Central Idea in Literature

Instructor: Ms. Becky Villarreal

The central idea is the central, unifying element of the story, which ties together all of the other elements of fiction used by the author to tell the story. The central idea can be best described as the dominant impression or the universal, generic truth found in the story. Therefore, the central idea statement should avoid using the names of characters.

Central ideas reflect the discoveries, emotions, conflicts, and experiences of a story’s main character. They are commentaries about the way the world works and or how the author views human existence. Central ideas are supportable. Try to find the interpretation that is most easily supported and covers the greatest percentage of story.

The central idea or theme of a story is an author’s comment, usually implied, on the subject of his narrative. It is insufficient to say that the central idea of a story is about “loyalty” or “motherhood.” For example, a poorly written central idea for the story of Cinderella would say: "Cinderella is the story of a poor, servant girl who overcomes the cruelty of her family and lives happily every after with Prince Charming." On the other hand, a well-written central idea would say something like: "The story of Cinderella reveals that people who are kind and patient are often rewarded for their good deeds." For the Wizard of Oz, instead of saying it is "about a girl named Dorothy who learns to appreciate the life that she has," you might say: "The Wizard of Oz reveals that when people lose sight of reality, they sometimes forget to appreciate the beauty of their everyday lives."

Examples of poorly written central ideas:

* The central idea is about love. (not a complete statement)

* Jackson's tale suggests that Tessie was treated unfairly. (not generic or universal)

* The central idea reveals that we are cruel and don't see ourselves as others do. (omit first person in central idea)

* Poe's story is about how people react to tragedy. (you should answer the question of how people do react to tragedy)

* The central idea is that you can’t trust people because they will sometimes try to deceive you. (omit second person)

* Hemingway suggests that some people feel that the grass is always greener on the other side. (omit clichés)

Examples of well-written central ideas:

* The story reveals that the overwhelming desire of a one-sided infatuation can blindly drive people to seek intimacy in the name of love.

* The central idea is that a person who has difficulty dealing with reality will sometimes escape into a fantasy world.

To identify the central idea or theme, one must also look at the other elements of fiction (plot, characters, setting, conflict, etc.) to explain how the author has tied all of these together. In order to understand the central idea or theme of the story ask yourself the following questions:

  • How is the central idea or theme expressed through the characters, setting, point of view, tone, language, or conflict?
  • In what way does the resolution of the external conflict indicate the central idea or theme? How does the resolution of the internal conflict express the story's theme?
  • Are symbols, metaphors, or similes used to portray the central idea or theme?
  • What are the repeated images, words, or expressions in the story?
  • How does the title make sense in terms of the story? Is it significant?
  • What the story reveal about society, people in general, the roles of men and women, the time period in which the story takes place?
  • Does the central idea make sense in light of the story and the title?

Remember, there is no one way to express the central idea of a story (but some statements are definitely better than others). The best stories have multiple levels of meaning and require MORE THAN ONE READING before the central idea becomes clear.

Helpful Links About the Elements of Fiction



Point of View

Conflict Lecture

Tone Lecture

Language Lecture

Fiction Terms

Elements of Fiction

Writing About Short Fiction

Elements of Fiction PPT

Click here for another PPT


Created by Becky Villarreal Austin Community College 2001