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A Quick Look at Literary Devices: Thematic Ideas

Updated: May 23, 2023

What’s the big picture?

What’s the big idea?

“It seems to me that every book-at least every one worth reading-is about something,” (King, 2010).

When writing a story, you are saying something. Beginning a new story, you might not even know what you are saying, but through the process, you will discover it.

Thematic ideas are not just vehicles of ego and self-importance, just as not all books are podiums for preaching to an audience. When writing a story, you don’t have to change the world. Thematic ideas are, however, a useful tool that can enhance your stories.

Themes can provide consistency and unanimity to a story. If you wonder whether a scene you wrote “fits” your story, ask yourself: “Does the scene touch upon or accentuate my theme(s)?”

They can even help you when you are stuck. “I never thought much about theme before getting roadblocked on The Stand,” Stephen King shares in his Memoir of the Craft. After a long battle with writer's block, King decided to mirror the beginning of his story, using an "explosive" event to contrast the protagonists and the antagonists. "When the Boulderites propose- innocently, meaning only the best- to rebuild the same old neon Tower of Babel, they are wiped out by more violence."

So, how do you find your big idea?

“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest” (King).

Find your story’s recurring ideas or conversation pieces. Are your characters constantly contemplating their own demise, or the death of others? Do they often muse about the nature of life and death? Are there a lot of character deaths in your story?

After writing Hamlet, Shakespeare would answer “yes” to all the above.

Prince Hamlet is constantly delivering soliloquies about life and death, the harshness of life, and the sweet seduction of the afterlife. Throughout Hamlet, we watch as antagonists and protagonists alike find their doom. The thematic ideas of Hamlet are easy to identify. Shakespeare doesn’t bother hiding them. Instead, his thematic ideas take center stage.

Here’s an idea:

One day, little Johnny was bored, so he made up a story.

Little Johnny ran into town screaming: “Wolf! Wolf! There’s a wolf after my goats!”

The townsfolk rallied to little Johnny, who led them out into the country, to his goat lots.

When they arrived at the goat lots, the townsfolk spent hours hunting for signs of wolves. They found nothing.

After his work was done, when Johnny went home, he spent the evening laughing at the silly townsfolk. ‘They’ll be out hunting all night!’ Johnny reminisced.

A week went by and Johnny attended his chores in the goat lot like a good boy. One day, however, Johnny got bored. He came up with an idea. ‘I’ll tell them the wolves are back!’ He was snickering long before he made it to town.

The townsfolk rallied once more and Johnny led them out to his goat lots.

Once again, they found nothing- not even old paw prints.

Johnny went home laughing twice as hard, for the townsfolk fell for his prank again- making them twice as stupid!

Little Johnny spent the next two weeks minding his chores in the goat lot like a good boy. One evening, when he was out in the lots, as the sun set, he heard a wolf howl in the nearby forest. Seconds later, more wolves joined.

They sounded close!

Johnny ran all the way to town.

“Wolves! Wolves!” Johnny cried.

This time, the townsfolk didn’t listen. They didn’t believe him.

Johnny begged and begged, but no one helped him.

He ran back to the goat lot, only to find a large pack of wolves had already made his goats a meal. Johnny ran for home, but the townsfolk never saw Little Johnny again.

What’s the big idea here? What thematic ideas are being explored? Can you figure it out?

(Hint: if you can’t figure it out, just Google, “thematic ideas of The Boy Who Cried Wolf.’)

Once again, books are not just a podium for preaching to your audience. And you don’t have to thump your audience over the head with your thematic ideas.

If you are too “on the nose,” that is, if you make them too obvious, you risk offending your audience’s intelligence and driving away readers for being too “preachy.” Thematic ideas can be utilized subtly.

The Catcher in the Rye is confusing to a lot of readers. You follow the main character, Holden Caulfield, on a winding path to a conflicted and obscure ending. Holden wasn’t on a quest. He didn’t have a singular aim driving him and he didn’t champion any great ideas. He was just a confused and emotional kid on the roller coaster of life. Holden never tells the audience what his journey is about because he doesn’t really know himself.

Through the narrative of Holden Caulfield, and through the lens of an obscure ending, The Catcher In the Rye allows readers to interpret the meaning of the story for themselves.

There are many examples of hidden themes, but this post has grown long enough! Thanks for reading the first part of this series! Don’t forget to sign up for my mailing list so you can stay up to date on new posts, and learn more about literary devices, as well as other writing techniques!

Good luck and happy writing!

King, S. (2010, July 6). On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner.

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