Love, death and war. That pretty much sums up the great books, right? Not so fast! Theme is one of the most important aspects of literature. Getting beyond one-word explanations of theme is an important step to writing a good book report. So what exactly is theme, and how do we describe it?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says the origin of the word is Greek, literally “something laid down.” Indeed, the theme generally is a key idea or thought upon which a work is built. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to miss: Readers often look only at the part of the house that’s above ground, failing to consider the foundation on which it’s built. Without foundations, the walls couldn’t stand. And without theme, there are no meaningful stories.

Conflict drives plot. Examining conflict more carefully can help us zero in on theme. “Man vs. man, man vs. nature and man vs. himself” is a traditional list of types of conflict in a story, and still serves today.

The first is demonstrated in a story such as Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” which pits the icy cruelty of General Zaroff against Rainsford’s plucky ingenuity. Jack London’s classic short story “To Build a Fire” and Sebastian Junger’s bestseller “The Perfect Storm” show the second type of conflict, in which one or more individuals draw upon reserves of strength and resilience in battling irresistible elements. The last type of conflict is exemplified in Newbery award-winning author Jean Craighead George’s “My Side of the Mountain,” the heartwarming story of how teenage Sam Gribley runs away from home in New York City to live independently in the wilds of the Catskill Mountains.

Once conflict has been identified, we can attempt to isolate the theme. The best way to do this is by asking—and then answering—questions relating to conflict. For the last example above, we might ask: Why did Sam run away? How did he survive? What about Sam’s family?

These questions are not always easily answered or found in a single line. The right sorts of questions usually require the reader to have completed the work and understand its plot. To answer our questions: Sam was tired of the hustle and bustle of city life; he survived using his wits, making an unlikely friend named Frightful along the way; and, in the end, through an unusual chain of events, Sam was reunited with his family.

These questions and answers allow us to describe theme in “My Side of the Mountain” with more than a single word, such as “survival.” Instead, we can formulate a sentence: “Sam Gribley shows that when we are faced with new challenges and that we can draw upon inner resources we might never have known we had in order to survive.” Or, “Sam ran away to follow his dreams, and in pursuing them, he learned that without those he loved there to share them with, his dreams were unfulfilling.”

Theme is never as simple as a single word. Nor is there always one and only one correct statement of theme. In fact, a single work may offer several themes for a reader’s interpretation. Clarity, not simplicity, is the goal when deriving a theme. Like life itself, sometimes literature’s lessons are not easy to grasp. Faced with gray rather than black and white, remember: Being able to articulate what a book or story teaches about human nature makes us better readers.

By Emmet Rosenfeld