What is theme, when nobody agrees?
They’re the big idea: the key part of what elevates our stories from the everyday to the artful, and what plunges us deep into what it means to live, love, breathe, and die.
But themes are also frustrating. They’re simple, but complex. Obtuse. Abstract. And the worst thing of all?
Nobody seems to agree on a definition. See for yourself. Google “what is a theme,” and you’ll get a lot of results, which is great. But as you browse, click, and read, you’ll quickly notice that a lot of the articles conflict with each other—using different terms and definitions—and some even contradict themselves the moment they start providing examples.
So what is the theme of a story, when nobody seems to agree on a definition? And if nobody agrees, does the definition we use really even matter?
Short answer? Yes, especially for writers.
The best place to start, of course, is where people agree. So here’s a high-level definition of theme that everyone can get behind:
In other words, theme is what your readers learn about life from reading your story. For example, while you might specifically write about steampunk witches, barbarians who ride dinosaurs, or a lonely astronaut who lives on Saturn’s rings, on a thematic level, you might be exploring themes of coming of age, bravery, or the isolating effects of technology.
Again, this is a definition everyone can more or less agree on. (Although I’ll admit, not everyone would agree with the examples; more on that later).
But the moment you try to hone in on a more specific definition, peoples’ answers start to diverge. So before we go any further, we need to talk about the two key concepts people always use when discussing theme.
The exact terms change depending on the source, but for simplicity and consistency, I’m going to call them the story’s “subject” and “message.”
The subject and message
The “subject” of a story is its topic—what the story is broadly about. It can usually be summed up in a few words, such as: family, war, coming of age, the price of ambition, etc. If you’re a grammar nut, you’ll know it’s the subject when it’s an incomplete sentence.
The “message,” however, is what the writer is trying to say about the subject, and it can be phrased as a statement, such as “love is fleeting but precious,” or “unchecked ambition leads to suffering.”
For example, in Stephen King’s The Shining, Jack Torrance is an alcoholic father, husband, and aspiring writer who takes on a job as the caretaker of a haunted hotel. One of the subjects of the story is “alcoholism,” but one of its messages is “alcoholism destroys who we are”—a point subtly hammered home when Jack hammers in his own face with a roque mallet while drunk and possessed by ghosts (WARNING: this book is wild).
Here’s one from film. In director Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, the cursed hero Ashitaka finds himself stuck in a conflict between a small mining town and the gods of the surrounding forest. One subject of the film is “humanity’s relationship with nature,” but one of the messages is “unchecked greed for natural resources will only yield disaster.”
Make sense? Good. These are the two core ideas people use to discuss theme, and everyone generally agrees on them as ideas.
But there’s a lot of disagreement on how these terms relate to theme itself. So finally, now, let’s go over them: the three main ways people define theme.
The three definitions of theme
What is theme of a story? People define theme in one of three ways:
- Theme refers solely to the subject
- Theme refers solely to the message
- Theme refers to both the subject and the message
The first definition, where theme is limited to just the subject, is pretty rare (I only found it on Cliffsnotes), so I won’t discuss it beyond this paragraph. But the definition is understandable when you realize how often people default to “subjects” when talking about theme—love, death, courage, etc.
The second definition, where theme is limited to the message of the story, is a lot more common. It seems to be the general norm in high school and college classrooms, appearing in textbooks like Kelley Griffith’s Writing Essays About Literature, which adds a lot of validity to this approach. (Love is complicated; death is inevitable; courage can be foolhardy; etc.)
The third definition, however, is my favorite and the one I think most accurately describes how people talk about theme outside the classroom. Here, rather than claiming theme to be the subject or the message, it’s both. The subject and message are just different categories of theme.
In other words, the theme of a story can be both “love” and “love is complicated.” They’re different types of theme, but they’re both still themes.
Here’s why that distinction matters for writers.
Pick your poison: Writing or analysis
To start, I want to say that if you’re analyzing literature in a classroom, you should use the terms your teacher tells you. Why? First, because that’s how you get an A. And second, I do think the strength of the academy’s message-centered definition of theme is that it emphasizes analysis, which can help you write a more focused and argumentative literature paper.
But if you’re writing fiction, it’s a different story.
(I’m not proud of that pun, but I’m keeping it.)
I believe creative writers should opt for the broader definition of theme, because by thinking about theme as having two categories—both the subject and the message—we start to acknowledge the importance of both in our work.
Which is important, especially since one of the two is incredibly underrated.
Writing more meaningful stories
We’ve already talked about how the “subject” is what your story is broadly about, while the “message” is what you have to say about it. But when you write a story with that mindset, it’s easy to get stuck believing your subject is nothing but a vehicle for delivering your message. And that’s a problem.
Because messages may be useful, but they’re also somewhat limiting. They’re clean-cut—easy to hold, dissect, and analyze. Maybe even a little boring, pinned like an insect on a spreading board—and a lot of great stories don’t even have clear messages.
But subjects? Those are broader, messier, harder to boil down. They’re more alive to me, and they’re closer, I think, to the true nature of stories. Because in the end, stories are irreducible: nobody can effectively summarize, distill, and transfer the effect a story has on them, except by sharing the story itself.
Because a good story is an experience.
It’s something you feel.
That’s why when we talk about theme, I believe it’s important for writers to remember that their stories are about more than the message. They’re about the experience, the subject—whether it’s love, hope, good vs. evil, or something else entirely.
When we forget that the subjects we explore are just as important as the messages we share, we forget the value of the experience we’re creating.
And with stories, the experience is everything.
What do you think?
Truthfully, how you choose to define theme doesn’t matter.
(He says after spending 1,200 words explaining why it does.)
What matters is that you understand that both the subject and the message have a role to play in what makes a story worth telling, and both are worthwhile end-goals in their own right. Thinking about them both as “theme” is just an easy way to validate that fact in your mind—which is why I consider it the most useful definition for writers.
That being said, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. How do you define theme? And how do you like to think about theme as you write your stories?
And if you enjoyed this post, I hope you’ll stay tuned. I plan to write more in this vein, exploring what makes stories meaningful, how to write with theme (and even without a message), and other related topics as they come.