How to Find the Theme of a Book or Short Story

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If you've ever been assigned a book report, the topic may have about the theme of the book. A book's theme is what the story is about, the main idea that flows through the narrative. A work of fiction may have one theme or many. 

Theme Vs. Plot and Moral

A book's theme is not the same as its plot or its moral lesson, but these elements are related. The plot of a novel is the action that takes place within the course of the narrative.

The moral is the lesson that the reader is supposed to learn from the plot's conclusion. Both reflect the larger theme. 

A story's theme isn't typically stated outright. Often it is suggested by a thinly veiled lesson or details contained within the plot. In the nursery tale "The Three Little Pigs," the narrative revolves around three pigs and a wolf's pursuit of them. The wolf destroys their first two homes, shoddily built of straw and twigs. But the third home, painstakingly built of brick, protects the pigs and the wolf is defeated. The pigs (and the reader) learn that only hard work and preparation will lead to success. Thus, you can say that the theme is about making smart choices.

If you find yourself struggling to identify the theme of what you're reading, there's a simple trick you can use. When you finish reading a book, ask yourself to sum up the book in a single word. For example, you could say preparation best symbolizes "The Three Little Pigs." Next, use that word as the foundation for a complete thought such as, "Making smart choices requires planning and preparation."

Symbolism and Theme

As with any art form, the theme of a novel or short story may not necessarily be clear. Sometimes, writers will use a character or object as a symbol or motif that hints at larger theme or themes.

Consider the novel "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," which recounts the story of an immigrant family living in New York City in the early 20th century.

The tree growing up through the sidewalk in front of their apartment is more than just part of the neighborhood background. The tree is a feature of both the plot and the theme. It thrives in spite of its harsh surroundings, much like the main character Francine as she comes of age. 

Even years later, when the tree has been chopped down, a small green shoot remains. The tree serves as a stand-in for Francine's immigrant community and the theme of resilience in the face of adversity and the pursuit of the American dream.

Your Book Report

Once you've determined what the main theme of the story is, you're almost ready to write your book report. But before you do, you'll need to reread the text to find examples of what the theme of the book is. Be concise; you don't need to repeat every detail of the plot or use multi-sentence quotes from a character in the novel. Unless you're writing an extensive analysis, a few short sentences should be all you need to provide an example of a book's theme.