The recurring ideas or broad themes of books give us insights into ideas such as ‘love’, ‘honour’, ‘good vs evil’ and much more. Read 5 theme examples from books that show how to take your story’s ‘big ideas’ and use them to create additional characters and subplots:
First, what is a theme?
To begin by defining theme, a theme is:
‘An idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature’ (Oxford English Dictionary).
This could be, for example, a general idea or theory, such as ‘all people are inherently selfish’ (although a pessimistic one). Or we may speak of theme in even broader terms. A reviewer might say an author examines themes of ‘crime and punishment’. The events of the story in question might make us ask, ‘Why do criminals break the law?’ or ‘What is the real purpose of punishing a crime?’
Most books explore a single theme (or more) from multiple angles, through multiple story scenarios.
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 One Ring. We also see the switch in allegiance of the wizard Saruman. We see, again and again, the corrupting aura of unbridled power.
Through the ways authors illustrate and expand novel themes, we begin to understand the ‘message’ of their books, or rather the beliefs, concepts (e.g. ‘power corrupts’), values or ideals a story explores. [You can brainstorm ideas for your themes using Now Novel’s step-by-step story prompts. Or share your ideas for thematic development in Now Novel groups.]
Themes also tend to go together. Because loving another person also means risking loss, for example, love stories often feature loss. 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.’
Now that we’ve unpacked what ‘theme’ is, here are 7 examples from books of how authors develop themes. Read how authors explore theme to create satisfying, structured stories:
5 theme examples from novels and their development
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.
We meet Tolkien’s main themes already in the first book’s prologue. Tolkien shares how the antagonist Sauron forged the One Ring but in doing so created the seeds of destruction.
How Tolkien develops the story theme ‘power corrupts’
Tolkien introduces the theme of ‘power corrupts’ in the prologue, and extends it.
Déagol, a river-dweller, finds the One Ring that has been lying lost in a river bed 2000 years after its creation. His friend Sméagol (later Gollum, named after the guttural gulping sound he makes) covets the ring and murders him, wanting it for himself.
Tolkien shows throughout the remainder of the fantasy cycle how the ring’s power brings out his characters’ baser, uglier instincts. He sustains his thematic focus by showing how the ring’s power tests and tempts his characters. Through these multiple instances of betrayal and temptation, we understand that giving in to the darker temptations of power comes at a price.
Tolkien further develops the ‘power corrupts’ theme 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 temptation and suffering to overcome it’).
Tolkien develops the story’s themes of power and corruption by:
- Creating illustrative characters and events (The One Ring’s creation; Sméagol’s corruption and murder of his friend, etc.)
- Using additional characters and events to create ‘ifs’, ‘buts’, and other exceptions. E.g. ‘Power corrupts but the brave or virtuous can withstand temptation’
As you write, think about how scenes can develop your biggest themes. What could additional scenes illustrate about an idea such as ‘power corrupts’ or ‘love conquers when people have faith’?
2: Themes of crime and ‘circumstantial morality’ in Crime and Punishment
The title of the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevksy’s Crime and Punishment tells us its primary themes. The main character Rodion Raskolnikov is a poor university student who kills a stingy pawnbroker. He rationalizes his murder by seeing it as a service to the many people at the mean pawnbroker’s mercy.
Yet, in the act, the pawnbroker’s sister surprises Rodion and he kills her too. She is not part of his plan and is, by comparison, undeniably kind and faultless. This development is crucial as Raskolnikov is driven to deeper madness by guilt. He has rationalized one killing to himself, but the presence of the sister does not fit even the circumstantial morality he’s created for himself.
How Dostoevsky develops his story themes of ‘crime’ and ‘circumstantial morality’
Throughout the story, Dostoevsky introduces other characters and situations besides the events that unfold around the killing. These deepen his themes.
For example, Rodion meets a drunk, then later the man’s desperate, impoverished family. When the drunk is trampled to death by a horse, the protagonist ‘donates’ the money he stole after murdering the pawnbroker to the man’s panicked widow to help her pay for the funeral.
We thus see kindness and empathy in a ‘criminal’ character that call black-and-white judgments into question. We see how Rodion’s deeds are determined, in some part, by the situations he finds himself in. This contradicts the idea that characters are purely ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We realize that the same person can be capable of great cruelty and violence and also of acts of kindness.
This theme (of ‘goodness’ and ‘wrongdoing’ co-existing in the same person, depending on the circumstances) is developed further in a secondary character’s arc.
A daughter of the dead drunk man turns to prostitution to support her family. Dostoevsky takes great care to show her kindness, selflessness and desire to help. We see how characters can do things their broader society may consider horrific while still holding positive qualities. We see how people’s circumstances can be the only things standing between them and being true to society’s (or their own) values.
Dostoevsky thus expands his themes to create complex primary and secondary characters. Their internal contradictions challenge our assumptions and fixed beliefs.
To develop your own themes similarly, ask:
- What assumptions lurk in my themes? For example, ‘Only the brave survive’
- How can I challenge or deepen these ideas? For example, you could show one character who survives through bravery, while a second cowardly one also survives thanks to good luck and the kindness of others. Showing these differences creates multiple possible lessons and interpretations
3: Themes of love and loss in Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook
As mentioned above, themes of loss often go hand in hand with romantic themes. Anyone who’s ever loved knows that there are many things that can separate lovers. Changes in values and desires, infidelity 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 to flourish: Perseverance, faith, commitment and courage) are just as pervasive as themes of loss.
How Sparks develops novel themes of ‘love’ and ‘loss’ in The Notebook
Sparks first introduces loss as a theme when the narrator, an old man, tells an old woman in a nursing home the story of a summer romance between Noah (a laborer) 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. Noah serves in World War II, creating even greater geographical distance between he and Allie, for example. The theme of loss develops further [major spoiler alert] 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 and ‘being there’ – in spirit – loving another person requires. A secondary, optimistic theme follows this. The theme that love endures (despite setbacks, despite even non-recognition by the other) when the lover is able to keep faith.
To grow your themes as Sparks does, as you write your novel:
- Plan scenes that show the ideas of your emerging themes through different incidents. For example, Allie’s interfering mother and the war both show that love needs to withstand external divisive factors to endure
- Think about the ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ and ‘therefores’ that follow on from themes. For example ‘Sometimes love is enough … BUT external forces (e.g. interference, aging and Alzheimer’s disease) are beyond our control’
4: Themes of honour in Homer’s Odyssey
One of the oldest surviving stories (it is thought to have been composed in the 8th Century BC as a spoken tale), The Odyssey is an excellent example of developed story themes.
The story tells of the hero Odysseus’ snaking 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.
How The Odyssey develops the theme of ‘honour’
Before we read Odysseus’ travels and trials, we see his son Telemachus and wife Penelope back home in Ithaca.
Suitors, convinced Odysseus’ has been killed and will not return, 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 eat Odysseus out of house and home in his absence, showing no respect. 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, to put the suitors off longer.
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 honourable choice (Penelope’s decision to remain loyal to Odysseus, to have faith).
Homer’s development of the theme of ‘honour’ thus adds nuance to our understanding. We see, for example, in Penelope’s necessary deception, the idea that we should honour only those who treat us honourably themselves.
5: Themes of the dark side of science, technology and ‘progress’ in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake explores a post-apocalyptic world where science without ethics almost kills the entire human race.
Atwood creates a world where multinational corporations rule, showing the devastation relentless pursuit of profit and ‘progress’ can wreak.
How Atwood develops themes of ‘the dangers of technological progress without responsibility’
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. Early scenes in the book show the dark side of the sheer variety of information we now have access to.
Jimmy and his friend grow up in a world where developing a keen sense of right and wrong is hard. Individuals have more freedom, 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 [spoiler alert] that Crake became a bio-engineer, creating a drug that in turn created a fatal global pandemic.
To develop her primary, dystopian themes, Atwood:
- Creates two character paths that diverge: Jimmy/Snowman retains his awareness and compassion whereas Crake pursues discovery and power regardless of the cost
- Imagines an end-game: What if ‘progress’ and ‘profit’ replace all ethical standards and concerns, without checks and balances?
Atwood takes her novel’s theme (the danger of technological progress without responsibility or humanity) and pushes it to a conclusion that shows how much is at stake.
To develop your own story themes to end-points as Atwood does:
- Ask ‘what would happen if’: For example, if your theme were ‘love conquers all’, how could you continue to show this if one character (like Allie in The Notebook) lost their memory? Sparks does this by having Noah read Allie their personal history as though it is a fable, still wishing to share what they’ve created together
- Brainstorm ideas for end-games: What is the final result of your theme developing to a conclusion? For example, if ‘power corrupts’, either the powerful’s abilities must have checks and balances, or people (your characters) suffer the consequences
Start developing your themes now: Use the idea finder to brainstorm thematic direction and purpose for your story.