What Is The Theme Of A Novel? The Big Idea!

what is theme in a novel?The theme of a story or book is the big idea that flows underneath and throughout the novel’s plot.

If the ups and downs of the plot events represents the surface of the sea, then the theme is the undercurrent – unseen, but strong.

It needn’t be in the form of a simplistic ‘moral of the tale’, but it can be, if the author so wishes, which brings us to the heart of the matter. The story’s theme is the message the writer wants to get across to his readers. The action, dialogue and plot are the devices he uses to communicate his big idea.

Theme Definition

The message isn’t necessary in the form of a lecture from on-high and is mostly best if not delivered in this way. Theme is a broad concept that is prevalent in all our human lives, engaging attention and presenting people with common difficulties or situations which demands they make choices.

A novel’s theme may not be simply one thing, but a compound structure including a combination of purer ideas, such as love, money, friendship, power to name a few, and with an almost limitless number of possible permutations.

Examples Of Book Themes – List Common Book Themes

A good start might be to list some common and typical book themes. The list below is by no means exhaustive, as they say:

  1. Love
  2. War
  3. Brotherly Love
  4. Patriotism
  5. Spirituality
  6. Religion
  7. Poverty
  8. Wealth
  9. Individual vs Society
  10. Politics
  11. Honesty
  12. Integrity
  13. Survival
  14. Exploration
  15. Time

As you can see, themes can be very diverse and it’s easy to see how two or more could be combined in one story. A good example if the power of love, both romantic and brotherly, in wartime. The part of the theme relating to military combat might focus on the futility and barbarity of war, or patriotism. it depends entirely on what the author wants to say to the reader.

Again, we come back to the truism that it’s all in the hands of the creator of the novel – the author must decided exactly what it is he wants to say, which is sometimes snot as easy as it sounds. This also begs the question: Which comes first, theme or setting when planning to write a novel?

Creative Writing Themes

Let me explain: At first glance a story with a theme of romantic love could feasibly be written in any number of settings. the author could choose a 17th century British society setting or a space station orbiting the planet Saturn.

A fantasy world might be chosen for the action, but whichever setting is chosen, it will definitely have an impact on the theme of the book. A love story set in 17th century England would probably have to include aspects of class inequality and the social norms attached to the classes.

romance theme in space novel settingThe story would be much more poignant if the couple were from very different backgrounds, causing friction with their families. This setting would show the power of love  as they manage to overcome all the taboos, overcoming all the obstacles placed in their way by their own class.

A love affair on a space cruiser, where danger is implicit in a hostile environment, might give rise to great acts of heroism or sacrifice from either partner. This would make the romance so much more intense.

In both stories the setting has a considerable impact, not only because of the specific conflicts their environments bring, but also because they dictate the kind of possible plot events that drive the story forward.

Do Themes Matters In A Novel?

Blasphemy! Why yes, of course they do. Let’s explore why this is. It’s more evident in movies as they’re faster and visual, so it’s better hidden. Imagine a movie or a story that’s all action. Apart from the fact that any story should unfold in waves, with highs and lows, action and derring-do for it’s own sake is rather, well, boring!

Undoubtedly, there have been many popular heroes in literature that just acted heroically, because that’s what they do – they’re heroes! So why is it that we often finish a book, or leave a movie feeling unsatisfied, as though something very important is missing?

david-and-goliath themeThe answer is that either the them was almost non-existent, or it wasn’t made obvious enough. It’s not enough that the hero vanquished a dragon in a mighty battle, thereby saving the town. A sophisticated reader wants to know that, as a little boy, he was terrified of any creatures at all, never mind a fire-breathing dragon.

As the hero battles each challenge leading up to the climactic battle with his huge and merciless foe, the author skillfully states and reinforces the theme of the story. Anyone, even the little guy, can overcome all the odds if he’s motivated enough. The theme is David and Goliath all over again. The underdog wins, which is very rare in real-life and readers love it!

If there happens to be a Princess at risk, then all the better. The Little Guy, besotted with the beautiful girl, saves here from the beast. This part of the them becomes ‘Love Conquers All.’ Do you see how it works? Without these big ideas underneath the plot devices, a story would simply be a series of events and interest us little.

Examples Of Theme In A Story

As a teenager I was very attached to several books by John Steinbeck, the celebrated American novelist, and in particular, Cannery Row. he also wrote a sequel titled Sweet Thursday, which attempted to carry on the story of Mack and the boys in and around this strange little corner of Ocean View Avenue in Monterey. In commemoration of Steinbeck’s work, the town council changed the street name to Cannery Row after his death.

I missed the characters in these books so much that I tried to write a sequel. It was my first attempt at writing a novel. I won’t go into the painful detail here, but the final manuscript was very short and very bad! So what was it about these books that enthralled me? Of course, some funny things happened and were handled expertly in that direct American prose style, but that wasn’t all of it.

The Themes Of Cannery Row

cannery row themes john steinbeckThere are at least five themes in this novel, and probably some more minor ones, if we want to root them out. Basically, the vast majority of the denizens of the Row are rejects or failures, all having dreams of success and a better life. These people are ‘everyman’ and represent the struggles of ordinary men and women everywhere, trying to make ends meet while maintaining some level of happiness. This is the first theme that springs to mind. Everyman.

These rejects from ‘normal’ society, which includes Doc, even though he’s educated and the subject of many schemes to deprive him of cash, are embraced by the community as a whole. They look out for each other, help each other and defend each other when necessary. The second theme is the importance of Community.

Doc is a biologist and spends time hunting for specimens of marine life in the tide pools, categorizing them and selling them ion to Universities throughout the States. There is a strong link between the rhythms of life both in the microcosmic scale of the tide-pools, and the affairs of men on Cannery Row. This third theme might be called Cycles Of Life.

When someone is in real trouble on the Row, it bothers those around them to varying degrees, depending on the nature of their relationship. If a friend is in trouble, then the commitment to help them is almost absolute. This them is called Loyalty.


I could go on with the above them analysis, but I’m sure you get the point. Did Steinbeck plan all aspects of this multi-themed novel? Perhaps the main themes of outcasts and community were placed first, and the other minor themes of Loyalty and Everyman naturally sprung up in the process of writing.

We’ll never know, but it shows that even a cursory examination underneath the characters and events in any successful book will reveal similar themes. Without them the stories would have much less impact on the reader and wouldn’t have anything like the same success.


Writer's Workshop Link - What is a theme of a novel?

Author Douglas Kennedy talks about the them of love and life in his novels:


Video Transcript:

I never think as a woman. I think as the person I’m writing about. I think that’s the key. I’ve always written in the first person and I always see the world with their eyes. I think a crucial thing for a novelist is empathy. You have to have a lot of empathy.

Something a good shrink once said to me “so the reason why you have to be apathetic towards other people is because when you look at someone, else you’re seeing someone in the middle of a huge struggle?” I think that’s actually very true and I I try to bring that to bear when I write.

Well, one of the very nice things about being a novelist is you actually get to control life on the page. You can never control life in real life because there are always other people. There’s always the happenstance nature of life’s things that you never see coming which actually suddenly arrive.

I think I believe that fate happens after choice. I don’t believe in kind of great bromides about life or great epigrammatic statements about life but there’s one statement which I happened across and which everyone knows which is from Novalis the 19th century German poet which I actually think nails it.

That’s “character is destiny”. I actually think that is absolutely true. I think your character very much controls your destiny outside of that, if we want to talk existentially. Where metaphysically, the fact is you can try to construct a life for example. As I know certain people have stone by stone.

Trying to build this very solid foundation and yet something can come along and completely upend it. There’s nothing like us. There’s no such sense of a solid structure in life because life is random. It’s happening, sensual and frequently very unfair.

In my books, what happens naturally always plays a role because I think life can be upended in a moment. Is it dangerous to be, or matter what someone who’s recently fallen in love? You know, no I don’t think at all like that. I think love, though, is two things.

Love is the great search that we all have. We’re always searching for love. Love is also the great dilemma because it’s how you merge with another. So the other aspect of love as well as it changes and also love becomes the day-to-day.

If you start living with someone and you get married, certainly, if you have children it changes as well. That’s the challenging aspect of love, when suddenly it’s not romance.