What moral, idea, lesson, or message do you want to get across to your readers?
The theme (exploration of some fundamental aspect of society or humanity) of a story can be conveyed using characters, conflict, dialogue, plot, setting, or a combination of all these elements.
- Characters – The people who take part in the action of the story.
- Conflict – The struggle faced by the main character that must reach a resolution.
- Dialogue – Dialogue is the exchange of spoken words between two or more characters.
- Plot – The events that make up a story.
- Setting – Where the story takes place.
Themes are almost never obvious, but you can usually identify a novel’s themes by looking for a repeating symbol, phrase, or motif (a motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature) that appears again and again throughout a story since it often signals a recurring concept or idea.
The theme is different from the main idea, don’t get them confused. The main idea is what the story is about or a tight summary of the plot, whereas the theme is the underlying message.
There are two ways to come up with a book idea.
#1 Write what interests you. What story do you want to tell? Or
#2 Agents and editors already know what’s popular and selling and what readers is are buying. It might be a pretty good place to start, particularly as an aspiring author, go check out what genre and theme the agents are looking for.
The 1st six are the most common themes in literature:
- Coming of age
- Courage and perseverance
- Good vs. evil
- Death and Dying
Other ideas, honesty, the importance of family, loyalty, or friendship
Coming of Age
Coming-of-age stories are popular in young adult literature and memoirs.
Also Known As: Bildungsroman, this is a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood (coming of age), in which character change is key. A classic coming-of-age story follows one or more characters during their journey of growing up into adulthood. The story portrays the emotions and experiences the characters may experience before reaching maturity.
Examples: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, or The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
Courage and Perseverance
The triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity is a hugely popular theme in literature, film, and real life. Characters in stories about courage endure difficult circumstances or impossible odds, persevering through sheer determination, grit, and gall.
Examples: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden.
Good vs. Evil
Good vs. Evil stories are popular in comic books, children’s, and young readers.
The external battle between light and dark, or virtue and sin or an internal struggle to do the right thing when faced with temptation. These stories are about good triumphing over evil.
Examples: Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling’s or To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee’s
Love or its absence. Love can be a force for good that inspires people to sacrifice themselves for others, or a toxic force that drives people to madness or violence. What kind of love do you want to write about family and friend love, sibling love, love in a marriage, love triangle, or romantic love?
Examples: Forbidden love- Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare and Atonement by Ian McEwan. Family love – The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. Unrequited love – The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. Friendship – The Body by Stephen King (adapted into a film, Stand By Me) and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
To succeed after having failed is the key to this theme. In books that employ redemption as a central theme, characters in the beginning are down and out from failing, but see the errors of their failures or tragedies and strive to right the wrongs they’ve committed, while many times sacrificing their freedom or life. As R. Kayne says, “By the end of the story the character will have undergone a “trial by fire” that results in a Phoenix experience of rising from the ashes, a totally new, more powerful and more whole person.”
Examples: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, or Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
An eye for an eye. The protagonist believes they were wrong done, and are out for blood. In any case they have a desire for some degree of vengeance or retaliation, and act on it. The story will either represent the trials a character must undergo in order to settle the score, or explore the human cost and moral dilemmas around pursuing vengeance in the first place.
Examples: Iliad by Homer, Carrie by Stephen King, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, or Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
These stories have characters that have a feeling of deep sympathy, sorrow, but also care for and help those who are stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
Examples: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, Fire by Kristin Cashore, All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, or The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
Death and Dying
Death is unavoidable and can be devastating to the friends and family left behind. Stories about death give us a way to understand, methods to cope, and a chance to heal. There are five stages to death and grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Writing about a loss of a loved one connects a person to their humanity. How do you say good-bye?
Examples: Books written about the fear of the unknown, curiosity about possible afterlives, or a need to make sense of a life lost but loved. More Than This by Patrick Ness, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions by