The Role of Theme in Stories
A great story needs a great theme. But what is a theme, and why does it matter? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines theme as “an idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature.” Beyond the “what happens” of a story, theme answers the question of “what is it about?” Common themes in film and literature include love, family, revenge, the law versus mercy, good versus evil, and coming of age. Theme is like the skeleton of a story―you cannot see it on the surface, but it is supporting everything.
When a person criticizes a story for feeling substance-less, it usually comes down to the story not making good enough use of its theme. In an effective story, a character’s arc will revolve around the theme. Different characters are great opportunities for writers to show a variety of responses to a theme. When one character believes revenge is the true path to justice, and the other wants peace—now there is drama.
The theme is what an author will make a statement about through their story. For example, in a story about revenge, an author can illustrate how the pursuit of revenge takes a negative toll on one’s mental health. A story usually has multiple themes alongside one central theme that drives the narrative. Revenge can be a major theme of a story, but it could also be a minor theme in a grander narrative. While a theme is a general concept, it can help an author narrow down on the direction of their story. For instance, G.R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has a central theme of power. Martin then expands on this theme through a story of wand how a character’s quest for power can lead to the suffering of the innocent.
If you are looking for ideas on what the theme of your story could be, this article by Masterclass offers several examples for inspiration. They also share examples of how various themes have been written by famous authors, and the different directions one theme can take you. You can see how these popular themes are woven into your favorite stories, and now you can recognize them in the next story you read.