The Common Themes We Love in Books
Theme is one of the most overlooked aspects of storytelling, especially for first-time or less-experienced writers. I mean, you have your unique plot, your memorable characters, your thrilling conflicts, and just the right amount of exposition. What more do you need?
Well, dear writer, let me tell you that theme is the certain je ne c’est quoi of writing. It’s the secret sauce. The *chef’s kiss* that will have your readers raving about your book, even if they don’t have a degree in English to explain why the theme was so awesome.
That’s the thing with theme: it’s a subtle addition that has far-reaching benefits for your story.
Have I hyped it up enough yet? Good. Because in this article, we will be talking all about theme, including:
- What a theme is
- The most common themes in books
As my mom always says, “Don’t just dream it, theme it.”
She has never said that, but cheesy lines transitioning out of the intro are kinda my thing, so let’s roll with it.
What is a Theme?
First things first, what the heck is a theme? It’s tough for us to talk about the most common themes in writing without first understanding the basics.
If we turn to Merriam-Webster, the alpha and omega of defining things, we see that theme is “a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation.”
Which is only marginally helpful.
My preferred definition of theme is this: the human truth or social message you are trying to get across with your story.
The theme is the message your story is about. While your plot is the story itself, your plot and characters come together to share the message you want the reader to take away. It is the central idea behind your story.
As the author, the theme is the message you are sharing with your story but one you are never explicitly stating. Instead, you are demonstrating this message through repeated actions and events throughout your book, painting a larger picture.
Imagine the eye rolling you’d induce if your protagonist exclaimed, “Good triumphs over evil again!” or “I only did this because an event in my past robbed me of my innocence.”
No. Stop. That’s so cringy.
As we cover the most common themes you’ll find in books, start to think about ways you’ll incorporate the themes that resonate with you into your story.
Common Themes in Books
This is by no means an extensive list of all possible themes. In fact, this is actually a list of theme topics, which are ideas that themes are about. Under each common theme, I’ll explain what it means and how you can turn it into a full-fledged theme.
For reference, a complete theme is a sentence. Remember, your theme is the message you’re sending. A one- or four-word idea is not a message.
With that in mind, let’s dive into the most common themes you will find in books.
The Classic Good vs. Evil
Honestly, it doesn’t get much more classic than this one. I think I can confidently say most people reading this have read a book with a theme involving good vs. evil. Heck, most fantasy and sci-fi stories wield it, to some degree.
Whether it be a virtuous hero fighting an evil wizard or a parent pushing their limits to save their family, we know good vs. evil. We like good vs. evil. But, if you want your theme to involve good vs. evil, try and think of something that hasn’t been done a million times before.
Potential Good vs. Evil Themes
- Does good really always triumph over evil?
- Is there a gray area between good and evil? Are good and evil subjective?
- Do the evil folks have some valid criticisms?
The Power of Friendship
As someone who grew up with a healthy obsession of Lord of the Rings and anime, the immutable power of friendship is something I’m all too familiar with.
With these sorts of themes, you’re looking at how resilient people are because of the people they surround themselves with. No matter what life throws at them, no matter how many times they fall down, they get up and persevere because their friends are there to support them.
You can also turn this around and show the reader how important it is to work on friendships and not just take them for granted.
Potential Power of Friendship Themes
- How can friends get you through your worst times?
- How does each member of a group contribute in their own way?
- What can’t friendship overcome?
Honestly, who doesn’t like a redemption arc? Revealing more of my anime roots, Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender has one of the best redemption arcs of all time from one of the best TV shows of all time. You can’t change my mind on this.
Themes involving redemption show us that we are all worthy of a second chance, no matter what we’ve done in the past. Alternatively, they might show us that some folks are beyond redeeming.
Potential Redemption Themes
- What does it take to atone for an evil act?
- Are some people or acts irredeemable?
- Is someone ever truly redeemed?
Courage in the Face of Danger
Us authors put our fictional people through a lot, often things that would scare the pants off normal people (whether you’re writing horror or not). That’s why courage in the face of danger is such a common and effective theme.
By showing us what courage can do, you’re inspiring the reader and making them believe that they could do that, too.
Potential Courage Themes
- How can courage bring out the best in us?
- What’s the cost of cowardice?
- Do we all have the potential to be courageous?
Coming of Age
Coming of age stories follow characters from their youth into adulthood, examining how their experiences shape who these characters become. Sounds relatable, right? We’ve all grown up at some point, right? Or, like in my case, we still are deep down inside.
These themes show us just how incredible or devastating some events can be, forcing us to either rise above them or cope with them.
Fun fact: coming of age stories are also called “bildungsroman.” Do with that information what you will. I will laugh about it.
Potential Coming of Age Themes
- What are the lasting consequences of childhood trauma?
- Can one person cause a ripple effect in our lives?
- How can someone overcome their upbringing?
Everything good comes with a cost, right? Sacrifice is a common theme because most people—especially parents—have sacrificed for something in their lives. I point out parents because sacrifice themes are extremely common in books that feature parental love.
But there are other forms of sacrifice, too. Sacrificing love for your career or your career for love. Sacrificing comfort or safety to help others. Sacrificing the ordinary for the extraordinary.
Potential Sacrifice Themes
- What is worth sacrificing for?
- What isn’t worth sacrificing for?
- Why do we sacrifice?
Flipping things around, selfishness is the exact opposite of sacrifice. You can use these themes to show how selfishness hurts you or when being selfish is called for.
- How does selfishness eventually hurt you?
- When is being selfish justified?
- Are human beings innately selfish?
While this type of theme can easily tie into coming of age stories, it doesn’t necessarily have to. Themes involving lost innocence look at what it takes to permanently change someone and what happens after someone makes an irrevocable decision.
Potential Innocence Themes
- Is it worth trying to hold onto our innocence?
- What can corrupt innocence?
- What happens when someone’s innocence is taken from them?
Chaos and Order
Similar to good vs. evil, themes of chaos and order are a little more morally ambiguous. We often think of order being good and chaos bad, but what about authoritarian regimes? Indentured servitude?
These themes compare order and chaos to make us look deeper than we normally would.
Potential Chaos and Order Themes
- When does order go too far?
- Is there a place for anarchy or chaos in our society?
- Do people naturally tend to order or chaos?
The Importance of Family
Watch any Fast & Furious movie and you’ll have themes about mi familia stated bluntly a million times. I’ll still watch them, though.
Themes of familial love and the importance of our family are commonplace because most people have a family to relate to—either family by blood relation, adoption, or a family by choice. These themes can explore the power that family gives you or the hurt it can cause.
Potential Family Themes
- What extremes will someone go to in order to protect their family?
- How much worse is pain caused by family?
- How can family get us through the worst parts of our lives?
Write Your Own Tantalizing Theme
Whether one of those theme ideas resonated with you or you’ve come up with your own, I hope the wheels are turning and you’re ready to write your story. Not just the story you were thinking of before you started this article, but perhaps one with more depth than you originally planned.
That ain’t easy though. Luckily, we’ve put together a short, handy e-book to help you out. It covers everything you’ll need to get your first draft written, including planning (or pantsing) your plot, crafting your characters, and coming up with a terrific theme.
The best part? You can snag it for free by clicking here. We can’t wait to see you finish that first draft.
Do you have a story in you? Of course you do! Come write with us for the Dabble Writing Challenge.
Essentially, a beta reader is an (hopefully) objective third party who will read your novel or story and provide (hopefully) constructive feedback. A beta reader is not an editor, and often they’re not writers either, though there’s a good chance a lot of your beta readers are going to be authors as well.
If you’re a regular writer of romance or are looking to dive into this popular genre, you might be on the lookout for some stellar plot ideas. Spend any time reading and exploring the genre and you’ll know that romance is just one word for dozens of different subgenres all with their own tone and style.