The primary theme of a work is the unifying message conveyed throughout the story to the audience. Themes do not have to be ethical or logical, but they do suggest why the author created a particular work. While you can have secondary themes, they should be limited so the reader isn’t distracted.

Themes, Points, and Lessons

Students often struggle to differentiate a theme from a lesson. A theme is the big topic, points are components of the topic, and lessons are suggested ways to deal with situations related to the topic. Lessons can be “morals of the story” but not every lesson is a positive one, depending on the author’s views on the theme. Likewise, points can be matters of genuine evidence, facts we can find outside the story, but they can also be the biased statements of an author.

Theme Racism.
Thesis Racism impedes social progress.
Points (Evidence) Minorities a portrayed negatively in the media.
Many people believe these stereotypes.
Ideas and inventions created by minorities might be ignored.
Lesson (Moral) People we fear might have something to teach us.

Stories tend to teach lessons — at least they attempt to teach lessons. The lesson might be shallow, serving no real purpose other than to support a plot. The theme is the overall topic, usually with some moral leaning. For example, a theme might be “friendship.” The thesis might be, “We need friends to achieve great things.” The thesis is an opinion on the theme — an argument that the book attempts to support. A theme is simply a short topic, which might not be a complete sentence. The thesis about the theme is not only a complete thought, but it is at the core of the story. In theory, a thesis can be “tested” against the evidence.

A theme concerning racism could be presented in any number of stories, each with its own points and lessons. In the best case, the story might teach tolerance. In the worst, a story can be used to reinforce racist views. Writing can be used to improve society, but sometimes it merely reflects our flaws.

Is a Theme Needed?

One of the questions asked by writers is if a theme is essential to a good story. Assuming one tried to write a story without a theme, it seems likely that one would find its way into the text. In a longer work, more than one theme might emerge, especially in an epic work. But, is a theme necessary?

Those works classified as “literary fiction” often stray from tradition in a number of ways, including a conscious effort to avoid themes. The “post-modern” idea that there are not truths is ironically a theme. In other words, the effort to avoid meaning becomes a meaning in itself.

Points of Evidence

A good point supports the theme and the plot of a work.

Any theme needs points, or evidence, that support the theme within a story. A point is usually implied by events, not explicitly stated by a character or within narration. In the example of racism, depicting negative encounters between store clerks and minorities would imply a thematic point that clerks might believe stereotypes.

Points supporting the theme should also support the plot of a story. For example, if a story makes a point of the role women played in the Old West, then the point should contribute to the plot. Never make a point unless you can connect it to the story.

Lessons Taught

Some genres are more likely to offer a moral or lesson than others. Science fiction is known for offering cautionary lessons about technology and society, for example, while few readers expect a romance novel to offer social commentary. If you decide your theme requires a lesson, make sure the lesson helps the plot of the story.

She loved him, even if that meant she’d lose everything. Love was more important than any inheritance, she had come to realize.


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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 21-Oct-2017
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach