Distinguishing Main Idea from Theme


Distinguishing Main Idea from Theme

Posted on March 04, 2011

Distinguishing Main Idea from Theme

Fiction does more than simply entertain the reader. Fiction is also instructional. Authors attempt to teach the reader a valuable lesson through a story's theme.

Theme in fiction is not explicit or literal, it's something the author implies. Readers must abstract it from the plot details and character actions.

(NOTE: A theme is not the same as the subject or main idea of a work. Main idea is what the story is mostly about, its content and plot details.)

Theme plays to reader emotion. It's something you feel in your gut, not just in your head. Here are some universal themes recognized in literature:

  1. The Great Journey theme follows characters through their traveling adventures.
  2. The Loss of Innocence theme is also referred to as the "coming of age story." It introduces an "innocent" character to the evils of the real world.
  3. The Noble Sacrifice theme depicts the main character sacrificing himself to save others.
  4. The Great Battle theme is about people in conflict; it is often a story of good versus evil.
  5. The Fall From Grace theme shows the character ascending to levels of perfection, followed by major bouts of misfortune.
  6. Love and Friendship themes are in classic romance stories and evident in best-friend story lines.
  7. Fate themes are evident within Greek tragedies. These plots include some force guiding a person's life over which he or she has no control.
  8. Revenge themes could have good or bad outcomes.
  9. The Big Trick theme includes someone intentionally tricked into doing something and/or believing something.
  10. The Big Mystery theme surrounds a story where the characters are trying to find an explanation for something that is unexplainable. (All mysteries fall into this theme category.)

This list isn't exhaustive. There are numerous themes in narrative text. Other common lessons that authors center their stories around include: ambition, jealousy, beauty, loneliness, betrayal, love, hate, fear, family, honor, deceit, courage, loyalty, duty, perseverance, fear, prejudice, freedom, suffering, happiness, and truth.

When teaching theme, be sure students understand that the same theme can be applied to different texts. This is another distinction between main idea and theme. Although the same theme can apply to multiple texts, each text has its own main idea.

Students need a set of working themes. You want your students constantly considering What is the author trying to teach me? Consider supporting this with a Theme Board. Post the universal themes (and leave space to add others). Then, under each theme, list the corresponding texts you've read. You may also want to include titles of books students have read as part of the curriculum in previous grade levels. Here are some examples:

Maybe your Theme Board also includes popular movie titles that depict the same underlying message. For example:

  • The Great Journey theme is seen in Apocalypse Now and National Lampoon's Vacation.
  • The Great Battle theme is evident in Westside Story and Terminator.
  • The Revenge theme is in both Revenge of the Nerds and Payback.