In modern literary studies, themes are a recurrent central theme, sometimes even a main theme, in a story. Sometimes themes can be split into several categories: the thematic element of the story is the subject of the story itself, and the thematic content is the message the story communicates about that subject. Some themes may be more problematic than others. Charles Dickens is famous for his themes, such as the Pumpkin and the Lovesick Necklace. The theme of the Lovesick Necklace, however, is one that suggests a lost love, and the entire theme of the story is related to the passing seasons and the way people relate to time. A theme like this, which changes with each character’s experience of it, is called a recurrent theme.
A theme, on the other hand, is a single thematic idea or expression in a story. These are most often used as devices by which to construct complex plots, but they can also appear quite naturally. They do not have to be major themes, but the thematic concepts they create tend to have major influence on the plot. Generally, themes are divided into three categories:
The first category is the simple, major theme. Major themes are universal and can apply to a wide range of stories. A good example of a major theme would be, for instance, the act of love. A love theme, as a narrative device, can tell us when, where, how, and who to love and can serve as a basis for many plots.
The second category is the abstract idea. Abstract themes, as a rule, do not lend themselves to plot, because they are not grounded in anything concrete. Instead, they are “thinking thoughts,” and their point of reference is the environment they are in. A famous abstract idea is, for instance, the statement, “All that is true is that which we conceive.” Such themes are extremely flexible, and can be anything from an abstract philosophical stance to a personal viewpoint about a specific subject matter.
The third category is the thematic idea. With this type of theme, the focus is more on the thematic elements of the story, rather than the main characters or the plot. This type of theme may, for instance, be a list of daily chores or a description of the process of raising a child. If you wish, you can invent your own unique theme to fit any kind of novel.
Novels can use a combination of themes, each one grounding it’s ideas in some concrete reality. When choosing your own thematic statements, take the time to research the kinds of themes that interest you, and then choose one that will provide the framework for your novel. If your theme is based on a life experience, consider how you might describe that in a sentence of dialogue. Then, just layer on top of that a concrete concept.