman’s entry into the workforce or a family’s experience migrating to a new country. But it’s about more than that. How does entering the workforce change the young woman, and how does the family cope with moving to a new place? The answers to these questions are the books’ themes, the universal statements about life, society, humanity, and the world that their authors made through the narratives.

A story’s theme isn’t the same as its plot. It’s bigger than that. Think of a story’s plot as its body and its theme as its soul.

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What is a theme, and what is its purpose?

A story’s theme is what the story is about—but not in the way you might initially think. A theme isn’t the work’s literal details like its character or setting. It’s the universal message the story communicates.

Here’s an example: Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner is about a young man’s childhood in Afghanistan as the Taliban took over and his subsequent emigration to the United States with his father. If you read a synopsis of the novel’s plot, you would read something similar to this description. The book’s themes, however, are the bigger-picture statements Hosseini communicates about redemption, betrayal, and the complex relationship between fathers and sons.

Themes aren’t limited to stories. Every kind of creative writing deals with themes: poems, plays, movies and television, and creative nonfiction. Any piece of creative work has a theme, even when that theme is “no apparent theme.” Keep in mind that even when an author doesn’t consciously write about a theme, their work still communicates some type of underlying message—even if that message is mundane.

In contrast, business and academic writing don’t have themes. These kinds of writing can be about themes, and you probably do quite a bit of writing about themes in your literature courses. But these types of writing exist to explain, argue, persuade, inform, and generate business, not to make a statement about people or the world they inhabit. Literature is art, and academic writing about literature is the interpretation of art.

Writers use themes to connect with readers through universal artistic statements. These statements can be profound, provocative, hopeful, nihilistic, and even silly.

10 common themes in writing

Certain themes come up again and again in literature. This isn’t a coincidence—these are the themes we wrestle with throughout our lives.

(Video) Themes in Literature

Common themes in literature include:

1 Beauty

In many cases, works that explore beauty as a theme explore the very concept of beauty itself. What is beauty? What makes something or someone beautiful? Other works explore and deconstruct beauty standards, sometimes in the context of how these beauty standards privilege one group over another.

In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison explores this theme through a character’s desire to have blue eyes like Shirley Temple, whom the character considers beautiful.

2 Good vs. evil

Good vs. evil is perhaps the most well-known literary theme. Think of just about any novel or movie—the Harry Potter series, Star Wars—and you’ll likely find good vs. evil as the theme. Broadly, this theme is about how good and evil forces are, and always have been, at play in our world.

3 Coming-of-age

Many stories, particularly those aimed at young adult and younger audiences, center on coming-of-age themes. We all come of age—but when, how, and the circumstances surrounding it vary wildly from person to person. Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, is a well-known coming-of-age story.

4 Loyalty

Loyalty is one of the forces that keeps friendships intact, families in power, and the status quo in place. In a story with loyalty as one of its themes, the author might explore whether these conditions are desirable—or if the loyalty keeping them in place is more destructive than beneficial.

5 Betrayal

Just like loyalty is a common theme, so is betrayal. You’ve probably encountered these themes together, as betrayal is the violation of loyalty. A work that explores betrayal might ask when betrayal is justified or explore the kinds of actions that constitute betrayal and the repercussions that can follow.

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6 Life and death

Life and death is another common theme in literature because everybody experiences both life and death. Stories might explore themes of life cycles or life after death (in the literal or metaphorical sense). Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White, deals with this theme, exploring Charlotte’s role during her short life and everything Wilbur had the opportunity to experience after narrowly escaping death at the beginning of the story.

7 Justice

The world isn’t always fair. Justice isn’t always served—and when it is, it doesn’t always look how we imagined it would. These are the kinds of statements stories with justice themes might make. They might also explore themes of justice even when it’s unpopular, justice in the face of social pressure, and justice as morality. One famous example of a book with a justice theme is To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

8 Family

Family is another universal theme because it pushes us to consider where we come from, how we fit into social groups large and small, and how our formative experiences have shaped us. Stories with family themes might explore family dynamics, resilience, life cycles, and how ideologies are passed (or not passed) from generation to generation. They might also explore themes of love, loyalty, betrayal, and trust.

9 Power

Power is a common theme because power is, like many of the other entries in this list, something all of us experience. Stories that deal with power themes might ask questions about how power is attained and retained, who holds power, how power is transferred, and the impact power can have on an individual or a group.

10 Change vs. tradition

Another common theme in literature is change vs. tradition because this, too, is something we all experience in some way. Stories might explore this theme by asking when change is necessary, when tradition is helpful versus holding people back, and how to implement change. The musical Fiddler on the Roof grapples with change vs. tradition as the protagonist’s daughters each defy tradition in unique and increasingly extreme ways.

How to identify themes in writing and literature

To recognize themes in literature, look at what’s going on beyond the story’s literal action. Ask what the characters are thinking and feeling and what might be motivating their actions. Authors often use both direct characterization and indirect characterization to create three-dimensional characters. These characters’ actions, reactions, and roles in their settings often communicate the story’s themes.

Look for symbolism, too. Authors often use symbolism to communicate themes. For example, one of the primary themes in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series is death and immortality. The One Ring can be interpreted as a symbol of this because of its circular shape. Consider how certain symbols might be examples of allusions or allegory, like how George Orwell used allusions to real political figures in Animal Farm, an allegory with themes of inequality, power, and control.

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Close reading

One strategy you can use to identify themes in literature is close reading. Close reading is the process of critically reading works, paying close attention to the author’s word choices, use of literary devices, text format, and patterns to infer the author’s thoughts about their subjects. If something sticks out to you, like an intriguing oxymoron or formatting that’s not quite the norm, take note of it. It could be a device the author used to communicate their work’s theme.

Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is well-known for its unique formatting, and this formatting can be interpreted as an expression of the book’s theme of navigating trauma, which can be a winding, labyrinthine process.

In literature, recurring patterns are known as motifs. As you read, pay close attention to any motifs you recognize because these often communicate a work’s themes. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, we see a motif of biblical references. These communicate the novel’s theme of the dangers of theocracy.

3 steps to create your own theme in writing

1 Map out themes and literary devices

Your story’s theme should be on your mind throughout every stage of the writing process. As you brainstorm, think about the statements you want to make in your work. Jot these down, then jot down any potential symbols or concepts you can use to illustrate these statements.

2 Don’t force a theme

Keep in mind that for some readers, themes emerge later. So if you want to explore a setting, character, or plot point but aren’t sure which themes to explore quite yet, that’s perfectly fine. Write your story the way you want to write it, and see where the narrative takes you. It can be helpful to keep the idea of a theme in the back of your mind as you write because this can guide you to plot points, plot twists, and details to include.

Remember, you’re doing creative writing. There are no hard-and-fast requirements like there are with academic writing.

When you read your first draft, you might find patterns emerging. You might even see themes emerging. Build on them in the second draft.

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3 Find inspiration in stories with similar themes

If you aren’t quite sure how to execute the devices that communicate your theme, read or watch works with similar themes. Take note of how these authors and directors communicated their works’ themes and think about ways you can similarly use devices in your own work.

Theme FAQs

What is a theme in literature?

A work’s theme is the universal message it communicates.

How do themes work?

Themes provoke readers to think critically about the statements they make. A work’s theme might challenge a dominant cultural narrative or drive readers to view a specific character archetype through a new lens.

What are some common themes?

  • Beauty
  • Good vs. evil
  • Coming-of-age
  • Loyalty
  • Betrayal
  • Life and Death
  • Justice
  • Family
  • Power
  • Change vs. tradition


What are the 7 themes of literature? ›

The 7 story archetypes are:
  • Overcoming the Monster.
  • Rags to Riches.
  • The Quest.
  • Voyage and Return.
  • Comedy.
  • Tragedy.
  • Rebirth.
Oct 31, 2011

What are themes in literature? ›

A theme is a central, unifying idea. It's the bigger issue that emerges as the characters pursue their goals.

How do you identify a theme? ›

the idea the writer wishes to convey about the subject—the writer's view of the world or a revelation about human nature. To identify the theme, be sure that you've first identified the story's plot, the way the story uses characterization, and the primary conflict in the story.

What are the 6 most common literary themes? ›

Six common themes in literature are:
  • Good vs. evil.
  • Love.
  • Redemption.
  • Courage and perseverance.
  • Coming of age.
  • Revenge.
Aug 20, 2021

What are 100 themes? ›

100 Themes Challenge simply gives artists a starting point... you go from there! How does it work? There are five variations, each with 100 themes. You can pick your favorite variation from the 5 pre-existing ones or mix and match themes from multiple variations.

How do I choose a theme for my story? ›

If you're struggling to recognize a theme for your story, consider the following tips:
  1. Seek Universal Themes. ...
  2. Choose a Theme That Sticks With Your Reader. ...
  3. Start With Another Story Element. ...
  4. Create an Outline. ...
  5. Weave Your Theme Throughout the Narrative. ...
  6. Include Multiple Themes. ...
  7. Don't Limit Yourself.
Aug 26, 2021

What are examples of major themes? ›

A book's central theme can be anything the author chooses to focus on. Certainly, courage, death, friendship, revenge, and love are five themes that abound. Let's take a closer look at these common themes, as well as some interesting examples from popular works of fiction.

What are the 4 main elements of literature? ›

Literary elements include plot, theme, character and tone. In contrast, literary techniques are non-universal features of literature and include figurative language, irony, and foreshadowing.

What are the four 4 major literary genre? ›

In the landscape of literature, there are four major genres: poetry, drama, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

What are the six basic plots of all literature? ›

This gets along well with Kurt Vonnegut's research on the six basic plots in literature.
That said, Vonnegut's six basic plots are:
  • Rags to Riches (Rise)
  • Riches to Rags (Fall)
  • Man in a Hole (Fall, then rise)
  • Icarus (Rise, then fall)
  • Cinderella (Rise, fall, rise)
  • Oedipus (Fall, rise, fall)
Mar 3, 2020

What is the purpose of theme? ›

The term theme can be defined as the underlying meaning of a story. It is the message the writer is trying to convey through the story. Often the theme of a story is a broad message about life. The theme of a story is important because a story's theme is part of the reason why the author wrote the story.

What's a theme in a story? ›

A theme is an important idea that is woven throughout a story. It's not the plot or the summary, but something a little deeper. A theme links a big idea about our world with the action of a text.

Can a theme be one word? ›

A theme is not ONE WORD. That is a topic. Bad example 1: The theme was love.

What are 3 ways authors often reveal the theme? ›

Themes are developed by authors through the following ways: What happens - key events. Characters - character qualities, character actions and how characters respond to situations may all relate to theme. Character development - the ways characters change, and the lessons they learn indicate themes for the reader.

How should a story start? ›

Starting Stories: 5 Great Beginning Strategies
  1. Strategy 1: Begin with action or dialogue. ...
  2. Strategy 2: Ask a question. ...
  3. Strategy 3: Describe the setting. ...
  4. Strategy 4: Begin with background information. ...
  5. Strategy 5: Have the main character introduce himself or herself.

What are the 9 literary elements? ›

A literary element refers to components of a literary work (character, setting, plot, theme, frame, exposition, ending/denouement, motif, titling, narrative point-‐of-‐view). These are technical terms for the “what” of a work.

What are the 10 major themes in American literature? ›

Terms in this set (10)
  • The American Dream. ...
  • Loss of Innocence. ...
  • Coming of Age. ...
  • Relationship with Nature. ...
  • Relationship with Society. ...
  • Relationship with Science. ...
  • Alienation and Isolation. ...
  • Survival of the Fittest.

How long should themes be? ›

Theme statements typically contain only one or two sentences, making it important to write concise, universal statements that omit specific details about the text.

How many themes should a story have? ›

A story will often have more than one theme, especially if it's a novel as opposed to a short story. Short stories, due to their length, tend to only have one major theme, while a longer novel has time to elaborate on several themes at once.

What are three universal themes? ›

Examples of Universal Themes
  • Power.
  • Change.
  • Structure.
  • Conflict.
  • Order.
  • Relationships.

Can a story have no theme? ›

To answer the question in this post's title, no, stories don't need to have a theme.

What are universal themes? ›

A universal theme is an idea that applies to anyone regardless of cultural differences, or geographic location. Universal themes are ways to connect ideas across all disciplines. It is a central idea about the human condition. It is a generalization about life or human nature; they deal with basic human concerns.

How many types of themes are there? ›

This is because there are two types of themes: major and minor themes.

What is theme vs topic? ›

The theme is the underlying meaning or the point on which the entire work is based that the author wants to convey to the readers. Topic refers to the word or sentence, which states the main subject of the work, i.e. the one with which the entire work is related.

What are the 3 three major types of literature? ›

The three major genres are Prose, Drama, and Poetry.

Now, like I said within each of these genres there are several subgenres, but before we get to those let's go ahead and define the main genres.

What are the 7 elements of narrative writing? ›

These terms include: plot, characters, point of view, setting, theme, conflict, and style. Understanding how these elements work helps us better analyze narratives and to determine meanings.

What are the three 3 basic structure of literary analysis? ›

An introduction that tells the reader what your essay will focus on. A main body, divided into paragraphs, that builds an argument using evidence from the text. A conclusion that clearly states the main point that you have shown with your analysis.

What are the three P's of literary genres? ›

Poetry, drama, and prose. That's right. All the other genre types fit into one of these three categories.

What are the 5 types of literature? ›

Poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama, and prose are the five main genres of literature. Writers can then further categorize their literature into subgenres.

How many literary styles are there? ›

The four main types of writing styles are persuasive, narrative, expository, and descriptive.

What are the 37 plots? ›

Each situation is stated, then followed by the necessary elements for each situation and a brief description.
  • Supplication. ...
  • Deliverance. ...
  • Crime pursued by vengeance. ...
  • Vengeance taken for kin upon kin. ...
  • Pursuit. ...
  • Disaster. ...
  • Falling prey to cruelty/misfortune. ...
  • Revolt.

What is the best story structure? ›

The three-act structure.

A story in three acts is a particularly popular approach, especially in screenwriting, because it is elegant and distilled. In the first act, introduce your reader to the world of the novel—set the stakes, bring out the main characters.

What are the 5 story structures? ›

The five-act structure is a formula that breaks a story into distinct sections: the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

What are the 5 themes in English? ›

Students further develop their ability to communicate through the study of language, themes and texts. There are five prescribed themes: identities, experiences, human ingenuity, social organization and sharing the planet.

What are major themes? ›

A major theme is an idea that a writer repeats in his work, making it the most significant idea in a literary work. A minor theme, on the other hand, refers to an idea that appears in a work briefly and that may or may not give way to another minor theme.

What are the 3 main genres of literature? ›

The three major genres are Prose, Drama, and Poetry.

Now, like I said within each of these genres there are several subgenres, but before we get to those let's go ahead and define the main genres.

What are the 3 major forms of literature? ›

At the most basic level, there are essentially three main genres for literature - poetry, prose and drama - and each can be broken down even further, resulting in dozens of subgenres for each.

What are the 3 main genres in literature *? ›

Three Genres: The Writing of Fiction/Literary Nonfiction, Poetry, and Drama.

What makes a good theme statement? ›

A theme statement works as a thought-provoking idea that allows you to share insight about a text. Instead of writing a cliched statement like "love conquers all" or "be true to yourself," think deeply about the author's purpose and share how the plot or central ideas form a unique perspective about reality.

What is a basic theme? ›

The purpose of the Basic theme is to give you a starter theme so you can be your own designer. It only contains the basic layout styling so you can customize the theme with your own preferences using the Themify option panel. The layout is completely responsive.


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