How to Find the Theme of a Book or Short Story

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If you've ever been assigned a book report, you may have been asked to address the theme of the book, but in order to do that, you really have to understand what a theme is. Many people, when asked to describe the theme of the book will describe the plot synopsis, but that's not exactly what we're looking for here. 

Understanding Themes

A book's theme is the main idea that flows through the narrative and connects the components of the story together. A work of fiction may have one theme or many, and they aren't always easy to pinpoint right away; it's not always obvious and direct. In many stories, the theme develops over time, and it isn't until you're well into reading the novel or play that you fully understand the underlying theme or themes. 

Themes can be broad or they can hyperfocus on a specific notion. For example, a romance novel may have the very obvious, but very general theme of love, but the storyline may also address issues of society or family. Many stories have a major theme, and several minor themes that help develop the major theme. 

The Differences Between Theme, Plot and Moral

A book's theme is not the same as its plot or its moral lesson, but these elements are related all necessary in building the larger story. 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 and work to present what that theme is to the reader.

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," which could be interpreted as the moral of the story. 

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.

Examples of Themes in Literature

There are several themes that are reoccuring in literature, many of which we can usually pick up quickly. But, some are a little harder to figure out. Consider these popular general themes in literature to see if any of them might be appearing the what you're reading right now, and see if you can use these to determine more specific themes. 

  • Family
  • Friendship
  • Love
  • Overcoming hardships
  • Coming of age
  • Death
  • Struggling with inner demons
  • Good vs. Evil

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 may need to consider what components of the stood out the most to you. You may need 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, but key examples can be useful. 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.

Pro Tip: As you read, use sticky notes to flag significant passages that you think may point to the theme, and consider all of them together once you've finished. 

Key Terms

  • Theme: The main idea that connects all elements of the narrative. 
  • Plot: The action that takes place over the course of the narrative.
  • Moral: A lesson that the reader is intended to learn from the plot's conclusion.
  • Symbolism: The use of a particular object or image to represent a larger idea. 

Article edited by Stacy Jagodowski