Thematic Concepts and Statements: The Breakfast to Your Story's Eggs and Bacon
Theme—it’s a short, fancy word that often describes the larger scope of what your novel is about. Sure it might be about aliens or cowboys or alien cowboys, but what it’s really about is good always triumphs over evil or karma is a…bad thing.
A literary theme is the central concept or underlying meaning explored by a writer in a novel, short story, or other piece of literature. A story's theme is communicated through the characters, setting, dialogue, narrative, or a mixture of all of these components.
Often we divide the theme into two parts: the thematic concept and the thematic statement. They sound the same and they are pretty similar. But what’s the difference? And why does it matter?
Simply put, thematic concept is some aspect of the human condition explored through your writing, while a thematic statement is a direct or inferred truth about how the author's perspective of the human condition is shown.
Okay sure, that’s totally clear now, right?
Think of it like this: if the thematic concept is love, then the thematic statement could be love is blind, unrequited love, or love conquers all. If the thematic concept is breakfast, then the thematic statement is bacon, eggs, and toast. I think that metaphor works… okay, let’s go with that.
So why does it matter?
It might not really matter to you except to note that all stories have some kind of thematic concept and thematic statement. Even if they’re very simple. Some writers are very theme-driven and want to understand their message, while others are just going to write their story and let the life lessons fall where they may.
A Few Notes About Themes, Thematic Concepts, and Thematic Statements
Here are a few things to keep in mind about themes.
In simpler stories, the central theme is typically a more open-ended exploration of some fundamental aspect of society or humanity, like “blood is thicker than water” or “good triumphs over evil.” In more complex stories, the central theme is typically a more open-ended exploration of some fundamental aspect of society or humanity.
All works of literature have themes, whether you mean for them to or not. Some books might explore multiple themes, and obviously there are millions of books that explore the same themes.
That’s because the fundamental idea behind themes and thematic concepts is they are universal to the human condition. Everyone can identify with them in some way. Especially when we look at larger thematic concepts like death, family, or fear.
Symbolism, Motif, and Leitwortstil
Themes are almost never explicitly stated in the work. They’re conveyed through the use of symbols, motifs, and leitwortstil. No, really, I did not make that last one up.
So let’s define these:
Symbol: This is a thing that represents another thing. In books, it’s often a physical object used to represent an intangible idea. Think of the moors in Wuthering Heights used to symbolize the wildness of human nature; the one ring in Lord of the Rings used to symbolize evil, greed, and desire; or the shark in Jaws symbolizing the battle between man and nature. Symbols can occur multiple times throughout a novel or just once.
Motifs: This is a thing used to represent another thing but appears multiple times throughout the narrative. It also is often a physical object or thing used to represent an intangible idea. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, there is a motif of journeys and traveling to symbolize the idea of changes in life. In Of Mice and Men, there is a motif of rabbits that are used to represent the future hopes and dreams of the main characters.
Leitwortstil: This funny word is a German term (because of course it is) used to underscore a theme, concept, or idea in your novel by using a statement or string of words repeatedly throughout the novel. Now that you’ve heard the definition, I’m sure you can think of times you’ve read this or even used this in your own writing. In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut uses the phrase “so it goes” to represent the idea that things can only happen one way and everything is predetermined.
A List of Thematic Concepts
As mentioned, thematic concepts are larger umbrellas that define your story. Below is a list of thematic concepts. Within each of these larger themes is where you’ll find your more specific thematic statement.
- Coming of Age
- Faith/Loss of Faith
- Identity/Search for Identity
- Innocence/Loss of Innocence
- Man’s Relationship with Nature
How to Identify Your Thematic Statement
You might be looking at the list above and saying to yourself, “Okay? Now what?”
It’s all very well and good to say your book is about youth, but what is the more specific lesson you’re trying to convey? Maybe it’s “youth is fleeting” or “youth is wasted on the young.” Here are a few questions to help figure that out.
What is the plot? What are the main plot elements in the story? What is the arc? Setting and main characters? What are the key moments in the story? What is the main conflict and how is it resolved?
Who is the protagonist? What are their motivations and goals? What is unique or distinct about them? What is their fundamental disbelief? What do they learn and how do they grow throughout the story?
What are the prominent symbols or motifs? What occurs frequently throughout the book? Is there a common element that ties together important moments in the story?
If you want to know more about turning your thematic concept into a thematic statement, check out this article.
Let’s look at a few examples. The first bolded word is the thematic concept, while the following sentences is the thematic statement.
Death: Death is the next great adventure.
Friendship: Friends are the family you choose.
Love: True love is the most important thing.
Fear: The only thing to fear is fear itself.
Victory: Winning is hollow without someone to share it with.
Greed: Give into greed and you may be left with nothing.
Ambition: Ambition paves the road to ruin.
Fate: You can’t control fate–you can only control how you respond to it.
Innocence: The loss of innocence is the loss of one’s self.
Power: Those who crave power sometimes find themselves with less than they started.
Hopefully you get the idea. There are more thematic statements out there than we could possibly list, but this should get you started and get you thinking about the themes in your own novels.
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