You may have heard the term “thematic statement” when it comes to novel writing.
But what does it actually mean?
Do you really need one?
Theme can be a pretty complex topic. There are many different interpretations. Sometimes terms are used interchangeably, and discussions around topic, theme, and thematic statements can be a bit mind-boggling.
The first challenge for authors is understanding what a thematic statement is in the first place.
The next is learning how to apply one to your novel to make it more powerful — because it definitely will.
A strong thematic statement can lift your novel from being a cracking yarn to truly moving work of fiction.
So let’s look at thematic statements in detail. This post will help clear up some of the confusion, give you some specific examples, and show you exactly how you can use them to write amazing stories.
What is a Thematic Statement
A thematic statement is a simple yet powerful message an author is trying to convey in their work.
- Love is the glue that binds the Universe together
- There is no such thing as true love
- Maternal love is the most powerful of all types of love
A thematic statement says something specific about the nature of life or the human condition, which the novel argues is true.
Mastering your Thematic Statement can give your novel heart, a deeper meaning, and resonance.
Thematic Statement Versus Theme
The difference between a Thematic Statement and a theme is that while a Thematic Statement is specific and contains a value judgement or opinion, themes tend to be more general, and may be explored from various angles.
So while the examples listed above are Thematic Statements, they are all incarnations of the theme ‘love’.
Thematic Statement Versus Topic
While these terms are sometimes confused, they are actually quite different.
The topic of a story is akin to the premise (also sometimes known as the elevator pitch).
It is a bite-sized overview of what your book is about.
It summarises the key plot, character and setting elements that are obvious on the surface, rather than hidden between the lines.
Thematic Statement: Love and friendship always triumph over evil
Themes: Love, friendship, family, belonging, social inequality
Topic (premise): A boy wizard joins a magical school and has to battle the greatest wizard who ever lived.
The Hunger Games
Thematic Statement: Survival is not enough without control over your own destiny
Themes: Control, power, loyalty, social inequality, love
Topic (premise): A girl is forced to take part in a televised fight to the death.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Thematic Statement: Sexist attitudes have consequences
Themes: Gender roles, power, rebellion, the place of an individual in society, the power of language
Topic (premise): After fertility in the human race crashes, women’s rights are revoked and they are forced to live as no more than breeding vessels.
Why Use a Thematic Statement?
In Story, Robert McKee calls a thematic statement the “central” or “controlling story idea,” the idea that guides you in writing your entire novel. It shapes the strategic choices you make as you write.
If used skillfully, a thematic statement will make the story feel deeper, and touch readers on an emotional level. It may even change how they view the world and how they behave.
One of the main themes in the Godfather, for example, is that as power shifts, it changes people.
This thematic statement is illustrated first by how Don Corleone changes from a nearly omnipotent crime boss to a devoted grandfather, and later, how reluctant Michael resigns himself to his position and becomes more ruthless.
Without this consistent, underlying theme, the Godfather stories would not be nearly as powerful or as memorable.
Do’s and Don’ts For Writing a Thematic Statement
Some authors might start writing with a thematic statement already in mind, but that’s probably rare.
It’s more likely that you will have a more general idea of themes you might want to explore.
But most writers start with something more solid, like an idea for a character and the conflicts they will face.
It’s natural to write your first draft without putting too much thought into themes or the Thematic Statement.
Then, when you read through your first draft, you’ll see concepts emerge, and at that point, you might want to decide what your Thematic Statement is – or what you would like it to be.
Then you can refine it by following the dos and don’ts here:
Do: Base it on Universal Themes
Starting with themes that touch us all, such as love, loyalty and freedom, is likely to lead you to a thematic statement that resonates with your readers.
If your Thematic Statement applies to quite specific themes or groups of people, it may not resonate with so many people.
- Eating shellfish will lead to poor health
- The fabulously wealthy are often misunderstood
- Taking away people’s guns is akin to taking away their freedom
Don’t: Turn it Into a Moral Directive
A Thematic Statement is an assertion, or observation – it is not advice. It should not be telling people how to behave.
So avoid things like:
- Always tell the truth
- Live for today because tomorrow might never come
- You should be kind to old people
Do: Use Consequences to Illustrate Your Thematic Statement
A skilled writer will never use a character as their mouthpiece, and have them outright state the thematic statement.
But through the choices the character faces, the decisions they make and the consequences they endure – the assertion of the thematic statement should be driven home.
For example, taking this Thematic Statement:
Survival is not enough without control over your own destiny
Katniss repeatedly chooses the things that are important to her over her own safety and survival: from volunteering for a death match in order to protect her sister, to choosing to eat poison berries rather than murder her friend.
Don’t: Refer to the Specifics of Your Story
A Thematic Statement should be something that could be transplanted and applied to another novel.
So avoid things like:
- Harry learns the importance of friendship and loyalty
- A girl in a dystopian future chooses death over obedience
Keep it universal.
Do: Analyse Thematic Statements of Other Works
One of the best ways to learn anything is to study the greats. So take some of your favourite books or movies and try to work out what Thematic Statement the writer had in mind.
See if you can find evidence in the behaviour of the characters and the results of their actions, which support your analysis.
Here’s a good guide to working out the Thematic Statement of a novel:
- Pick the main topic addressed in the story
- Pinpoint the author’s view on the topic
- Format that perspective using a theme statement template
Don’t: Use Trite Cliches
The best Thematic Statements are unique and interesting philosophical ideas.
Using cliches such as ‘crime never pays’ or ‘love conquers all’ as the guiding controlling story idea, will likely result in a story that is just as cliche.
Do: Be Consistent
Once you have your Thematic Statement, make sure everything in your novel supports it.
This could include the behaviour of your main characters and sub characters, how the settings are conveyed, and the events that take place.
A good way to tell whether you’ve got a Thematic Statement or something else, is to put ‘The Author believes’ in front of it.
So this is okay:
- The author believes that love and friendship always triumph over evil
But these don’t make sense:
- The author believes Harry learns the importance of friendship and loyalty
- The author believes always tell the truth
It’s not foolproof, but it’s a handy rule of thumb.
9 Thematic Statement Examples
Here are some more examples of thematic statements:
- Humans are not fixed personalities but a set of constantly changing contradictions
- Valuing wealth over family will lead to misery
- Isolation leads to madness
- No matter people’s culture we are all the same at heart
- True love is built over time and shared experience
- The family we choose can be more loyal than those we are born with
- Love taken to extremes can become dangerous
- Having a true friend can help you survive the worst atrocities
- Only by releasing judgement of others can we find inner peace
More examples of Thematic Statements can be found here.
Use a Thematic Statement to Write a More Compelling Story
If you can get to grips with Thematic Statements and learn how to apply them effectively in your writing, then you have a very powerful tool for ensuring your stories resonate with readers and stay with them long after they’ve finished reading.
But at the end of the day, they are art, not mathematics, so if the statement that helps you write doesn’t exactly follow the rules above — don’t get too hung up on the details. If it works for you, then it works.
And not all novels need to express a unique, thought provoking philosophy. When it comes to genre novels in particular, they may express Thematic Statements that are common and often repeated. They can still be perfectly effective novels that readers enjoy.
So take a look at your own stories and see if you can identify the Thematic Statement.
Are there tweaks you can make to the story to make it even more consistent and powerful?
Or if you don’t have a Thematic Statement, could working to one make your novel more compelling?
And don’t forget to take a closer look at some of your favourite stories and try to work out what key message the author is trying to express.
And then, as your next step, check out the novel writing roadmap.