What Is Theme In A Short Story

In a short story, the theme refers to the central idea or underlying message that the author wants to convey to the reader. It is the broader concept or universal truth that the story explores.

Scroll to the bottom of this blog post and get a complete free download for teaching theme to your high school students!

Themes can vary widely and cover a vast range of topics, such as love, friendship, betrayal, redemption, loss, or the human condition. HOWEVER, when we teach theme in the context of literature, it is not a single word such as “love.” We’ll go into that more in a minute.

The theme of a short story is not explicitly stated but is often revealed through the characters, conflict, and how the conflict is resolved. It is the meaning that readers can infer or interpret from the events and interactions within the story.

For example, in the classic short story “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, one could say that the theme is “To sacrifice for love is a way to show love, and having love is better than material wealth.”

There are many ways a reader could interpret the theme of “The Gift of the Magi” and any short story for that matter, but the important thing is that it’s a message based on the conflict and resolution of the story, and it’s connects to the human experience. 

Why Theme Matters

Theme is basically the “so what” of the story. It’s why anyone would read the story, or why the story would linger in someone’s mind. 

picture of a stack of books with the pull out quote that says "theme is basically the "so what" of the story.

A reader doesn’t have to be able to succinctly state the theme of the story to enjoy it, but it is a way to appreciate the story more fully, and in literature class, it’s certainly useful to have an understanding of theme in order to be able to discuss the significance of many elements of the story. 

Let’s take a look at our fantastic step-by-step lesson for teaching theme to your high school students. 

Teaching Theme Step 1: The Warm-Up

It’s always a good idea to give students a short warm up to get them writing and thinking about what you’ll discuss in class that day. 

picture of a warm-up writing prompt for teaching theme

For the warm up for teaching theme, you can use this concept. Ask students what their personal “at bat” song would be. An “at bat” song is what American baseball players choose to play when they approach the plate to bat. It’s a song that either gets them or the crowd hyped, but another way to look at it is that it’s a song that conveys a meaning to the crowd about who that player is–what type of music and vibe that player conveys. 

So, an “at bat” song for your students can be any song that they feel conveys something about them. 

Have them write for a few minutes, and then discuss as a class. 

After you’ve discussed, transition into the concept of conveying a message. An “at bat” song conveys a message about a baseball player. The theme of a story is the message that the writer hopes the reader will take away from that short story. 

Then, dive into the content of what theme looks like and how to write a theme statement. 

Step 2: Give Your Students Brief Direct Instruction and Watch a Short Film

Briefly, tell students directly what theme is, then show them a slide that gives them a “formula” of sorts that can help them think about theme. 

picture of a student at a desk with the definition of what a theme is in the writing next to him

Next, watch a short film with your students. We suggest using this excellent short film from Sony Pictures called “Hair Love.”

It’s easy to follow, but still compelling enough to get students watching. 

Step 3: Determine the Conflicts and Resolution of the Film

As a class, you’ll walk through how you could determine the theme for this short film. After watching the film, ask students what a few of the conflicts are from the story. 

picture of a formula that says conflict plus resolution equals theme

You can ask your students what the main problem or conflict of the story is and how it is resolved. 

The little girl in the film has an external conflict of dealing with her unruly hair (character vs. nature you could say). 

She attempts to tame her hair without success, and her father finally comes to help. He also struggles, but is ultimately successful. The conflict of taming her hair is resolved with the father’s help and the aid of the video tutorial. The father shows his love through helping his daughter. 

It’s also obvious that a mother is missing in this situation. This suggests an internal conflict or struggle of loneliness/missing a loved one/knowing how to cope in the absence of a loved one.

As the film progresses, we see that the girl’s mother is in the hospital, and it’s revealed that her mother is the person who created the hair tutorials she was using to help with her hair. We see that her mother’s head has been shaved due to her illness. 

So, the internal conflict of how to cope in the absence of a loved one is resolved in a way when the film reveals that the mother is not completely gone, but is coping with an illness, an illness which has caused her to shave her own hair. 

Step 4: Discuss How Conflict, Resolution, and Theme Relate

Once you’ve discussed the details of the plot with your students and specifically how the conflicts appear and what the resolution to each conflict is, ask your students to think about a message that might be taken from how the creator resolves the conflict. 

Ask your students what takeaway messages they can come up with based on the film. They may need to work in small groups or partners for this part. 

Once your students have come up with a few takeaway messages, talk about them as a full class and make sure they are all supported by the details of what happened in the film. 

Step 5: Rinse and Repeat

Now that you’ve walked students through this process, they’ll do the same thing two more times.

First, give them another short, interesting film. This time, they’ll determine the conflicts, resolution and theme without your direct guidance. They may work in partners to do all the same things you just did as a full class. 

picture of a slide for a slideshow that tells students to identify the theme in a short film

After you’ve spent some time allowing students to practice with a second short film, have them move on to determining them in a short story that they have already read. 

The key here is that it’s a story they’ve already read (although if you have pre-AP students or AP students, you could give them an unfamiliar story). If you are teaching this lesson in the context of a short story unit, have them consider one of the short stories they have already read. 

They can think through the main conflict of the story and how it was resolved to help determine what the theme of the story is. 

Be sure to remind them throughout the lesson of exactly what theme is, and what theme is not. Many students get theme and moral confused, or feel like the theme is the “lesson” that is learned. Here’s a handy reference for helping your students remember the difference between theme and moral. If you want this entire lesson, grab it below!

visual with several bullet points about what theme is and what theme is not

Your Free Downloads For Teaching Theme

Theme is such an important concept to teach, we want to make sure you have the tools you need. Download our free lessons for teaching theme here. 

Note: these are free downloads! If you are using Chrome and it blocks the download, try using another browser, or contact us at missy@englishteachervault.com.

  • Theme Slideshow
  • Editable Theme Slideshow (available to English Teacher Vault members)
  • Student Handout Theme
  • Editable Guided Nots For Theme Slideshow ((available to English Teacher Vault members)

Want More Lessons Like This?

Become a member of the English Teacher Vault and instantly get access to over 100 resources, including our entire unit on teaching short stories! 

Our Short Story Unit Includes:

  • Plot Diagram Lesson (available to English Teacher Vault members)
  • Setting Lesson (free download)
  • Point Of View Lesson (available to English Teacher Vault members)
  • Conflict Lesson (available to English Teacher Vault members)
  • Theme Slideshow (free download)
  • Short Story Review Activity (available to English Teacher Vault members)
  • Short Story Assessment (available to English Teacher Vault members)

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