Thematic Essay Guide

Thematic writing is a staple of high school English and college writing courses. The idea behind thematic writing is to create a piece that uses a theme to tie together different ideas or topics. Thematic writing can be used for essays, short stories, novels, and even non-fiction pieces. In academic writing, thematic essays often center on a specific issue or theme and develop that theme throughout the essay.

Thematic essays are often assigned in high school English classes and college writing courses. They are also found on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT.

If you need to refresh your memory regarding general essay writing, check our detailed guide: How to Write an Essay

There are a few different literary devices that are often used in thematic writing. These devices can help create a more cohesive essay or story and can also help emphasize the theme.

One literary device that is often used in thematic writing is symbolism. Symbolism is when an object, person, or place represents something else. For example, in the novel The Great Gatsby, the character Daisy Buchanan symbolizes wealth and shallowness. In the story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, the black box that is used for the lottery represents tradition and the blind following of rules.

Definition and Purpose

A thematic essay is an essay that requires you to write about a particular question or theme. Thematic essays are often written in response to prompts that ask you to discuss a specific aspect of a larger topic.

The main point of a thematic essay is to show the development of a theme throughout a work of literature or to compare the way different authors or works deal with similar themes.

Essentials of a thematic essay:

  • must be focused on a central theme
  • must develop that theme with specific examples from the text(s)
  • must synthesize several elements of the text(s), including plot, character, setting, style, tone, etc.
  • must not be a mere plot summary
  • must use evidence from the text(s) to support your argument
  • must be well organized, with a clear introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion

If you want to learn more about essays in general, we suggest you read this guide: Essay Definition

Pre-writing stage

Before you write a thematic essay, it is important first to understand the prompt and Rubric. The prompt will ask you to write about a specific theme, such as “Justice in Othello.” The Rubric will outline the specific requirements for the essay, including things like length, formatting, and the inclusion of outside sources.

So, before writing a thematic essay, you should carefully read the prompt and think about what you want to write about. Make sure that you understand what the prompt is asking you to do.

Some tips for pre-writing:

  • Brainstorm possible themes or ideas that could be related to the prompt.
  • Choose a central theme or idea you are interested in and think you can write about persuasively.
  • Come up with specific examples from the text(s) that you can use to support your argument.
  • Make a list of the different ways that the overall significance of the theme or idea can be developed.
  • Decide on the main point you want to make about the theme or idea.
  • Organize your thoughts and develop a thesis statement.

Analyzing the prompt and developing a thesis statement

To write a thematic essay, you need to analyze the prompt first. You will need to identify the task that the prompt is asking you to do, and you will need to identify the main idea of the passage.

For example, a prompt might ask you to write about the use of symbols in a work of literature. To answer this prompt, you would need to identify the different ways that symbols are used in the text. You also need to determine what the author is trying to communicate using symbols.

Literary theme analysis prompt example (TKAM):

How does Harper Lee use the symbol of the mockingbird to explore the theme of innocence in To Kill a Mockingbird?

When analyzing this prompt, consider what the mockingbird symbolizes in the novel and how this relates to the larger theme of innocence. You might discuss specific characters who embody innocence, such as Scout or Atticus, and how the events of the novel impact them. You might also discuss the impact of innocence on the town of Maycomb as a whole.

One example of how Harper Lee uses the symbol of the mockingbird to explore the theme of innocence is through the character of Scout. Scout is a young girl who is innocent and naive in many ways. She does not understand the prejudice and hatred that exists in her community. However, she can also see the good in people, even when they are not perfect. The mockingbird symbolizes this innocence.

Your thesis statement can look something like this:

The symbol of the mockingbird in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is used to represent the innocence of characters like Scout and Atticus, as well as the innocence of the town of Maycomb as a whole.

Other examples of thematic essay topics:

  • The Catcher in the Rye: How does J.D. Salinger use the character of Holden Caulfield to explore the theme of teenage angst and rebellion?
  • Heart of Darkness: How does Joseph Conrad use the character of Kurtz to explore the theme of colonialism and its effects on the human psyche?
  • All Summer in a Day: How does Ray Bradbury use the character of Margot to explore the theme of bullying and its effects on victims?
  • The Great Gatsby: How does F. Scott Fitzgerald use the character of Daisy Buchanan to explore the theme of the American Dream?
  • Metamorphosis: How does Franz Kafka use the character of Gregor Samsa to explore the theme of alienation?

Outlining your thematic essay

After you have analyzed the prompt and developed a thesis statement, you can begin to outline your essay.

Thematic essays usually have a standard structure and consist of five paragraphs. That typically requires you to include an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

Each body paragraph should discuss a different aspect of your thesis. For example, if you need to write a thematic essay about the use of symbols in a work of literature, you might discuss how symbols represent different themes in the novel.

Your thematic essay outline might look something like this:

Introduction:

  • Provide a brief overview of the work of literature you will be discussing
  • Introduce the main idea or central theme that you will be discussing
  • Thesis: The symbol of the mockingbird in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is used to represent the innocence of characters like Scout and Atticus, as well as the innocence of the town of Maycomb as a whole.

Body Paragraph 1: Symbols representing innocence

  • The mockingbird symbolizes Scout’s innocence
  • The mockingbird symbolizes Atticus’ innocence
  • The mockingbird symbolizes the innocence of Maycomb

Body Paragraph 2: The loss of innocence

  • Scout loses her innocence when she witnesses the trial
  • Atticus loses his innocence when Mr. Ewell attacks him
  • Maycomb loses its innocence when Tom Robinson is convicted

Body Paragraph 3: The importance of innocence

  • Innocence is important because it allows people to see the good in others
  • Innocence is important because it allows people to hope for a better future
  • Innocence is important because it allows people to see the world in a more positive light

Conclusion:

  • Restate your thesis statement
  • Discuss the larger implications of your thesis statement
  • Leave the reader with something to think about
General Literary Analysis Outline Example

You can also dedicate each body paragraph to one specific character or one specific event in the novel.

For example, you might discuss how Scout’s innocence is represented by the mockingbird symbol and how this innocence is lost when she witnesses the trial. In your second body paragraph, you could discuss how Atticus’ innocence is represented by the mockingbird symbol and how this innocence is lost when he is attacked by Mr. Ewell. In your third body paragraph, you might discuss how the innocence of Maycomb is represented by the mockingbird symbol and how this innocence is lost when Tom Robinson is convicted.

Writing the thematic essay

Once you have developed a clear thesis statement and created a thematic essay outline, you can begin writing. We complement each section with a thematic essay example part to better illustrate how it can look.

Introduction

The introduction of your thematic essay should briefly state what you will be discussing in your paper and provide background information. The introduction should also include your thesis statement, which is the main argument of your paper, at the end.

At the very start, you can also use a hook to grab the reader’s attention. A hook is usually a sentence or two that draws the reader in and piques their interest.

Introduction example of a thematic essay:

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” This quote, spoken by Atticus Finch, perfectly encapsulates the symbol of the mockingbird in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a novel about the loss of innocence. The symbol of the mockingbird is used to represent the innocence of characters like Scout and Atticus, as well as the innocence of the town of Maycomb as a whole. The loss of innocence is an important theme in the novel, and it is represented in the characters of Scout, Atticus, and Maycomb.

Body paragraphs

Your body paragraphs should each be dedicated to one specific character or event in the novel and start with a topic sentence. After the topic sentence, you should use evidence to support it. You must analyze the evidence, not just merely state it. Lastly, end your body paragraph with a conclusion and transition to the next section.

A thematic essay body paragraph example:

One example of the loss of innocence is Scout. When the novel begins, Scout is an innocent child who does not understand the ways of the world. “‘Don’t you ever do that again,’ I said. ‘Don’t you ever do that again, it’s bad enough having Jem tell on me without you adding to it.’” (Lee 9). Scout is chastised by her father, Atticus, for fighting with her cousin, Francis. In this quote, Scout does not understand why fighting is bad and must be scolded by Atticus. However, by the end of the novel, Scout has learned the true evil that exists in the world and has lost her innocence. “It was then that I finally understood Mrs. Dubose’s courage, not because she had won, but because she had had the courage to fight and the strength to lose.” (Lee 281). Scout has come to understand that even though Mrs. Dubose lost her battle with addiction, she was still brave for fighting it. Mrs. Dubose’s courage has taught Scout that even in the face of defeat, there is still hope. Scout has lost her innocence because she has learned that the world is not a perfect place and that people are not always good.

Check our citation guide to learn more about using quotes in essay: How to Introduce a Quote

Conclusion

Your concluding statement should sum up the main points of your thematic essay and rephrase your thesis (restate it in different words). You can also discuss broader implications or give your opinion on the topic, but don’t add any new information.

A conclusion example of a thematic essay:

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel about innocence—the loss of it, the destruction of it, and the fight to keep it. The characters of Scout, Atticus, and Maycomb all represent different aspects of innocence, and the novel explores how they each deal with the loss of their innocence. Scout loses innocence when she learns that the world is not perfect and people are not always good. Atticus loses his innocence when he realizes that sometimes the justice system does not work as it should. Maycomb loses its innocence when it is revealed that racism and prejudice are alive and well in the town. The loss of innocence is a sad but inevitable part of life, and To Kill a Mockingbird shows us that this loss can sometimes be for the better.

Final tips on thematic essay writing

Now that you know the main steps involved in the writing process of a decent thematic essay, here are some of the final tips and key takeaways that you should keep in mind when doing this task:

  • Make sure to brainstorm first and develop a good thesis statement that will guide the rest of your essay.
  • Create a thematic essay outline before starting to write the essay itself. This will help you stay on track and not miss any important points that you want to include.
  • Start each body paragraph with a topic sentence that introduces the paragraph’s main point.
  • Use concrete and specific examples to support your points.
  • Pay attention to your grammar and spelling.
  • Make sure to conclude your thematic essay in a strong way that ties everything together.
  • Analyze the work, not just summarize it.
  • Take your time, and don’t rush the essay.
  • And lastly, proofread your work before submitting it.

By following these tips, you should be able to write a thematic essay that will impress your teacher or professor.

References

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