Finding an Implied Main Idea Study Guide (page 3)

Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Main Ideas in Literature

Many people are intimidated by literature. That's understandable because in literature, writers don't come right out and tell you the main idea. You have to somehow figure out what idea the author is trying to convey. But finding the main idea or theme in literature isn't so different from finding the main idea in other texts. If you look carefully for clues, you can uncover meaning in stories, poems, and plays.


Theme is the overall message or idea that the writer wants to convey. Like a main idea, the theme is different from subject in that the theme says something about the subject. For example, take John Donne's poem "Death Be Not Proud." The subject of the poem is death. But the theme of the poem says something about death. The poem's message is that death is a gift for those who believe in God.

The main idea of a text is the thought that holds everything together. Likewise, the theme of a work of literature is the thought that holds together the characters and action. It's the idea that determines word choice, structure, and style.

Clues to Theme

You can find the theme in literature the same way you find it in other kinds of writing—by looking for clues in the action, in word choice, in style, and in structure. To practice, here's a poem by the American writer Stephen Crane. Read it actively, looking carefully at the action and the language (word choice, style, and tone) of the poem. Read it out loud at least once.

      A Man Said to the Universe
      A man said to the universe:
      "Sir, I exist!"
      "However," replied the universe,
      "The fact has not created in me
      A sense of obligation."

Look carefully at the language in the poem. What kinds of words has the poet chosen? Are they warm, friendly words, or are they cold, distancing words? Do they make you feel comfortable, welcome? Or uncomfortable, rejected? Are they specific or general? Do you feel like there's a personal relationship here? Or are things formal, official?

Crane's word choice helps convey his theme. The words "sir," "fact," and "obligation" are cold and formal. There's no sense of personal relationship between the man and the universe. This is heightened by the general nature of the poem. It's just "a man"— not anyone specific, not anyone you know. Not anyone the universe knows, either. It's also written in the third-person point of view. The poem would have a different effect if it began, "I said to the universe."


Writers often suggest their main idea without actually saying it. This is especially true in literature, where main ideas are called themes. Finding an implied main idea takes extra careful detective work. Look for clues in what the writer says and how he or she says it. Consider the structure, the point of view, word choice, style, and tone. What does the passage add up to? What assertion can you make that holds together all the ideas in that passage?


  1. Listen carefully to people today. Do they sometimes suggest things without actually saying them? Are there times when you use suggestion to express your ideas? How do you do this?
  2. Write a paragraph that does not have a topic sentence. Start with a clear main idea, but don't write that main idea down. Then, put in clues that will help readers figure out your main idea. For example, make a claim about yourself. What kind of person are you? Keep that main idea in your head. Next, write several sentences that support your assertion. Make sure those sentences lead your reader to your main idea. Then show your paragraph to others. Can they determine the main idea from what you've written?

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Finding an Implied Main Idea Practice Exercises

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