The Differences Between Themes & Topics

Themes offer insight as to the author's goals and intentions for writing the book.
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Themes and topics are important elements in fictional and nonfictional literary pieces, but each plays a unique role in telling a story. A topic is an objective explanation of the subject matter, whereas a theme represents the deeper underlying message. Even though the two are interconnected, themes and topics answer different questions. Topics answer the question, "What's the story about?" and themes answer "Why was the story written?"

1 Trusty Topics

Topics in literature are easy to identify, because writers typically use a straightforward approach to define and explain the general subject matter of their works. Without clearly defined topics, readers aren't able to efficiently locate the books, periodicals, journals or reference materials they want. A strong topic also helps writers organize their thoughts around central subjects and key plot lines. A topic usually answers "who, what, when and how" in a story. For example, a young boy's journey along the Mississippi River is the topic of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain, and a young woman's transition to adulthood is the topic of Emily Bronte's "Jane Eyre."

2 Deeper Themes

Themes are deep, underlying messages that aren't usually stated in words; they are implied from the text. They differ from topics because they reveal hidden truths or meanings that explain the purpose of the story and offer insight as to why the author wrote the piece. For example, themes in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" include racial tensions in America, unconditional love, class struggle and persevering through difficult circumstances. The topic is Tom Sawyer's adventures, but the themes help readers understand what they should learn from Tom's successes and failures during his journey. The experiences of the main characters usually reveal the most important themes. Examples of common themes include love, change, death, authority, gratitude, good versus evil, personal identity, hardship, coming of age, war, friendship and compassion.

3 Facts and Opinions

A topic is the incontestable subject of a literary work, even if the work is fictional. For example, the topic of "Twilight" by Stephenie Meyer is a love story between a vampire and a human. Even though vampires are fictional characters, the topic still explains the actual basis or foundation for the book. However, the themes of "Twilight" represent personal opinions of either the author or readers. Themes might include adapting to change, gaining self-identity, respecting others for their differences, overcoming evil or relying on bonds between friends or family.

4 Themes Provide Meaning

Themes are vital to creating memorable reading experiences because they encourage readers to look beyond the words on the page to find meaning. For example, you might have two books or articles on the same topic -- dealing with the loss of a loved one. However, the themes might be totally different. One might stress religious or philosophical themes concerning death, such as the afterlife. Another might focus on the connection between grief, recovery and greater self-awareness.

As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.