62 Elements of Literature: Setting, Theme

A movie set of a historic town street.


Setting is where the action in the story takes place. There are two main kinds of settings:

  1.  General Setting: the less specific and larger time and place in which a story takes place—the the overall time and area.
    • e.g., A story may be set in the early twenty-first century in a small town in the interior of British Columbia
    • e.g., Europe in between the two World Wars
  2. Specific Setting: the exact time and place in which a specific part of the story happens.
    • e.g., In a scene in a story, the sisters are in their parents’ car driving home after school.
    • e.g., at the corner between two buildings at dusk on New Year’s Eve


Theme is the meaning that you get out of a story. The theme is not given to readers directly—it is something that readers must figure out on their own.

  • Example: a theme of a story may be unrequited love (love for someone who doesn’t return that love).
  • Example: The theme of a story may be overcoming great obstacles to succeed in life.
  • Examples: “love,” “family loyalty,” “human behaviour in wartime.”

Theme is a major concept the writer wants to explore with their work. It is usually a universal, abstract idea that any person could understand.

Problems with Theme

  • Have you ever had a hard time finding “the theme” in a story?
  • Have you ever received a poor grade on an answer or assignment about theme?

I pose this vote to my students, and I get a lot of hands up over these questions. I have noticed that there are three main reasons why students have trouble with theme:

  1. Students will believe that there is “one” theme in a story.
    • This is a problem with the wording of a question. There can, and will, be many possible themes in a story. The question may be asking what is “the most significant theme”—a much different possibility.
  2. Students may feel that they are wrong about a theme.
    • As long as it is a reasonable possibility that most people could recognize, you are not “wrong.”
    • Unless you think that a major theme in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is “interracial marriages,” you are probably not wrong.
      • But who would think that about “Goldilocks”? If you are thinking it, you are probably fine to explore it.
  3. Students may not focus appropriately on only one theme (that they have selected as significant through their own understanding); instead, they may throw many different ideas into their assignment about the theme in a given story.
    • As with any assignment, a discussion of theme needs to be unified around a  central idea and cohesive in that it proves only that main idea.
      • A theme about childhood poverty that might come out of “The Little Match Girl” should not include dangers of roads for children, the effects of cold upon the mind, and parent-child relationships. (Unless you will use each of those to prove that childhood poverty.)


Choose your own short story, or use a story your instructor has assigned. Use examples from the story where applicable.

  1. What is the general setting of the story?
  2.  Choose two scenes and describe the specific setting for each scene. (2 marks)
  3. How much dialogue is there in this story?
  4. Give two examples of the most frequent dialogue in the story. (2 marks)
  5. Is there internal dialogue? Yes / No
  6. What theme do you see in this story? Give a few examples of how the theme revealed itself to you. (3 marks)

Use these digital flashcards to review setting and theme:

Media Attributions


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