Theme: What is it?

While studying theme (something like thirty masters’ worth of info), I saw

that the masters have a number of ways of defining theme, with the definitions ranging from one all-encompassing word to whole formulas that describe a story in a sort of theme-premise continuum.  Originally I thought I’d combine all of these definitions into one master theme, and I’ll still try, but I now think that some of these approaches have their own value which shouldn’t be diluted.

So, today we’ll begin at the theme end of the continuum.  Also known as the controlling idea or the central idea.  And we’ll get to the premise end of the continuum next week.

So what is theme?

For Gary Provost, theme is “a single idea, echoed throughout the book at many levels.” It’s what your story is about reduced to a single word.

“Theme is a fairly simple concept to grasp: It is what your story is about,” says Jessica Page Morrell. “Themes can often be expressed in one word or a simple phrase.”

For Ronald B. Tobias, theme “is the central concern around which a story is structured.”

For David Corbett, a theme is general and static.

“Theme is simply what your story is really all about,” says Paula Munier. It is often the one-word emotion motivating your protagonist.

And for Christopher Vogler, “Theme is a one-word statement of some human drive or quality that runs as a unifying factor all the way through the story.”


According to the masters, your one-word theme should describe your whole book, from beginning to end.  And it should be or suggest an emotion.

I personally think that if you can find the one-word emotion that defines your story and the one-word noun or action that suggests that emotion and how that emotion will be conveyed throughout the story, then you’re doing yourself a huge favor.

How to find it

Ms. Munier already gave us one suggestion:  your theme is often the emotion driving your main character.  But she offers another:  “If you’re not sure what your themes are, look to other stories in your genre for hints.”

So why is it worthwhile to discover the one-word description?

Knowing your intended theme can help you make choices among several options, in that you pick the option that best supports your theme.

As Gary Provost says, “Theme is … the glue that gives your story a coherence and a unity of metaphor and invention.”

And as Christopher Vogler says, “Theme is a tool that can help you focus your work, making it a coherent design organized around a single idea or human quality that is explored in every scene.”

You can also use your theme to get your plot unstuck or your writing flow unblocked by using the theme to help you refocus, to help you come back to the whole point of your story.

Best Books on Theme

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The book cover links above are Affiliate Links, which means I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links, at no cost to you.  In other words, if you’re thinking of buying a copy of one of these books for your home craft library anyway, buying said copy through this link is a no-brainer way to help support this site. And I appreciate it. Thank you!

Well, that’s it for me

What about you?  What sort of tools do you use for theme?  Tell us in the comments!

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Up next, on Wednesday

We’ll look what kind of themes master novelists write about.  See you then!


So... whadaya think?

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