What is a Theme?

Blackbird sitting on a branch illustrating article called what is a themeTHEME IS PERSONAL

What is a theme is a question I am asked frequently. Particularly by younger visitors to this site.

The whole area of theme can be confusing, with some people mixing up the idea of theme with plot.

Many people read books that explore specific themes over and over again, sometimes without realizing it.

They do this because the themes mean something to them on a personal and emotional level.

In other words they are fully engaged in following the characters as they progress through the story.copyscape symbol illustrating an article called 'What Is A theme?'This is why it is so important that writers understand how theme affects their work.

People tend to choose books and films based on themes – whether they are conscious of it or not.


You might hear someone saying they enjoy love stories and revenge stories etc.

Experienced writers can build a large fan-base of readers who relate to the particular themes they explore in their stories.

On a deep and personal level, readers relate emotionally to a book through theme. It is important for the writer to realize that nobody will read a book, or watch a film that they cannot relate to.


One of the biggest areas of confusion is the difference between theme and plot.

For example, the plot of a novel about marital breakdown may concern secret affairs between neighbours, but the theme may be betrayal, love, loneliness etc.

Another story might describe the actions of passengers in a plane crash but the theme could be loss, survival etc.


Stories can have more than one theme. The story about a plane crash could involve many themes. Was the plane sabotaged by the pilot’s friend? Then betrayal would be a theme here.


If the pilot survives and returns to deal with his friend then you could be dealing with the theme of revenge.

In the same example there could be two newlyweds who find their love tested during their ordeal? Then the theme could be love.

There are more examples of theme here.

The plot is what the story is about, and theme is how the meaning of a story is defined.

In the above example the story remains the same but the themes have infinite and varied possibilities.

As an author, or writer, you do not explicitly tell the reader what the themes are in your story – this would detract from the reading experience.

heron in flight illustrating an article about what is a theme.SHOW DON’T TELL

You don’t want to tell your readers what the story is you want to show them.

However, you would mention the themes in your synopsis, tag-line, or on the blurb on the back of your book.

Theme can be an important selling point as readers choose themes which appeal to them.

Instead of being told what the story is the reader, or viewer will learn almost subconsciously from following the character’s experience.

Sometimes readers relate to a particular theme without actually identifying why that is.

The theme could be related to something from their childhood years, an incident, even a trauma, something they have never consciously thought about.


If nobody can relate to the experiences of the characters in your story, then frankly, nobody will care.

This applies to film and television too. Caring about what happens to your characters is what engages your reader or viewer. This is what makes them keep reading, or watching.


No matter how cleverly plotted the events in your story are, they must relate to a widely understood or universal theme.

The reason theme is so important is because this is how a story relates to real human experience. There is more about choosing your theme here.


Without a theme a story is just a list of events. In a successful work, theme and story influence each other and overlap.

In my own work I am aware that I have returned to explore certain themes several times. Survival, love, friendship and freedom are among the themes explored in my book Piggy Monk Square.

The best stories are the ones we remember long after reading and the stories we remember longest tend to be ones that explore the grey and complex areas in the thematic landscape.

Good stories explore questions where there can seem to be many answers – they engage us and make us think.

Stories like this allow your audience to explore the trials and tribulations of your characters while simultaneously absorbing the various consequences for the human condition. These stories make your readers think.

If you have succeeded in making your readers think, then your story has succeeded on a very important level.

Best of luck with your writing


copyscape symbol in an article which explores the question - what is a theme?

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3 Responses to What is a Theme?

  1. Kindra September 5, 2014 at 12:04 am #

    Hmm it looks like your site ate myy first comment (it wwas super long) so I
    guess I’ll just sum it up whwt I wrote and say,
    I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to tthe whole thing.

    Do you have any helpful hintrs for rookie blog writers?
    I’d redally appreciate it.

    • Grace September 13, 2014 at 9:53 pm #

      Hi Kindrea,
      Thanks for your comments and I am so glad you like the site. I would advise you to make appointments in your diary and write as much as you can. Best wishes, Grace

  2. Kal September 16, 2017 at 9:21 pm #

    It is eye-opening to me as to what a theme is. Thank you.

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