The recurring ideas or broad themes of books give us insights into ideas such as ‘love’, ‘honor’, ‘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:
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
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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.
9 replies on “How to develop story themes: 5 theme examples”
“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.
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.
For me theme is an empty page. I have been struggling with this. “The guy with the white hat doesn’t always win.” “Sometimes there isn’t room for justice”, “Knowing the truth doesn’t mean you can prove it.” I wrote a crime novel based on an actual unsolved crime. The ending is satisfactory in that the police know who did it, but cannot bring them to justice as Organized Crime leaders are in a position to quash evidence and judges are related to the criminals.
Ok, I just revealed the ending. I write stories. Do I really need to worry about a Theme? Won’t the premise work? What if you can prove the crime but can’t bring the criminal to justice? Won’t that work?
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. You’re right in the sense that worrying about theme (or any other element of a story) is counter-productive. All the same it can be useful to think of themes you’ve already introduced (particularly in revision drafts) and possible ways you could approach the same theme from another angle. This is useful, for example, if you’d like to find subplots that supplement or contrast with your main characters’ arcs (for example, your main character arc might pose one thematic idea, while a subplot poses a contradictory or simply contrasting viewpoint).
I would say focusing on the crime in your story and how the case pans out is an equally valid way of telling a story – there’s no single approach that is the definitive one!
So many in my life have tried to discuss the theme of a story and did so in abstract terms: the essence of character, integrity, the obtuse in the planning of life, and god (a philosophical abstract, not the Supreme Being), have all been passed off as story themes. But the concept discussed here, “The sense of direction and purpose is an important aspect of theme in story,” implies physical or psychological, or philosophical movement. Therefore, I don’t see how a story them can be discussed or defined without putting the theme into sentence form with a subject and verb and, perhaps, an object. The essence of character . . . what? Integrity . . . did what? The obtuse in the planning of life . . . did what? God . . . what?
The last first. (A Biblical concept but not the concept here.) Again, god . . . what? God . . . left. One could leave it open-ended and, a la Sartre, leave it there. God left. But isn’t that incomplete? God left . . . me? Or, again al la Sarte, “God left me stranded.” There it is: a complete sentence that leaves us with a theme based on movement. I submit that the incomplete thought is not a theme: “The theme of my story is god.” Here, god makes no movement, has no quality, no gravitas, no force. The purpose of a story may well be to show that god has no quality, no gravitas, or force, but I think that still must be presented in a thematic statement: “In my life, god has never shown himself, itself, or herself.” Even the simplistic “god does not exist” is a superior thematic statement to simply . . . god.
I’ve made my point: I won’t ramble on. But I must credit my professor, Dr. Bryan, for the thoughts here–they are not original with me. They carry me–they gave me movement.
I will not
Hi Jim, thanks for your deep engagement with the ideas here. You’re right that the thematic elements of a story get more interesting the more developed the underlying ‘premise sentence’ is (for example ‘power corrupts when…’ or ‘power corrupts if…’ is more specific – and thus more interesting – than simply ‘power corrupts’). As you point out, it gives ‘movement’ or (in other words) an indication of cause and effect. Thanks for reading.
hi, I’m reading the Anne Frank scenes for ELA and am having a really hard time answering this question:
A theme is a message (or moral) about life. Themes are revealed
through the characters and the “big ideas” that affect them, such as the topics listed below. Choose one of the theme topics below. In a paragraph, explain how specific characters in Act I have experienced this theme topic in the action of the play:
I was wondering if someone could help me?
Thank you for sharing your challenge. What is the title and author of the play about Anne Frank? That context would be helpful for me to offer advice. Knowing the story of Anne Frank I’d imagine themes include growing up, human nature, the cruelty of war, identity (the persecution of Jewish people in the Holocaust being based on their religious/cultural identity), etc. What happens in Act 1?
Good luck with your ELA assignment/exam.