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Topic vs. Theme: What’s the Difference in Definition and Use?

Understanding how “topic” and “theme” are different causes many English students to yelp in frustration. Mixing up these commonly confused words causes lowered test and essay grades, and more importantly, it prevents comprehending how literature works. Let’s learn together what each word means, how to use them correctly, and why they’re important — all illustrated by delightful cartoon examples.

Meaning, Definition, and Usage of “TOPIC”

The term “topic” refers to the overall subject matter of something: what it’s about. The key giveaway that we are talking about a topic (versus a theme) is that a topic is usually explained in just one word (sometimes two words).

A text, movie, etc. may have numerous topics. Examples of common topics include: “love,” “family,” “fear,” “power,” and more. See? One word.

Topic definition
“Self-Love” is an example of a topic.

Meaning, Definition, and Usage of “THEME”

In contrast to “topic,” the term “theme” refers to a message about life conveyed or implied by the story. Other definitions of theme are: a central idea, a life lesson, a deeper message, or a moral.

For example: “Love is stronger than hate,” or “Gaining power causes people to change.” The key with a theme is that its message should be broadly about life in general — not about specific people in the book. If it contains any names from the text, it isn’t broad enough.

The reason so many English tests and essays ask for the theme is because it requires deep thinking about a text to determine what the message about life is — it isn’t always obvious, and supporting evidence is necessary prove that the theme is there.

Determining theme also requires objectivity (keeping your own personal opinion out — at least at first), which is an important muscle to build in English writing. Why? There may be a theme present in a text which you don’t personally agree with, but can still prove via evidence from the book.

Being able to objectively identify the theme of a book and support that it exists is the most important first step. From there, an ELA assignment may go on to ask your personal opinion about that life message, but that second step isn’t possible without the foundational skill of theme identification. First things first!

(Note: See the article, “Is Fiction Real or Fake?” for a discussion of how even a made-up story can have themes that are true to real life, and still can teach us.)

Theme definition
An example of a theme (illustrated by a hammerhead shark).

Topic vs. Theme Example

Time to try out the topic vs. theme dilemma with an example! Let’s start with a story so we’ll have common ground to analyze together.

“The Tale of Floofoh:” a Story to Practice Topic and Theme

Once there was an extremely fluffy sheep named Floofoh. She was purple and puffy like a cloud at sunset, and all her friends thought she was pretty, but she could not see her own beauty. One day an orange-haired witch was traveling through town, granting wishes. Floofoh trotted over to her and said, “Please, turn me into something sleek and smooth!”

The witch blinked twice, snapped thrice — and in an instant, Floofoh became a… hammerhead shark! Oh my! She was oh-so smooth and silky. For several days, Floofoh swam around in glee, admiring her fluff-free torso. Then one twilight, she gazed up at the surface of the ocean and glimpsed a purple cloud shimmering above the surface: a tantalizing reminder of who she used to be. Floofoh blinked back tears. “I wish to be my old fluffy self again,” she whispered.

Little did Floofoh know, but the orange-haired witch was listening the whole time, and gave a knowing smile. “A fluffy sheep you shall be once again, then!” said the witch, and snapped her fingers. POOF! Floofoh breathed a sigh of relief as her downy curls blew in the wind.

Aww… it actually feels good to be me!” Floofoh exclaimed.

Topic vs. Theme
The orange-haired witch wants to teach about topic vs. theme.

What is the TOPIC in this Example?

To find the topic of “The Tale of Floofoh,” look for one word that would answer: “What are some general subjects that this story is about?” Possible correct answers for the topic of this story include: longing, insecurity, self-love, transformation, perspective, and animals.

What is the THEME in this Example?

Deducing a theme of this story requires searching for its message about life. It should apply to the world in general, it should not contain the names of anyone in the text, it needs to be supported by evidence from the text, and it should be a complete sentence. Here are some possible themes — or central ideas — from The “Tale of Floofoh:”

  • It is important to love yourself, no matter what.
  • Gaining perspective can help build appreciation for the way things are.
  • Beauty takes many forms, and can sometimes be difficult to comprehend.
  • Getting what you want can help you not need that want anymore.

An Example Paragraph Proving the Theme:

In the short story, “The Tale of Floofoh” by Lillie Marshall, one theme portrayed is that gaining perspective can help build appreciation for the way things are. This message is evident when the protagonist, Floofoh, has been transformed into a hammerhead shark from a sheep because she thought she would prefer to be smooth instead of downy. However, she soon begins to realize her mistake. The author writes, “Then one twilight, she gazed up at the surface of the ocean and glimpsed a purple cloud shimmering above the surface: a tantalizing reminder of who she used to be. Floofoh blinked back tears. ‘I wish to be my old fluffy self again,’ she whispered.” In this moment, Floofoh is finally appreciating how beautiful her former fluffiness was, thanks to the fact that it was taken away from her. The perspective she gained from being turned into a smooth hammerhead shark helped her realize that being a poofy sheep was something to love, not a state to be ashamed of and try to run from. Clearly, one theme of “The Tale of Floofoh” is that stepping into a different point of view can be instrumental in appreciating what you’ve had all along.

VIDEO: Topic vs. Theme

Topic vs. Theme in Sum

To summarize, a TOPIC is an easy one-word answer to “what’s one of the subjects this thing is about?” It’s useful for a vague brainstorm of the next step, but it’s rarely used in tests or essays because it’s so broad and simple.

In contrast, a THEME is a full sentence which states the general message about life or moral that can be inferred. It should be applicable to the broader world instead of just one text, so it shouldn’t have the names of any specific characters in it. You should be able to support it with evidence from the text.

Want more free English lessons? Check out:

I hope this topic vs. theme lesson has been useful, and I thank the kind reader who submitted the request for me to create it! Keep your requests coming because I adore helping to spread the ELA love.