What Can You Say
About a Book?

Ideas and Inspiration for Improving Book Talk
and Book Reviews

by Steve Peha
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Themes and Variations

When it comes to critical reading, the concept of ďthemeĒ is one of the most important things readers need to understand. And yet itís quite hard to teach. For one thing, it canít easily be explained simple language. If you look in the dictionary, youíll find definitions like: ďA topic of discourse; A subject of artistic representation; A unifying idea that is a recurrent element in a literary work; etc.Ē What in the world does that mean?

As we go through school, we pick up many variations on the basic idea. By the time we reach college, some of us figure it out, but most are confused just like I was when I started taking my first classes as an English major. There are no easy answers here; itís a tough concept to work with. But hereís where I like to start out.

Things that happen in a story sometimes have two meanings: a literal meaning where something that happens is just what it appears to be, and a figurative meaning where that same something is an example of an idea like loneliness, friendship, trust, courage, hope, honor, love, etc. When several different things that happen in a story share the same figurative meaning (different examples, same idea), we often say that the author is exploring a theme, especially if the figurative meaning deals with something important in life that could apply to many people.

Sometimes, I find it easier to teach kids about themes through their own writing. Iíll use the Five Facts of Fiction to help them create a framework for their story and then Iíll ask them something like this: ďIf you wanted to say something about courage, for example, what kinds of scenes would you put into your story?Ē

In this situation, itís usually easy for them to come up with examples that work. And itís this kind of interaction, where kids are using plot elements to represent abstract ideas in their own writing, that helps them develop a solid understanding of theme in the books they read.

Seven Things You Need to Know About Themes

In order to understand themes in fiction, there are certain things you need to be aware of:

(1) Events represent ideas. Itís not always easy to realize that stories carry both literal and figurative meaning and that the author is choosing specific events to convey specific messages.

(2) Experience evolves in patterns. All human beings are, to some extent, creatures of habit. Because of this, the same things seem to show up in our lives at different points in time. Characters in novels are like this, too. Thereís often a thread of similarity that ties together the important events in their lives.

(3) Fiction explores important issues. People donít write fiction just to kill time or make a living, they write it to talk about important truths in a unique way. Many ideas in human existence are best explored through examples. In one sense, a story is just a collection of examples that represent ideas a writer wants to talk about.

(4) Stories apply to many readers. Ideas like envy, loneliness, and greed enter into all of our lives at one time or another. The best stories are those that speak to the most readers in the most powerful way.

(5) Themes are abstract nouns. Themes are nouns, just things really. But they arenít the kinds of things one can easily survey with the five senses. In other words, they are not concrete. You canít see loneliness, for example, you can only see examples of it.

(6) Everyone takes a position. Themes donít exist in stories for their own sake. Weíre supposed to think about them, to discern an authorís opinion of them, and to see how that opinion squares with our own. Itís not enough to say that a book is about the struggle between good and evil. What does the book say about that struggle?

(7) Fiction is instructional. As a genre, fiction exists to entertain us, but it also exists to teach us valuable lessons, often the kind that are not easy to learn unless weíre wrapped up in a good yarn. Themes are the subject matter of the lessons fiction writers want us to learn.

Getting Started

Any time I start to discuss theme with a group of students or adults, I ask them first to provide their own definitions. The ensuing confusion usually points up the need for a simple definition we can all agree on. Thatís when I introduce specific language to define the idea. So, what do you think a theme is?