Understanding Theme: Definitions, Tips & Examples
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 7 min read


  1. What is Theme?
  2. How to Identify Theme
  3. Tips on Exploring Theme
  4. Theme Examples in Literature
  5. Application of Theme in Writing

Imagine you're reading a book, watching a movie, or even listening to a song. You notice there's a common thread, a recurring idea that seems to tie everything together. That's what we call a theme. This blog will help you understand the definition of theme, how to spot it, and how to apply it in different contexts.

What is Theme?

Let's start by exploring the definition of theme. A theme is the main idea or underlying message that an author wants to communicate. It's what gives a story depth, making it more than just a sequence of events. Themes can be big ideas like love, power, or justice, or they can be more specific, like the struggle for survival in a dystopian world.

Definition: Theme in Literature

When it comes to literature, the definition of theme goes a bit deeper. It's not just about the main idea—it's also about how that idea is explored and developed throughout the story. This could be through the characters' actions, the plot developments, or even the setting. Here's a little more detail:

  • Characters: Characters can embody a theme, with their actions and decisions reflecting the main idea. For example, in the Harry Potter series, the theme of friendship is often highlighted through the actions and interactions of Harry, Hermione, and Ron.
  • Plot: The events that unfold in the story can also reflect the theme. In The Hunger Games, the theme of survival is evident in the dangerous, life-or-death competition that forms the plot's backbone.
  • Setting: Sometimes, the setting itself can underscore the theme. Consider the harsh, unforgiving landscapes in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which mirror the theme of survival in a post-apocalyptic world.

Definition: Theme in Other Art Forms

Now that we've got the literary definition of theme sorted, let's see how it applies to other art forms. Just like in literature, a theme in a movie, song, or painting is the central idea or message.

  • Movies: In movies, the theme can be conveyed through dialogue, visual elements, and plot. In Pixar's Inside Out, for example, the theme of managing emotions is brought to life through the anthropomorphized feelings of a young girl.
  • Songs: A song's theme can be expressed through lyrics, melody, and rhythm. The Beatles' "All You Need is Love" is a clear example of a song with a theme of love.
  • Paintings: In paintings, themes can be depicted through color, composition, and subject matter. Van Gogh's Starry Night, for example, conveys themes of hope and beauty amidst darkness.

So there you have it: the definition of theme in a nutshell. Whether you're reading a book, watching a movie, or admiring a painting, you're likely to encounter a theme. Recognizing it can enrich your understanding and appreciation of the work. But how exactly do you identify a theme? Well, that's a topic for another section.

How to Identify Theme

Now that we've got the definition of theme under our belt, let's look at how you can identify it in a piece of work. Recognizing the theme isn't about finding a secret code or cracking a complex puzzle—it's about paying attention to the details and seeing how they fit together.

Look at the Big Picture

Here's a tip: don't get too caught up in the individual events or elements. Instead, try to look at the big picture. What is the overall message the author or creator wants to convey? For instance, if you notice that a story revolves around characters overcoming obstacles, the theme might be perseverance or resilience.

Pay Attention to Recurring Ideas

Themes often reveal themselves through repetition. If an idea or concept keeps popping up, it's likely a theme. In the Harry Potter series, for example, themes of friendship, bravery, and self-sacrifice emerge again and again—through the characters' actions, the challenges they face, and the choices they make.

Consider the Characters' Journey

The characters' journey can also shed light on the theme. Ask yourself: what do the characters learn? How do they change? If a character starts off as a selfish individual but learns to care for others, the theme could be the transformational power of love or empathy.

Reflect on the Title

Believe it or not, the title of a work can sometimes give you a hint about the theme. Take "To Kill a Mockingbird" for instance. It's not just about literal birds—it's a metaphor for the loss of innocence, which is a major theme in the book.

Remember, identifying the theme isn't an exact science—it's more about interpretation. There's often more than one theme in a work, and different people might pick up on different themes. What's important is that you're thinking critically and delving deeper into the work. And who knows? You might just discover a theme that resonates with you on a personal level.

Tips on Exploring Theme

By now, you should have a solid understanding of what a theme is and how to identify it. Let's now dive into some practical tips for exploring theme, shall we? Exploring theme is like being a detective—you're looking for clues, piecing together evidence, and making connections.

Stay Open-Minded

First things first: keep an open mind. Themes aren't always obvious, and they can be complex and multi-faceted. Don't try to force a theme onto a work; let it reveal itself to you. And remember, it's okay to change your mind about a theme as you delve deeper into a work.

Look for Symbolism and Metaphors

Symbolism and metaphors are often used to represent themes. For instance, a storm might symbolize a character's internal turmoil, or a journey might represent personal growth. Keep an eye out for these symbolic elements—they can give you insights into the theme.

Analyze the Setting

The setting of a work can say a lot about its theme. Does the story take place in a peaceful countryside or a bustling city? These choices aren't random; they're chosen to enhance the theme. A peaceful countryside setting, for instance, might tie into a theme of simplicity or tranquility.

Think About the Conflict

Conflict is a key part of any story, and it often ties into the theme. What kind of conflicts do the characters face? Are they internal (within themselves) or external (with others)? These conflicts can provide clues to the theme.

Exploring theme is not just about understanding a work better—it's also about understanding yourself. When a theme resonates with you, it can make you see things from a new perspective, challenge your beliefs, or even inspire you to make a change. So next time you read a book or watch a movie, don't just follow the plot—dive into the theme as well.

Theme Examples in Literature

Now that we've covered the definition of theme and offered some tips on how to explore it, let's look at some examples from literature. Keep in mind that themes can be varied and nuanced, and a single work can have multiple themes. Here are a few examples to illustrate:

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a prime example of a work with multiple themes. The novel explores themes of racism and injustice, shown through the trial of Tom Robinson, an innocent black man wrongly accused of a crime. The theme of childhood innocence is also prominent, as seen through the eyes of Scout, the young narrator.

Moby Dick

Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" is another classic brimming with themes. The relentless pursuit of the white whale by Captain Ahab explores themes of obsession and revenge. The vast, unpredictable ocean symbolizes the mystery and insignificance of human life in the face of nature.

Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" uses the romantic relationships of its characters to explore themes of love, class, and, as the title suggests, pride and prejudice. It's a story that highlights the dangers of making assumptions and the power of overcoming personal biases.

These examples demonstrate how themes can provide a deeper layer of meaning to a work. They can challenge us, make us think, and engage with us on an emotional level. So, the next time you pick up a book, pay a little extra attention to the theme. You might be surprised at what you discover!

Application of Theme in Writing

Now that we've seen some examples of themes in literature, let's talk about how you can apply this concept to your own writing. Themes aren't just for novels—they can enhance any piece of writing, making it more engaging and meaningful. Here are a few strategies to help you integrate themes into your work:

Choosing Your Theme as a Starting Point

One way to approach theme in your writing is to choose it right at the start. For instance, you might decide you want to write about friendship, love, or courage. That doesn't mean your piece has to be solely about that theme, but it can serve as a guiding principle to shape your characters, plot, and message.

Developing Theme Through Characters

Your characters can be instrumental in expressing your chosen theme. Their actions, dialogue, and experiences can reflect the central theme. For instance, if your theme is betrayal, a character could be betrayed, be the betrayer, or struggle with loyalty.

Using Symbolism to Highlight Theme

Symbolism can be a powerful tool to highlight your theme. Objects, settings, or even characters can symbolize your theme, adding an additional layer of meaning. For example, if you're exploring the theme of freedom, a bird taking flight could serve as a potent symbol.

Keep in mind that the theme is not something to be shoehorned into your writing. Instead, it should emerge naturally as your story unfolds. It's the heart of your piece, the thread that ties everything together. So, the next time you sit down to write, think about your theme. It might just be the spark that brings your writing to life.

If you're looking to further develop your understanding of theme and apply it to your own projects, consider checking out the workshop 'Documentary Treatment: The Last Act' by Reshelshah. This workshop will not only help you grasp the importance of theme but also guide you in crafting a compelling documentary treatment with a strong thematic focus.