The dictionary defines a theme as ‘a subject or topic on which a person speaks, writes and thinks.’ In literary terms, a theme is the message you want readers to take away from reading your novel. A theme, therefore, is the essence and backbone of your story; it is the frame on which you add other elements of storytelling like characterisation, texture and plot. The following is an explanation of why you need a theme, how to find one and the tricks that authors use to make their themes unique.

Why Do You Need a Theme?

Laura Backes says, “I think with any story the key is to find the universal, timeless theme that will transcend culture. For example, sibling rivalry is something children of every country can relate to, and if the characters are appealing, and their conflicts are believable, the story will apply across the globe.” Keeping this in mind, you should, therefore, decide what the theme of your novel is going to be before you start planning it.

What happens when you encapsulate the issues in your novel into a theme is that you’re forced to make sure that the story you plan to write is a strong one. If, however, you cannot encapsulate the spirit of your novel easily, it often means that you do not have a clear vision of your book. If you persist in writing your novel without a clear theme in place, you will soon realise that your plot is not sufficiently powerful and your story will falter; you will be forced to go back and rethink your story.

How Do You Identify a Theme?

The simplest way to identify a theme is to ask this question: “What is my story about?” Once you’ve prepared the theme of your story, put yourself in the position of your reader and decide if your theme makes sense. Remember that, in today’s fast-paced world, readers (and, indeed, publishers) are looking for a quick way to know what your story is about.

How Do You Choose a Theme?

Choosing the theme for your novel should never be something you rush. Take your time and consider the message you are trying to share with your readers. Try to make a personal connection with your reader by helping them to identify with your characters. Even if your tale has an unusual setting, there must be something in your story that makes it feel familiar. Here are some tips to help you choose a theme for your novel:

  • Consider the keywords you’d like to use in your theme. They should be of emotional benefit to the kind of reader you’d like for your novel.
  • Remember who your readers are. For instance, if you’re writing a story for children, using big words like ‘circumnavigate’ is likely to confuse them.
  • Keep your theme as short as possible. Usually, themes are between 10 and 200 words long.

Here are 10 common themes used in novels today:

  • Power corrupts even the most pure.
  • There is light at the end of the tunnel.
  • Opportunity seldom knocks twice.
  • Love conquers all.
  • No one is beyond redemption.
  • Dreams always come true.
  • Honesty is the best policy.
  • Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
  • When it rains, it pours.
  • One man’s food is another man’s poison.

One of the tricks that many authors use is to ‘invert’ a theme. Here’s an example that shows you just how this is done: today, the world of medicine is so far advanced that it has become possible to fertilise a human egg in a laboratory and, thereafter, place it in a woman’s womb to allow the foetus to grow and develop fully. In the movie Junior, the theme is ‘inverted’ and the story centres on a fertility research project where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character is a man who is impregnated with a viable embryo and, in the end, delivers the foetus safely.

In the long run, having a theme in place before you begin writing your novel helps save time and energy as you will stay true to your story and its narration will be smooth and uncomplicated. In other words, you are unlikely to get lost at any stage of writing your novel. Make the theme of your story unique and you will find that, when the time is right, publishers will not be able to resist the temptation to publish your manuscript.


  • The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English: Thumb Index [Hardcover]. Ed. Della Thompson. Oxford University Press, USA; 9 edition (August 3, 1995)
  • Backes, Laura. Best Books for Kids Who (Think They) Hate to Read: 125 Books That Will Turn Any Child into a Lifelong Reader. Three Rivers Press (July 17, 2001)
  • Junior. Dir. Ivan Reitman. Perfs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Danny DeVito, Emma Thompson. Anamorphic, Closed-captioned, Color, DVD, Widescreen, NTSC. Universal Studios

By Aneeta Sundararaj

This article was first published on Suite.101:

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