5 theme examples: How to develop story themes

Theme examples from famous books

The recurring ideas or broad themes of books give variety, depth and a sense of unity or cohesion. Theme examples from literature show us how authors illustrate what crucial ideas (such as ‘honour’ or ‘power’) mean. We see the effects they have on characters’ lives.

Read 5 examples of theme development that show how to milk your story’s main ideas for illustrative power:

First, what is theme?

Michael Morpugo quote - story themesA theme definition: ‘An idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature’ (Oxford English Dictionary).

The verbs ‘recurs’ and ‘pervades’ tell us crucial things about how themes work. A theme recurs or returns. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, the theme ‘power corrupts’ isn’t only shown through the tyranny of the main villain, Sauron. Tolkien also shows this theme in the fall from grace of Gollum, who kills to gain possession of the ring. We see the ring’s darker effect on multiple bearers throughout its history.

In this sense, themes saturate a book – through their repetition and branching out, we begin to understand the ‘message’ of the book, the core beliefs, ideas or ideals the story offers.

Themes also tend to go together. Because loving another person also means risking loss, for example, love stories often feature loss (even if they have happy endings). As Nicholas Sparks says:

‘In all love stories the theme is love and tragedy, so by writing these types of stories, I have to include tragedy.’

Themes may be simply broad, abstract ideas, such as ‘love’, ‘duty’, ‘fear’ or ‘community’. Yet they can also be didactic or instructive, for example: ‘The dangers of jealousy’, ‘the importance of forgiveness’, ‘the futility of war’.

Here are 5 examples of how authors have expanded major themes to create satisfying, structured stories:

5 examples of themes and development from novels

1: Power and corruption in The Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien’s iconic epic fantasy cycle is an excellent example of skilled story theme development.

Tolkien’s prologue shares how the antagonist Sauron forged the One Ring to corrupt others, even though it confers long life and other beneficial powers.

Tolkien introduces the theme of power as a corrupting force in the prologue, and extends it. Déagol, a river-dweller, finds the lost ring more than two thousand years after Sauron creates it. His friend Sméagol (later Gollum) covets the ring and murders him, wanting it for himself.

Tolkien shows throughout the remainder of the cycle how the ring’s power brings out his characters’ baser instincts. Its power truly tests their courage and strength in the face of temptation.

Tolkien further develops the theme of power and corruption in the fate of the One Ring. The necessary destruction of the ring becomes a key plot point, yet accomplishing the task is not an easy feat. The journey to Mount Doom the characters have to undertake is perilous. Thus Tolkien shows the tenacity required to stand up to corrupt power. This theme thus connects to other, related ideas (e.g. ‘power corrupts but the brave can withstand it’).

To develop his story theme, Tolkien:

  • Creates illustrative characters and events (Sauron, drunk on power, creates the ring; Sméagol, corrupted by the desire for power, murders his friend, etc.)
  • Uses additional characters and events to create ‘ifs’, ‘buts’, and ‘therefores’. E.g. ‘Power corrupts but the bravery of the ordinary person/hobbit can defeat the corrupted’

As you write, think about how scenes can develop your biggest themes. Add nuance – the ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ and ‘therefores’ that will make your themes ring true.

2: Crime, punishment and conscience in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment

The title of the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevksy’s Crime and Punishment tells us its primary themes. In this dramatic work, the protagonist Raskolnikov is a poor university student who kills a miserly pawnbroker.

Raskolnikov rationalizes his murder by seeing it as a service to the many people at the pawnbroker’s mercy. Yet, in the act, the pawnbroker’s sister surprises him and he kills her too. She is not part of his plan and is, by comparison, kind and faultless. This development is crucial as Raskolnikov is driven to the brink of madness after the double murder.

Even if he could rationalize killing the pawnbroker, Raskolnikov’s crime expands in a way he could not foretell or justify. As a result, he feels immense horror at his deed.

Dostoyevsky expands on this theme by showing how Raskolnikov’s greatest punishment is his internal conflict. The torment he suffers as a result of his murder is more punishment than the law is capable of inflicting. So much so that Raskolnikov ultimately confesses.

The novel focuses more on Raskolnikov’s internal struggle than the solving of the crime and its external consequences. By choosing this focus, Dostoyevsky develops his theme of punishment with great subtlety.

3: Themes of love and loss in Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook

As mentioned above, themes of loss go hand in hand with romantic themes. Anyone who’s ever loved knows that there are many things that can separate lovers. Relationship breakdown, infedility and betrayal, external circumstances (whether interference by others or unavoidable distance) and more.

In Nicholas Sparks’ novel The Notebook, themes of love (and what love requires: Perseverence, faith, commitment and courage) are just as pervasive as themes of loss.

Sparks first introduces loss as a theme when the protagonist, an old man, tells an old woman in a nursing home the story of a summer romance between Noah (a labourer) and a wealthy girl, Allie. The two part because Allie’s family is only vacationing in Noah’s city. Over the following year, Allie’s disapproving mother intercepts the letters Noah writes to Allie. There is loss of communication, caused by external forces.

Sparks piles on loss after loss. There is greater distance from Allie when Noah serves in World War II. This theme is developed even further when Sparks reveals that the old man telling the story is Noah and the old woman is Allie, now losing her memory.

Sparks uses successive states of loss this way to show the bravery loving another person requires. A secondary, optimistic theme follows this. The theme that love endures (despite setbacks) if it is right.

To grow your themes as Sparks does, as you write your novel:

  • Plan scenes that show the ideas of your emerging themes through multiple scenarios. For example, Allie’s interfering mother and the war both show that love needs to withstand exernal factors beyond our control to endure
  • Think about the ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ and ‘therefores’ that follow on from themes. For example ‘sometimes love conquers all … BUT external forces (interference, the inevitability of aging and its curveballs) are sometimes simply beyond our control

4: Themes of honour in Homer’s Odyssey

Cover of The Odyssey by HomerOne of the oldest surviving stories (it is thought to have been composed in the 8th Century BC), The Odyssey is an excellent example of strong thematic structure.

The story tells of the protagonist Odysseus’ decade-long journey home to the island of Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War.

The story opens with the Greek Gods discussing Odysseus’ long journey and how, because he is honorable, he deserves their aid travelling home. Before we read Odysseus’ travels and trials, we see his son Telemachus and wife Penelope back home in Ithaca. Suitors, convinced of Odysseus’ death, badger Odysseus’ wife to choose one of them to remarry.

Homer continues the theme of honour (and the related themes of duty and revenge) by showing the suitors being dishonourable. They dine at Odysseus’ family’s expense, showing no respect and overstaying their welcome. Telemachus warns them that if they don’t quit the family home voluntarily, there’ll come a day when they’ll face retribution.

The theme of honour is developed further. For example, Odysseus’ faithful wife fears his death, but without confirmation she refuses to remarry. To deter the suitors, she tells them she will weave a shroud and can only consider their proposals when it is complete. Yet every night, by torch-light, she unpicks the previous day’s work.

This detail adds another dimension to the theme of honour. it shows that sometimes, a usually dishonourable act (deceiving others) is necessary to uphold a greater, more deserving act of honour (Penelope remaining loyal to Odysseus).

As in the other examples, a broad theme rays out as the storyteller shows incidents (e.g. Penelope’s tapestry trick) that add nuance to our understanding. The story thus builds a more refined idea of its main themes over time.

5: Scientific and technological ‘progress’ and its dark side in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake tells of a post-apocalyptic world where science without ethics kills almost the entire human race.

Atwood creates a world where multinational corporations rule. As a child, the protagonist, Jimmy (who later becomes known as Snowman) has a friend Crake and the two watch videos such as live executions together. Atwood shows the dark side of the information age.

Jimmy and his friend grow up in a world where developing a keen sense of right and wrong is hard. Individuals have more freedom to choose what they’re exposed to, and what values to uphold, but with that comes more power and responsibility.

As the novel progresses, we see more of how people have brought about their own ruin. Jimmy/Snowman reveals that Crake became a bioengineer, creating a drug that in turn created a fatal global pandemic.

To develop her primary, dystopian themes, Atwood:

  • Creates a friendship (between Jimmy and Crake) that shows divergent paths from a similar upbringing – this establishes the related theme of individual responsibility.
  • Imagines an end-game: What if the dark sides of ‘progress’ and profit-seeking were allowed to spin out of control, without sufficient checks or balances?

This sense of direction and purpose is an important aspect of theme in story. Atwood takes a theme (the dangers of science if we strip away compassion, care and ethical behaviour) and pushes it to a conclusion that shows how much is at stake.

When you develop your themes with scenes that underscore the core ideas of your themes (e.g. ‘science needs ethics’, ‘love conquers all’), think about the ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ and ‘therefores’ that these ideas lead to and show these secondary, related ideas through story.

Start developing your themes now: Use the idea finder to brainstorm thematic direction and purpose for your story.

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  • Barth Anderson

    “This sense of direction and purpose is an important aspect of theme in story.”

    Very well put. The purpose of a story and what compels us to tell it a certain way IS theme. Ideally, we structure the story in order to highlight the theme, give us a playground in which to play with “power,” “honor,” or “loss.” Very smart of you to put it this way. Thank you for this.

    I was thinking recently theme is often a discussion of emotion, but you really widened it to a more philosophical scope than I. Maybe understanding the key emotions in a story is a first step toward getting a grasp on its theme? For me it is. LOTR for example. I’d say a key emotion is fear – it’s one long ghost story after all. You’re right, it’s philosophically about power, but Tolkein believes power is negative and frightening and embodies it in the shape of forms of wraiths, dragons, corrosively magic rings, and fire-demons of the ancient world . Fear (horror) is definitely a structuring emotion of the entire narrative and an underpinning of the Power theme.

    • You raise a good point, Barth (thanks for your engaging comments). You could say that different themes have a typical emotional repertoire that goes with them (for example, where there are themes such as the danger of total state power, as in Orwell’s 1984, then fear will naturally be a common character emotion throughout the book). Fear (and the dangers thereof) is definitely a running motif in LOTR.

      • Barth Anderson

        Yeah, that’s a better way to put it. “Emotional repertoire” is more accurate than calling it theme. I guess it’s a question of how meta the writer’s attention to emotional repertoire becomes. 1984 is definitely a treatise on fear and paranoia; LOTR less so.

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