Themes in Writing

The difference between Plot and Theme.

The plot is what happens in the book, the theme is the underlying idea/s being explored in the book.

If you are anything like me, you will find yourself coming back to explore certain themes because they are hard wired into your psyche.

In Dickens’ books there is the underlying theme of social injustice. In Joanna Russ’s books there is an underlying theme of gender.

Are you aware of your theme as you are writing? I often discover the theme after I’ve finished the book. Then I go back and use my awareness of the theme to make scenes more powerful. (Without hitting the reader over the head with the theme).

Holly Lisle (once again) has excellent article on themes on her web site. Here is a list of common themes occurring in writing.

Over at the KRK blog I’ve done a post about how writers tell lies (stories) to reveal inner truths (the human condition). These are the themes writers explore.

Before trying to find the theme of the stories and books you are currently writing, take the time to think about themes in a larger sense. Write a list of your ten favourite books and movies. Now what is the theme of each one? Are these themes related? Is there a pattern to the type of book/movie that draws you in?

Now that you’ve analysed why those books and movies drew you and you are aware of their themes, think about the books and stories that you have written over the years. Every story and book requires an emotional investment from you.  What were the themes that you explored? Can you see a pattern?

Are the themes you write about different from the themes you find yourself drawn to in movies and books?

Now that you are more aware of theme, take a look at your most recent short story. Now that you know your theme, you can use this insight to make the ending more powerful by layering subtext into the narrative.

And, just for fun:

Here is an extensive  list of themes, setting and devices found in Steampunk.

And here is a podcast with Alan Baxter talking about Supernatural themes.

Theme – a powerful tool.

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6 Responses to Themes in Writing

  1. Chris says:

    Hi Rowena,

    I’d just like to say that I am enjoying these quick posts immensely. Since I’ve found this site, I’ve actually changed the way I write and am now having work accepted (for publication next year but still, I’m very happy).

    The stories I’ve had accepted recently don’t have any plot at all. They simply contain ideas – themes if you like. Editorials in which the only charcter is the narrator. These short pieces are helping me distil my ideas for my books.

    The themes I explore are a combination of what is currently happening in my life at the time, and ideas that go to the core of who I am. In this I guess I wouldn’t be too different to anyone else.

    • WOW, Chris, so happy to hear this.

      Publication is what we all strive for, otherwise who is going to read our work?

      Mega congrats!

      • Chris says:


        Like I said, without input from websites like this one, I would never have had the confidence to continue with what I was doing. It’s great to hear from people on the other side of the wormhole and know it will all work out okay.


  2. Joanna says:

    Thanks so much for the mention Rowena – themes are fascinating to me as well. They are what attract me to books over and above other aspects. As per interview with Alan, anything supernatural, spiritual or religious will get my attention. Our own obsessions fill our writing and our reading time!

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