The Difference Between Subject and Theme

What do we mean when we say a book or a movie is “about something?” This question is a lot trickier than it seems.

Did you see the movie The Break-up, starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughan? A facile answer regarding this film would be, “It’s about a break-up.”


The subject is a break-up.

The story theme is something else entirely.

The subject of the Jurassic Park movies is dinosaurs.

The subject is dinosaurs. The theme is, "Don't mess with Mother Nature."

The subject is dinosaurs. The theme is, “Don’t mess with Mother Nature.”

The theme is, Don’t mess with Mother Nature.

The subject of Out of Africa is Karen Blixen’s experiences in Africa.

The theme is possession. “Is it possible,” the movie asks, “for a person to truly own something—a farm, a lover, her own fate?”

The theme of Out of Africa in statement form is, “It is not possible to own anything, and the harder we try, the more certain we are to lose what we wish to hold.”

A theme does not have to be true in all instances.

We can write one book with Theme X, then follow it up with another with Theme Opposite-of-X.

Sometimes a writer or filmmaker will deal with the same theme over and over. David O. Russell (one of my faves) seems to love the theme, “An individual, no matter how beset by his/her own self-sabotage and the sabotage of their family, can triumph if he/she is passionate enough, brave enough, and creative enough.” The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, Joy.

A theme can be totally unoriginal and still work beautifully. It can be a platitude. It can be a cliche.

“Love conquers all.”

“Might makes right.”

Remember the advertising line for the first Rocky?

His whole life was a million to one shot.

That statement is not far off from the movie’s theme, which is in truth a word-for-word statement of the American dream:

The sorriest bum in the street is capable of greatness if he’s just given the chance.

The theme of Casablanca is another cliche. “It’s better to work for the good of the group than for your selfish personal ends.”

There’s nothing wrong with your theme statement being a cliche. In many ways it’s better. Why? Because it means your theme has broad applications. It’s universal. It applies to everybody.

Part of the reason Rocky was a hit was that so many people could identify with its theme.

A theme should have multiple layers. We should be able to interpret it on the personal level, the political level, even the spiritual level. The more levels the theme works on, the more powerful it is.

Casablanca came out in 1941, while the U.S. was in a raging internal debate over whether or not to enter World War II. When in the film Humphrey Bogart declared

I stick my neck out for nobody


I’m the only cause I’m fighting for

he was speaking on the personal level. But his words were understood by the audience on the political level as well. He was giving voice to the powerful “American First” sentiment then prevalent in the country.

Bogie was also stating one side of the movie’s theme. The hero, remember, embodies the theme. How he or she acts in the final crunch becomes the movie’s statement of the theme.

In the climax of Casablanca, when Bogie forsakes his own selfish ends (to fly off to safety with his former lover, Ingrid Bergman) and instead puts Ingrid on the plane with her husband, the gallant Resistance fighter Paul Henreid, while he himself remains behind to join the fight against fascism, his actions state the movie’s theme not just personally, but politically.

Level One: Bogie elects to act for the greater good.

Level Two: America should do the same. It should get into the war.

Why is theme so important?

Because it gives a story focus and depth.

We’ve all read a millions sagas about plucky Moms and punchy prize fighters and self-centered gamblers/con men/operators. (In other words, subject). But when the struggles of these characters are given focus by the right theme, and when that theme contains a second or even a third level, then the story’s power is magnified and its emotional wallop is doubled and tripled.

Which leads us to the next aspect of theme—cutting everything that is not on-theme.

We’ll talk about that next week.


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  1. susanna plotnick on February 10, 2016 at 6:05 am

    Thanks, Steve, I’m getting a lot out of this series. It’s really making me think.

  2. LarryP on February 10, 2016 at 6:10 am

    The larger political aspect is hinted at when Rick wonders what time it is in the U.S.. “I’ll bet they’re asleep. I’ll bet they’re asleep all over America.”

    Great distinction, Steve. Realizing the theme of my own WIP is helping to make it a less episodic account of “and then this happens, and then that happens.”

  3. Vlad on February 10, 2016 at 6:28 am

    Another case in point – Blood Diamond

  4. Mary Doyle on February 10, 2016 at 6:37 am

    Thanks for this series – I’m especially looking forward to “cutting everything off-theme out” next week.

  5. Mia Sherwood Landau on February 10, 2016 at 7:18 am

    Just fabulous. Your blog posts are a graduate level education in writing. Thanks so much for providing them, Steve!

  6. Sheryl Coe on February 10, 2016 at 7:58 am

    The sorriest writer is capable of greatness if he’s just given a link to

  7. tomRmalcolm on February 10, 2016 at 9:35 am


    This series is so nailing it for me. I’ve been struggling with the focus of a new website I’m working on, as in feeling what exactly to focus on within the framework of my idea. Now I can see my idea is the theme and the focus and if there’s a lot of levels that can go under that, then by definition, that works!
    Looking forward the next installment!


  8. Nancy on February 10, 2016 at 9:35 am

    Thank you immensely for this series. As an editor, I’m struggling with how to apply the idea of theme to a client’s memoir. Subject: story of their life so far. Theme: should I encourage them to tease out one overarching life lesson? Or is that oversimplification and maybe even manipulative when it comes to memoir?

    • Steven Pressfield on February 11, 2016 at 2:47 pm

      Nancy, the best memoirs in my opinion are not cradle-to-grave “life stories” but instead are built around one theme. I wouldn’t call it a “life lesson,” I don’t think, but who knows, maybe that’s what it is. Tough to give an answer in a forum as distant as this. Maybe your client’s goal IS to tell a cradle-to-grave story and that’s more important to her/him than to keep people interested. Good luck!

      • Nancy on February 11, 2016 at 8:10 pm

        Thank you.I have a feeling this means back to the drawing board.

  9. Bill Howell on February 10, 2016 at 10:03 am

    I hate to be such a nitpicker, but I must point out that Casablanca is set in 1941; it was shot and released in 1943, at which point the America First movement had pretty much ceased to exist. So the conflict embodied in Rick’s choices had already been settled in the real world by the time audiences saw it. Chhers!

    • Sean Crawford on February 11, 2016 at 8:59 am

      I have long been aware of the regrettable decision, to me, not to include footage of the US troops landing in North Africa (where, by the way, they were opposed by troops loyal to France, not to DeGaul’s free French forces). I wonder now, if the decision was not to save money but rather to stay on theme, to make it less of a settled idea.

  10. Dick Yaeger on February 10, 2016 at 10:29 am

    Terrific! Perfect, simple distinction. Easy to remember and hopefully apply. Next week should be a water-shed moment. I’m afraid to write another sentence till then.

  11. Dale Ivan Smith on February 10, 2016 at 12:19 pm


    I love your current blog series on the importance of theme. Today’s post does fine job of both contrasting theme with subject and useful examples of themes. In my current novel, nailing the theme while I outlined the book has made all the difference!

  12. Bill Robichaud on February 11, 2016 at 6:54 am

    Outstandingly helpful, thank you.

    Was it Maugham who said that, in a novel or story, anything that does not advance plot or illuminate character should be eliminated. Perhaps “theme” can be added to that list.

  13. Bill Robichaud on February 11, 2016 at 7:00 am

    … or rather, ‘Anything that does not advance plot or illuminate character should be eliminated, and plots and characters should support theme’.

  14. Adam Thomas on February 13, 2016 at 11:28 am

    Interesting. This is where the cliche works.

  15. Something Great on March 9, 2016 at 11:21 am

    So theme is more abstract, while subject is more concrete, and could be something material, hay?

  16. Remmy Droll on August 13, 2020 at 4:18 am

    Your idea is really interesting! I agree that some of the statements have a kind of sub-meaning, especially the one about the American dream. I was working on my homework and got more imformation from the writer at this resource but I think your piece of writing is really worth discussing in my class, so will that be okay if I use it as a secondary source?

  17. Ethan on November 10, 2020 at 2:48 pm

    You are right. For example, a person’s personality may be the object of study, but the subject of study in this case may be any psychological features of the personality, behavioral factors, a special reaction to various stimuli and so on. I liked your work, I will never be able to write an essay on this subject from the authors Their works always have the right design and meet all standards.

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  19. Allen on February 3, 2021 at 5:47 am

    The theme of Casablanca is another cliche. “It’s better to work for the good of the group than for your selfish personal ends.

  20. Oleksandr Semivolos on April 12, 2021 at 4:31 am

    The Difference Between Subject and Theme

  21. Frank on April 20, 2021 at 3:33 am

    A theme is indeed more complex than the subject, as it has quite a few layers to it. I learned it when I was trying to write my first narrative essay. I eventually got a 90% for from my instructor thanks to this resource: After writing a few narrative essays, I started writing short novels and quickly became a fan of the genre. That’s basically how I ended up here.

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