What is THEME in Fiction? by Debbie Wilson

Five Elements of Fiction:


Screen shot 2014-03-02 at 7.48.51 AM

Photo Compliments of Morguefile.com

“A theme is a statement or a series of related observations about one aspect or another of the human condition, interpreted from the unique viewpoint of the author….In fiction, a moral is concerned  with upholding and encouraging behavior that society considers virtuous; a moral instructs the reader. A theme is more complex and less didactic than that; if the author wishes, the theme of a novel may be only a series of connected observations, without any intent to teach a lesson.” Dean Koontz, How to Write Best Selling Fiction, p. 123.

“This—the theme—is the basic truth about which you are writing, the idea you’re playing with in the novel, or the point you are attempting to make. Generally, the conflicts that your characters engage in and the difficulties they face are reflections of the theme.” Elizabeth George, Write Away, p. 162.

Theme should grow organically from the story. C. S. Lewis found his Christian theme for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe only after he started writing the book. He did not realize that he was writing a Christian allegory when he first envisioned a faun carrying parcels through a snowy wood, a queen in a sleigh, or a noble lion. Theme comes through in your characters’ thoughts, actions and words.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini is a theme-driven book.  Hosseini explores how family members hurt each other. It starts with a father in Afghanistan selling his tiny daughter to a childless couple so that the rest of the family can survive. The sale ruptures the deep tenderness between his son and daughter and nearly destroys the family.

Then Hosseini shifts the point of the view to the uncle who made the sale possible and how it affected him. The families that he describe display coldness, lust, jealousy, selfishness, and various human weaknesses that endanger the relationships. Instead of following individuals through the story, we follow these interactions that show different ways that family members misunderstand, defy, and betray one another. Hosseini studies the characters while delving into the theme. Not that much happens during the story. Some readers will lose interest while others will be totally engrossed.

In The Color of Pure by L.J. Bleed, the theme is the importance of purity and the consequences of sexual choices. Chloe’s mother’s early promiscuity has contributed to the cancer that is killing her, even though she changed her lifestyle following Chloe’s birth. As her death approaches, she gives her daughter her purity ring. When Chloe dons it, she sees unusual colors surrounding individuals. With Chloe’s search for the meaning of the colors, Bleed uses one scene to become the stimulus in the next. We follow Chloe through the story, her thoughts, actions, discoveries, and words driving the theme. More happens in the plot than in Hosseini’s, but it still is theme-driven.

Michelle Weidenbenner delivers her theme of the effects of molestation on its victims through lots of action and suspense in Cache a Predator. She does not need to moralize on the theme because the human responses say what needs to be said. Intense action carries her theme.

In The Root of All Evil, Brandt Dodson delves into the theme of the danger of  the love of money. Nearly all characters in the story struggle with that problem, entangling them in conflict. Although the theme is strong, action and characterization carry that theme.

If we look at Huckleberry Finn and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, we find examples of setting carrying the theme.

No element in a good story stands alone. A deftly written story will provide a rich tapestry of imagery and action. Characters act in a setting based on their goals and desires. Conflicts change with the change of characterization and setting. Theme grows out of the characters and their conflicts. As they try to overcome the obstacles to their desires, characters make choices that drive the plot. Powerful stories depend on all five elements working together.

J.R.R. Tolkien reported that C.S. Lewis told him, “Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to write some ourselves.” –C.S. Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, p. xvii.

And so we shall.

Books I’ve Found Helpful

*Bickham, Jack M. Scene and Structure. Writer’s Digest Books

*Bickham, Jack M. Setting. Writer’s Digest Books

*Elwood, Maren. Characters Make Your Story. The Writer Inc.

Gerard, Philip. Writing a Book that Makes a Difference. Story Press.

George, Elizabeth. Write Away. Harper Collins.

*Hood, Ann. Creating Character Emotions. Story Press.

Jenkins, Jerry B. Writing for the Soul. Writer’s Digest Books.

*Kernen, Robert. Building Better Plots. Writer’s Digest Books.

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner.

Koontz, Dean R. How to Write Best Selling Fiction. Writer’s Digest Books.

*Kress, Nancy. Dynamic Characters. Writer’s Digest Books.

Maas, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel. Writer’s Digest Books

*McCutcheon, Marc. Building Believable Characters. Writer’s Digest Books.

Morrell, Jessica Page. Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction. Writer’s Digest Books.

*Noble, William. Conflict, Action & Suspense. Writer’s Digest Books.

Peretti, Frank. The Wounded Spirit. Harper Collins.

Zuckerman, Albert. Writing the Block Buster Novel. Writer’s Digest Books.

Books marked with * are ones that helped me in learning to write the basics in fiction.

 What is the theme in your novel? 

Screen shot 2014-01-29 at 8.03.55 PM

Thank you Debbie Wilson for sharing a five-week journey with us about the FIVE ELEMENTS of FICTION! I hope readers will read Tiger in the Shadows. I know I will, and I’m confident it will have all five of the fictional elements.

If you missed the previous posts on the FIVE ELEMENTS of FICTION, you can click on the following words to read each post:  CHARACTER, CONFLICT, SETTING, and PLOT.


Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address:

Please share your random thoughts.


Thank you for stopping by!