A Guide to Themes in Writing and Literature

By Alan Reiner – December 18, 2023

In the realm of writing and literature, themes help convey the universal messages and underlying meanings within a story. A theme is not about the story’s literal details, such as its characters or settings, but rather focuses on the underlying message the story communicates to its readers.

As you immerse yourself in different literary works, you will likely come across common themes that are prevalent throughout various genres and periods. These themes, often universal in nature, resonate with readers and elicit strong emotional responses.

Understanding and identifying themes in literature allows you to better appreciate the depth and complexity of the works you read. It also plays a critical role in your writing as you strive to create stories that are engaging, thought-provoking, and meaningful.

What Is a Theme, and What Is Its Purpose?

A theme is a universal idea, lesson, or message that can be found in a work of literature, art, or writing. It serves as the central, unifying element that ties various aspects of the narrative together, giving it a broader meaning beyond the literal details of characters and events.

In literature, a theme is not simply the moral or philosophical outlook of the work but instead delves deeper into questions and conflicts of identity, philosophy, or morality. It transcends the immediate story, relating to broader human experiences and emotions that readers can connect with.

A well-crafted theme adds depth and cohesiveness to a work, making it more engaging and thought-provoking. It helps writers convey their ideas and perspectives, enabling readers to better understand the underlying message and appreciate the complexities of the narrative.

Ultimately, the purpose of a theme is to reinforce the overall meaning of a work, giving it a lasting impact and resonance within the reader’s mind. In doing so, it elevates the work from a simple narrative to a reflection of universal experiences and emotions that can be shared across different cultures and time periods.

Top 10 Prevalent Themes in Writing

Beauty

Beautiful things inspire us, but beauty can also be deceiving or destructive. Literature often explores the role of beauty in life, love, and even morality.

Whether describing a stunning landscape or a character’s physical appearance, writers challenge our perceptions of beauty and its true value.

Good Vs. Evil

The epic struggle between good and evil is a mainstay in literature. Readers often find themselves rooting for heroes battling against villains or sinister forces. These conflicts usually reflect larger moral questions and help us understand human nature.

Coming-of-Age

Coming-of-age stories capture the essence of growing up and navigating the complexities of youth. These stories often feature protagonists who must find themselves, confront personal challenges, and learn valuable life lessons along the journey to adulthood.

Loyalty

Loyalty is a common theme in literature that explores the bonds between friends, family, or comrades in arms. It often tests the limits of allegiance and poses questions about trust and obligation.

Betrayal

Closely tied with loyalty, betrayal is a recurring theme in literature, capturing the pain and consequences of deception, broken trust, and treachery. These stories remind us of the impact our choices have on ourselves and others.

Life and Death

Life and death are inescapable aspects of the human experience. Themes related to life, death, and the afterlife often prompt reflection on love, loss, and the meaning of life itself.

Justice

Justice is a pervasive theme in literature, addressing societal issues such as fairness, vengeance, and protection of the innocent. These works challenge our understanding of right and wrong and explore the consequences of injustice on individuals and communities.

Family

Family is a powerful theme in literature, driving countless stories about the trials and joys of familial relationships. These works emphasize the bonds that hold families together, the impact of family structure on individual growth, and the life lessons learned from family dynamics.

Power

The pursuit of power and the consequences of wielding it are central to many literary works. Whether political, social, or supernatural, power can corrupt, liberate, or destroy. Writers often use power as a way to explore authority, ambition, and human nature.

Change Vs. Tradition

The tension between tradition and change is a recurring theme in literature. Characters often grapple with the need to adapt to shifting circumstances while honoring their cultural heritage. This theme provokes thought about personal and societal growth in the face of evolving norms and values.

How to Identify Themes in Writing and Literature Using Close Reading

Close reading is a valuable method for identifying themes in writing and literature. It involves delving into the text, paying attention to details, and considering its possible meanings.

Start with the Structure: Spotting Patterns and Symbols

the process of analyzing literature with a focus on structure, patterns, and symbols; features an open book with highlighted sections and annotations, surrounded by symbolic objects

To begin, focus on the structure of the work. Notice recurring patterns, motifs, and symbols. These elements often convey important messages and can help reveal the theme.

Get to Know the Characters: What They Do and Why

Next, consider the characters and their actions. Examine their motivations, interactions, and development throughout the story.

This can provide insight into the overall message of the work.

Notice the Language: How Imagery and Metaphors Add Depth

As you read, take note of any prominent language features, such as imagery, similes, or metaphors.

These literary devices often support the theme or contribute to the atmosphere.

Connect the Dots: Being Open to Multiple Meanings

Throughout your close reading, try to draw connections between different aspects of the text and consider their implications. Remember to be open-minded about possible interpretations.

a person connecting dots on a piece of paper, contemplating a map of interconnected ideas—as if exploring multiple interpretations and meanings

By employing this method, you can confidently and knowledgeably analyze the themes in writing and literature.

Three Tactics for Crafting Your Own Theme in Writing

Plot Your Themes and Literary Devices

When developing your theme, begin by mapping out the themes and literary devices you want to incorporate. Consider your central conflict and setting. Introduce themes through characters and their actions, which can be enhanced by action scenes. 

Remember the relationships between themes, character growth, and family dynamics. Identify common literary devices such as motifs, symbolism, or foreshadowing.

Let the Theme Flow, Don’t Force It

Allow your theme to emerge naturally from your writing process. Don’t force a particular theme into your story. Instead, focus on developing your characters, setting, and plot. As the narrative unfolds, make note of emerging patterns and themes.

Once you’ve identified a recurring theme, you can carefully strengthen it through your characters, their conflicts, and their personal journeys.

Look to Similar Stories for Theme Inspo

Find inspiration in other stories with similar themes, but refrain from copying them. Compare how different writers explore the same theme using diverse characters, settings, and conflicts. 

This exercise will help you gain insights into your own story structure, characters, and setting. Use these insights to enrich your theme and create a unique approach in your writing. 

By studying stories with similar themes, you will sharpen your understanding of thematic development and craft a more compelling narrative.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some common themes found in literature?

Common themes found in literature include love, revenge, power, greed, freedom, corruption, fate, free will, ambition, lust, violence, youth, family, pain, and fear. These themes are often central to the story and help convey deeper meanings and messages.

How can I identify the theme of a particular work of literature?

To identify the theme of a work of literature, consider the main topics it explores, along with the characters’ actions and motivations. Pay attention to recurring symbols, images, and patterns in the text, as these may point to underlying themes. Look for a unifying message or idea that emerges through the story.

Why is understanding themes important for analyzing writing?

Understanding themes is important because they help you grasp the central message or underlying meaning of a work of literature. Themes provide insight into the characters, plot, and narrative structure, allowing you to connect the story’s elements on a deeper level. They also help with comparing and contrasting different works of literature and understanding the author’s intent.

What are examples of universal themes in literature?

Universal themes are those that transcend cultural, historical, and social boundaries and can be found in literature across different time periods and genres. Examples include the human struggle against nature, love and loss, the quest for power, and the conflict between good and evil.

How do themes differ between literary genres?

Themes can differ between literary genres based on the focus of the story. For example, romance novels are likely to explore themes of love, passion, and relationship dynamics, while science fiction often engages with themes of technology, exploration, and the impact of scientific advancements on society. Different genres may also present unique perspectives on shared themes, such as the meaning of freedom in a dystopian versus a historical novel.

What techniques can be employed when developing a theme in writing?

When developing a theme in writing, consider using symbolism, imagery, motifs, and character development to convey your intended message. Establish a strong connection between your theme and the plot, setting, and characters to ensure it resonates throughout the work. Consider using contrasting characters and conflicts to emphasize the theme and engage the reader in its exploration.