What Are Themes In Storytelling? [Including 6 Popular Examples]

Sep 22, 2023

As a writer, themes are like the foundation of your storytelling journey. They’re not just an optional extra but rather the heart of your narrative. Imagine a story without a theme – it would be like a ship without a compass, meandering aimlessly. Whether your goal is groundbreaking literature or a simple tale, every good story should revolve around at least one central theme to give it purpose and coherence. So, let’s dive into the world of themes.

 

What are Themes?

A literary theme represents the principal concept or underlying message a writer delves into within a novel, short story, screenplay, or any literary work. This theme can be conveyed through characters, settings, dialogues, plots, or a blend of all these elements.

  • Characters: The beliefs, actions, and development of characters can embody and convey the central theme of a story.
  • Setting: The environment in which the story unfolds can reflect and reinforce the theme. It can influence the characters’ experiences and decisions.
  • Dialogue: What characters say and how they express themselves can directly convey the theme or provide insights into its exploration.
  • Plot: The events and conflicts that drive the story can revolve around and illustrate the central theme.
  • Symbols and Motifs: Authors often use symbols and recurring motifs to reinforce and deepen the thematic layers of their work.

 

In simpler stories, the theme might boil down to a moral or message, like “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” “Honesty is the best policy,” or “Never give up.”  In more complex narratives,  themes tend to be multifaceted, exploring fundamental aspects of society, human nature, morality, or existential questions.

 

Why Are Themes Important for Writers?

As a writer, being conscious of your story’s theme is essential. Themes act as guiding principles that help you navigate the narrative landscape. They provide clarity and direction, ensuring that your story stays on course. Here’s why themes are vital:

  1. Coherence: A central theme gives your story a sense of coherence. It unifies disparate elements, making the narrative feel more purposeful and structured.
  2. Engagement: Themes help you create moments that resonate with readers. When your story revolves around a central idea, it becomes easier to craft scenes and characters that captivate your audience.
  3. Significance: Themes add depth and significance to your work. They transform your story from a mere sequence of events into a reflection on larger truths and human experiences.

As a writer, being aware of your story’s themes is beneficial. It acts as a compass guiding you toward creating engaging moments that captivate readers and deepen your story’s significance. 

So, let’s explore why themes matter and how you can pinpoint your story’s theme using six common examples in literature.

 

1. The Battle of Good vs. Evil

The Battle of Good vs. Evil themes - Harry Potter vs Voldemort

Harry Potter vs. Voldemort

The timeless clash between good and evil traces its roots from the story of God and Lucifer to contemporary narratives. This theme may pit two characters directly against each other or a protagonist against society or an idea. It can be portrayed through characters’ actions and dialogues or their internal struggles to make ethical choices when faced with temptation.

Popular examples of stories whose characters have explored this theme include Batman vs. The Joker, Harry Potter vs. Voldemort, Flash vs. Reverse Flash, Neo vs. Agent Smith, and Simba vs. Scar to mention but a few.

 

2. Love

Love Themes - Half of a Yellow Sun movie

Half of a Yellow Sun movie (2014)

Love is a universal and timeless theme. It serves as a driving force behind the characters’ actions and decisions. Love can manifest in various forms, from romantic love to familial bonds and friendships, making it a versatile and relatable theme. It can motivate a character to take on society’s injustices or even make sacrifices for another.

Popular examples of stories whose characters have explored this theme include Titanic (1997), A Walk to Remember (2002), The Fault in Our Stars (2014), and All the Colours of the World Are Between Black and White (2023), to mention but a few.

 

3. Redemption

The Pursuit of Happyness

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Redemption is a powerful and uplifting theme. It involves characters acknowledging their past mistakes and actively working to make amends. This theme resonates with readers as it offers the promise of personal growth and transformation.

Popular examples of stories whose characters have explored this theme include The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Good Will Hunting (1997), The Pursuit of Happyness (20060, and Schindler’s List (1993).

 

4. Hope

Hope themes - The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption (2014)

The theme of hope often shines brightest in the darkest of circumstances. Characters facing insurmountable odds, adversity, or despair find solace in hope for a better tomorrow. It adds emotional depth to a story and emphasizes the resilience of the human spirit.

Popular examples of stories whose characters have explored the theme of hope include The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Erin Brockovich (2000), and Pay It Forward (2000), to mention but a few.

 

5. Family

Lionheart 2018

Lionheart (2018)

Family-themed stories explore the complexities of familial relationships and make for the most interesting and complex sources of conflict in literature. They resonate with audiences because they more easily mirror real-life experiences. These narratives often emphasize the idea that family comes first, regardless of the challenges. Whether it’s the unconditional love between siblings or the generational conflicts between parents and children, family themes provide rich material for exploration. They remind us of the enduring bonds that define our lives.

Popular examples of stories whose characters have explored the theme of family include Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Lionheart (2018), and Chief Daddy (2018), to mention but a few.

 

6. Revenge

Revenge themes - Richard Mofe-Damijo in The Black Book

Richard Mofe-Damijo is a father seeking vengeance in “The Black Book” (2023)

Revenge is a theme that revolves around retribution and vengeance. Characters seek justice for wrongs done to them, often at great personal cost. Revenge stories delve into the moral implications of seeking vengeance and are typically some of the most human stories told. They force readers to confront questions of justice, morality, and the consequences of actions driven by rage or a desire for recompense. These narratives offer a gripping exploration of the darker aspects of human nature and the price one pays for seeking revenge.

Popular examples of stories whose characters have explored the theme of revenge include Carrie (1976), Kill Bill Vol. 1&2 (2003, 2004), Taken (2008), John Wick (2014), and The Black Book (2023).

 

 

The best literary themes are the ones that explore human nature on a fundamental level. It is no surprise, then, that many different stories may share the same central idea. Each of the following popular theme examples in this article provides readers with opportunities for introspection and connection and offers readers food for thought long after the story is finished.

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