Some stories just seem to draw the reader in and keep them turning the page or coming back for more. But others just seem to fall flat, even if the basic plot, character and settings are quite good. So what is it about great stories that make them so good?
Well, often it’s the theme of a story, or the underlying message of the narrative. These notions of love, revenge, redemption, courage or good vs. evil are very engaging for the reader. Why? Because we can all relate to common universal truths about the human condition. They are real and authentic, and so we find ourselves longing to keep diving into the characters and their lives to find out more.
Why do you think Harry Potter sold millions of copies worldwide? Well, yes, a story about a young wizard going to wizard school is unique and fun. He even learns to fly a broomstick, and each book has an exciting challenge such as finding the Philosopher’s Stone or progressing through the Triwizard Tournament.
But it is the central themes of good vs evil, the coming of age for young Harry and the friendship bonds that develop throughout the series that make us long for Harry to be victorious and for good to triumph over evil. We feel encouraged, inspired and challenged to be the light in dark situations, to choose the right path and not the easiest, and to look after our friends because that is what Harry and his friends do over and over again.
Let’s take a deeper dive into themes so we understand them better.
What is a theme?
The theme of the story is basically what it’s about. It’s not the plot line (what happens in the story) and has little to do with the order of events. Rather, it’s a pervading concept that keeps popping up as the plot develops. So it’s not an addition to the plot, but a central idea that gives the story focus and gravitas.
Themes can be quite broad, as in the ones mentioned in the introduction, and there can be more than one element to them, but they can also be very specific or complex, depending on how well you wish to define them in your story.
For example, the Lord of the Flies is a famous book that tackles the idea of human morality. The children stranded on the island are forced to fend for themselves and develop their own micro society to do so. But internal politics and violence soon emerge, and thus the theme that when isolated from a more civilised society, humans do not act morally anymore.
Common types of theme
The best literary themes explore universal human nature, so they don’t necessarily need to be complex, say as in the example above. Here are the most common ones you’ll find popping up in literature:
Good vs. evil
It’s hard to get past the classic battle of light and dark, or good and evil. It’s a pervasive theme that works well in books of all genres with a villainous character or event who must be overcome. In Harry Potter, it’s the evil Lord Voldemort, but the evil could also be a societal wrong such as the hatred, prejudice and ignorance in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The world’s most universal theme is love, and it takes many forms from friendship to family love to romantic love, which itself can be of the forbidden or unrequited kind. In this way, love can be a force for good, but can also be toxic and therefore be used in many interesting and very compelling ways as a theme. Think of the tragic love of Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare), of the sibling love in My Sister’s Keeper (Jodi Picoult) or themes of friendship in Stand by Me (based on Stephen King’s The Body).
Revenge is associated with powerful human emotions like anger, hatred and grief. It works very well as a literary master plot, as these are all emotions we’ve felt. In these stories, the main protagonist may believe he/she has been wronged and seeks to retaliate to right those wrongs. The story may illustrate what the character has endured and how they’ve overcome it, but it may also delve into the price that the character has to pay and their loss of morality in seeking that revenge. In some cases it leads to their complete downfall, such as in Hamlet (William Shakespeare).
Coming of age
Stories about the journey into adulthood, the loss of innocence or an awakening are very popular themes in young adult literature, but also in adult literature with a character that is perhaps finding their feet in a new role or life situation. They work well because all of us understand this transitional period that can bring challenges that need to be overcome.
Literature that use this theme very well includes the main character in Emma (Jane Austen) that must learn love is not always best meddled in as she matures, or the characters of Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) as they grow up and learn to fight for themselves in a society geared more to men.
Other excellent themes include redemption, courage and perseverance, free will vs. fate, friendship, loneliness, identity and power.
How to come up with a theme for your story
It’s always best to plan how you can incorporate a good theme(s) into your story. Start by asking yourself what you wish to convey through the character and events in your story.
Perhaps it’s the preservation of innocence of your main character as they face challenging events. Or maybe your story about an unrequited love can also incorporate ideas of revenge, such as in Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte).
Then determine how you can weave this into the events of your story so the characters’ actions, interactions (dialogue) and even their motivations (goals and desires) keep reflecting this theme back to the reader. If the characters are in conflict with one another, this often helps so look at ways you can create opportunities for actions and resulting choices to occur.
Some writer also use motifs or symbols to reinforce that theme. In The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), the symbol of the green light represents Gatsby’s dream of a better life with Daisy. He’s constantly searching and reaching for it. In Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte), the motif of fire is used to evoke imagery and emotion. It is both warm and comforting, dangerous and hot, and passionate and destructive in different parts of the story, as indeed is much of the plot.
Just remember that a novel can have multiple themes and the more subtly they are woven into the plot, the better. The reader doesn’t need to be bombarded with the notion of a theme, but a constant reminder of key elements that tie into genuine human experience work well.