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What Is Theme?

6 minutes reading time (1277 words)

What is Theme?

Then there was  "theme,” a most important element in writing your first novel, yet it's elusive to many. Most of us recognize the theme or theme song in a musical work, especially in film and television.


Easily remembered is the musical theme to Star Wars, or Jaws, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The “main musical theme” may reoccur throughout the work, in different permutations, variations. Even if we don’t consciously think about it while the film is playing—when we hear it (even a variation of the theme), it enhances our experience and keeps us immersed within the story being told (or in this case, in the film shown).

Sometimes the theme is not easy to perceive in a literary work. In a fable, the theme is pointedly the moral of the story. One could say, in its simplest form, theme in a literary work is the main point conveyed. Yet there are as many definitions for this word as there are writers.

A theme is the central idea or ideas explored by a literary work.

Expanding it a little, theme is about how we should live or act or be—according to the author. Usually, it is relevant to a particular situation that reflects upon the entire life of an individual, or two. Unfortunately, the theme may be an example of what we shouldn't act or be like, as well.

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Theme, plot and structure band together. At their best they coalesce, providing an interwoven tapestry of ideas, feeling, and most importantly, moral choices impacting the hero. This is the means by which we tell a story, and hopefully we leave the reader with a different point of view.  A call to action, an inspiring thoughtful desire to be a better kind of person, or, a call to change from being evil to becoming good. Or at least descent.

In my novel The First Rains of October the antagonist, Bane O'Camp actually changes from evil to descent. Surprising, really. He's probably never going to be a saint, but he does change.

The typical definition of theme is usually something like this:

 A central theme is the common thread or repeated idea that is incorporated throughout a literary work.

Not very imaginative is it. Consider just a few themes that are prevalent today:

  • Example: “Afraid of making a lasting commitment to fall in love” is the main theme of  As Good As It Gets
  • Example: One man or woman can make a difference is the main theme of the book “Team of Rivals” which was adapted for the big screen as Lincoln.
  • Example: “Societies expectation for your life, are not your own” is the main theme of Ender’s Game.
  • Example: “The empty pursuit of pleasure leads to corruption” is the main theme of The great Gatsby.
  • Example: “True love conquers all” is the main theme of Sleeping Beauty.
  • Example: “Revenge” is the theme of Double Jeopardy.

There are as many definitions of the element theme as can be imagined, implicit is that it is a bit hard to define. Remember that the plot is simply the series of events that transpire within the story that move the story from the beginning to the end. Your theme, truly, is the heart of the matter. The very essence of what your hero, or heroes, should value by the end of the story.

From ancient Greek thema we derive this word theme, who’s many related uses all have to do with the idea of "the main subject of something," or “the heart of the matter.”

Webster’s definition of theme:

: the main subject that is being discussed or described in a piece of writing, a movie, etc.
: a particular subject or issue that is discussed often or repeatedly
: the particular subject or idea on which the style of something (such as a party or room) is based

Even the dictionary definition leaves one with a sense of what?Let’s look at Someone Like You for a moment; the theme is clearly defined in the movie, if we take a few moments to analyze what happens.


ashly Judd

Cast: Ashley JuddGreg KinnearHugh JackmanMarisa TomeiEllen Barkin Director: Tony Goldwyn

Opened March 30, 2001 Genres: Romantic Comedy, Comedy, Romance

Jane Goodale (Ashley Judd) has everything going for her. She's a producer on a popular daytime talk show, and is in a hot romance with the show's dashing executive producer Ray (Greg Kinnear). But when the relationship goes terribly awry, Jane begins an extensive study of the male animal, including her womanizing roommate Eddie (Hugh Jackman). Jane puts her studies and romantic misadventure to use as a pseudonymous sex columnist -- and becomes a sensation.

Now actually, Jane gets dumped by Ray, not once, but twice. Terribly hurt, she becomes fixated on the idea that men actually act just like bulls on a farm needing to “have” one cow after another until all of the cows been conquered. After that, the bull must be shipped off to a new farm with new cows. Why? because the bull will never go back to the same cow. Eventually Jane is comforted by Eddie, who is the perfect example of the womanizing male. Through it all, she comes to realize that Eddie too, has been deeply wounded, actually by a woman, and that is the reason why his relationships, short-lived, proceed from conquest to conquest. As it turns out, he’s given up on relationships, until he sees Jane dancing in her underwear. Actually, though, it must have been when she weakened and became fragile and cried. Of course when they cuddle and don’t have sex as he comforts her, that changes everything, and Jane realizes that men aren’t all bovines, and falls madly in love with Eddy. Cute. It’s romantic comedy, what do you expect.

Theme: Never Give Up On Love; Out There Somewhere Is The One Just For You.

 As I ponder the theme in a novel, I dwell on this: What ideal, moral, or way of life, even deeply felt sentiment, does the writer wish to leave with the reader? Careful now, character should grow from within each character, as they truly are. If they become preachy (on any subject) they become one dimensional. On the other hand, if they change, from within, that’s another thing all together. I can tell when a writer has a particular bent. Especially religious or political. As a novel writer, I don't want you to believe what I believe, instead, what my character believes is the essence. It can be a bit tricky, can't it? And yet, indisputably, we all have our world (or human) opinions. Writers probably more so than most. That is where theme lies, at the core of what ideal is being expressed.

Therefore, I envision theme a bit like a great wave. I live in California; the beginnings of this wave begins in Japan. It is always undulating the seas beneath, a tectonic power coupled with a force pushed forward by the winds of plot. Characters rising and falling along its journey, culminating in a climactic end, when it will finally crash against the shore—sometimes forcefully and sometimes gently, crackling against the smooth stony beach.

So I ask myself, is the theme really the "main thing" being discussed, or rather, the understated, sometimes hidden truth that lies below the surface. Your  main theme, truly, is the heart of the matter, the very essence of what your hero, or heroes, value by the end of the story.

Great Success,

Anthony Barbera


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