Exploring Theme

15.11.2020 |

Episode #2 of the course Studying English literature: Excel in the study of novels, poems, plays, and more by K.C. Finn


One of the first things that hit us about a story are the themes and ideas present, sometimes even before we start reading it. This is not to be confused with the subject, however, which is what the book is about. Themes are ideas, images, and emotional states which reoccur frequently in a novel, though they may take different forms. To make a simple starting definition, a book about a young woman coming out to her family would use coming out as the subject, but the overarching themes might be LGBTQ+ representation, culture, and family life.

In this lesson, we’ll train our brains to hone into this wider lens of thinking, and also discover how best to organize the themes we’ve identified into different levels of intricacy and importance. It might sound complex at first, but there are some very simple organizational techniques we can employ to achieve success.


The Concept of Theme Levels

We’re going to explore a quick run-down of themes, and the levels at which you are likely to find them in the story. As we go down this hierarchy from most prominent themes to less prominent, do remember that any theme could be downsized or upsized to fit each category, depending on the importance the author places on it:

    Overarching themes are those which drive the whole story and reoccur most often in the main plot and the main character’s storyline. Examples of these could be overcoming fear, hero’s quest, or romantic success, depending on the kind of book you’re reading.

    Atmospheric or genre-specific themes are those which give the book its overall mood, and can usually be found in the scenery, settings, and events which happen to our characters. Examples of these could be the reoccurring presence of blood or bones, for example in a horror or crime novel.

    Character-specific themes are those emotional, personal, and cultural states which our characters find themselves in as the novel progresses. Examples of these could be a character’s religious background, struggles with identity, addiction or obsession, and many more.



It’s always best to try this exercise for the first time on a book you know very well. I say book rather than a story because a full-length novel will give you much more to go on when identifying with our new organizational technique.

Flick through the book and remind yourself of pivotal moments in character and plot. What ideas, images, and emotional states do you remember that reoccur frequently? If you think you have a theme, write it down, and don’t worry about hierarchy initially. Keep working through different chapters and examining characters until you have a decent page of potential themes.

At this stage, take your page of notes, and start a new one by grouping similar ideas together. So for example, if you have identified “first kisses” and “dating” on your list, you might be able to combine those into a more general “Romance” label. Do this until you feel you have grouped your ideas efficiently.

Finally, take a look again at the categories from our theme levels, and see what order of priority you would use to categorize the themes you have found. Some of them might fit into more than one category, and that’s just fine!



As with many of the activities and techniques which this course will introduce you to, the more you read, the better you’ll get at using them. After an exercise such as this, it might be useful to pick up a new text, even just for the first chapter, and test your skills again on something a little different from what you’ve just experienced. You should find that the more widely you explore these ideas of theme, the easier it becomes to recognize them and add to your theme list as time goes on.

In the next lesson, we’ll find out how to analyze the characters in any work of literature that we encounter, examining them through different lenses such as narration, dialogue, description, and ongoing development.

Until then, go get your theme on!



Recommended reading 

If you’d like to read more on identifying theme or need further clarification, Thought Co has some great tips here.


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