Thematic Development in Writing

The major theme in a literary work is the most significant idea the author is trying to convey. A theme can be anything from “Love and Friendship” to “Good versus Evil.” It’s the underlying idea that connects the plot and characters with a deeper meaning. Today we’re going to talk about how you can choose and develop a theme in your writing.

If you’re not sure what your theme is, think about what your work is about on the grand scale. Forget all about the details of the plot, the character, the problem, and the setting. Instead, try to deduce what the core concept is that you’re exploring. Let’s say you’re writing a story about a hero rescuing a princess from the castle. Is your theme “good triumphs over evil,” or is it “the princess saves herself in this one?” Whatever you decide will change the way that you write.

Let’s look at some areas that are ripe for theme development.

A powerful way to advance your theme is in your character’s actions and choices. If you are choosing whether to have your protagonist do A or B, look first at which action better illustrates your theme. While you certainly don’t want to beat a dead horse with symbolism, a noteworthy decision could be a subtle reminder to the reader of the deeper meaning of the book. One of the main themes in Orson Scott Card’s book, Ender’s Game, is the theme of compassion (or lack thereof). Early in the book, Ender fights a bully and injures him more than necessary. He explains himself thus: “Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones, too. So they’d leave me alone.” Card uses this individual instance to shine a light on the question of what compassion looks like when someone’s forced to defend himself or herself, foreshadowing a major theme revealed throughout the book.

A book’s setting can also help determine its theme. Think about the M. Night Shyamalan movie, The Village. One of the themes in the movie is isolation, both of the society as a whole, and of the individuals within. The setting is a self-sustained town in a clearing in the woods. All around the town are watch posts and no one is allowed to enter or exit. The setting is a strong contributor to the theme of isolation throughout the whole story.

You can also look at the major conflict in your story as a way to further deepen your theme. Let’s take another well-known movie plot for our example. In the superhero movie Avengers, the plot involves a group of different superheros overcoming their differences to attack a common enemy. A major theme in the movie is unity, and the conflict in the story helps drive this home again and again.

One of the most colorful ways to develop your theme is through the character of your antagonist. The antagonist is the character that actively opposes your main character. We can stay with the superhero motif for a great example of antagonist theme development. In the X-Men franchise, the main antagonist is Magneto. One of the primary themes in X-Men is the theme of discrimination. The mutants face this discrimination and have to find unity and purpose despite the way the world, and sometimes other mutants, view them. Magneto’s character and backstory help develop this theme. He is Jewish, and initially discovers his mutant powers while being separated from his family in a concentration camp. Magneto’s character was discriminated against in the worst possible way before he was even revealed as a mutant, an excellent example of the antagonist’s character driving the theme along.

To recap, if your plot is the backbone of your story, the theme is the muscle. Developing your theme makes your story not just solid, but strong as well.

That’s all for now—thanks for watching, and as always, happy studying.

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by Mometrix Test Preparation | Last Updated: October 6, 2021