Low Men in Yellow Coats: In 1960, young Bobby Garfield befriends an older man named Ted Brautigan living in his boarding house. Bobby soon discovers that Ted possesses psychic abilities and is being pursued by the sinister 'Low Men in Yellow Coats'.
Hearts in Atlantis: In 1966, a group of college kids attend college to avoid being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. When they become addicted to playing 'Hearts', their grades begin to suffer and the threat of being drafted looms.
Blind Willie: In 1983, a Vietnam vet disguises himself as a blind beggar as a form of penance for an act he committed during his childhood.
Why We're in Vietnam: In 1999, a Vietnam vet and childhood friend of Bobby attends the funeral of another veteran and is haunted by the horrors that he witnessed during the Vietnam War.
Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling: Bobby returns to his former home as an adult and confronts his past.
The novel and film provide examples of:
- Abusive Parents: Bobby's mother is at least emotionally distant and neglectful of her son.
- Animate Inanimate Object: The Low Men's cars are implied to be sentient.
- Artifact Title: As the title story was not adapted in the film, the title itself has little bearing on the actual film besides an offhand comment about childhood from Ted.
- The Atoner: Much of Willie Sherman's life is spent trying to repent for his involvement in Carol's injury when he was a kid.
- Badass Grandpa: Ted.
- Bilingual Bonus: Malenfant is French for 'evil child.'
- Canon Welding: The first story ties significantly into The Dark Tower; Ted Brautigan is a Breaker and the Low Men are agents of the Crimson King. Ted even reappears in the final novel of the Tower series.
- It's also heavily implied that Carol Gerber got herself involved with Randall Flagg himself.
- Cool Old Guy: Ted, again.
- Draft Dodging: The characters in the title story try to do this (though, of course, a student deferment isn't technically draft dodging).
- Death by Adaptation: Carol dies in the film.
- Dirty Old Man: Bobby's mother accuses Ted of being this and molesting Bobby (not helped by her having just been sexually assaulted herself and walking in to find Ted with a girl the same age as Bobby sitting on his lap with her shirt half-off - he's fixing her dislocated arm). Deep down, however, she just feels guilty for neglecting her son.
- Disappeared Dad: Bobby's father died of a heart attack when his son was just three.
- Doing In the Wizard: A partial version in the movie. Ted Brautigan has psychic powers in both versions, but the movie turns the story's antagonists into government agents who want to recruit psychics in the fight against the Communists. In the story, they were semi-human agents of the Crimson King trying to recruit an army of psychics to bring about the collapse of the universe.
- Eldritch Abomination: The Low Men are implied to be these in the book. The Dark Tower books later reveal that they're actually the servants of the Crimson King, a particularly nasty one.
- Embarrassing Nickname: Carol Gerber is referred to by the bullies as 'the Gerber Baby'.
- The Gambling Addict: The college students in "Hearts in Atlantis".
- Faking the Dead: Carol ends up doing this and living under an assumed name, but she's able to reconnect with Bobby at the end.
- Genius Book Club: Ted is an expert on books.
- Government Conspiracy: In the movie.
- Intergenerational Friendship: Bobby and Ted.
- Obligatory War-Crime Scene: In "Why We're in Vietnam", Sully is haunted by a massacre committed by his battalion, in particular the death of an old "mama-san" who appears to him at the moment of his death.
- Nice Guy: Nate Hoppenstad in "Hearts in Atlantis". He doesn't play Hearts and concentrates on his studies, he never swears and he has a girlfriend at home whom he eventually marries. He also starts to oppose the war in Vietnam before others.
- "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: In the introduction, Stephen King writes:Although it is hard to believe, the sixties are not fictional; they actually happened.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: Understandably, all of the Dark Tower references were removed from the film. As such, the Low Men are government agents who want to use Ted's ability for their own purposes.
- Psychic Dreams for Everyone: After gaining a bit of Ted's psychic abilities, Bobby dreams about his mother being raped by her employers.
- Self-Serving Memory: A minor example. In Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling, Bobby recalls once yelling at his mom that Carol wasn't his "little girlfriend," but doubts that he's remember it correctly, since he wouldn't have dared be that rude to her. A reader who flips back to Low Men in Yellow Coats can find the scene he's thinking about and verify that he's right to doubt - he didn't actually yell or even say it out loud, he just really wanted to.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Sully and every Vietnam vet he knows.
- Shout-Out: Ted gives Bobby a copy of Lord of the Flies. The book itself is important to the story both as an object (it's passed around to different characters throughout) and thematically.
- War Is Hell: Shown with Sully's recollection of the war.
- Temporary Blindness: It is implied (though not stated outright) that Willie suffers from hemaralopia (or "day blindness") caused by an injury in Vietnam. All we're told is by the time he's on the street corner, he is completely and legitimately blind.
- Tear Jerker: The implication in the end of the book, that based on the book page that Carol & Bobby received, that Ted's last message to Carol was to tell her to keep being strong as he let her know that her college love Peter is dead. How else could Ted have gotten Peter's book with the message she had written?
- The City Narrows: The bad part of Bridgeport. According to King, a fictional part of a real city.
- You Can't Go Home Again: Painfully brought home in the final story: Bobby returns home to see how everything had changed, including the fact that his best friend from back then was dead (it's his funeral that brings him back) and his first love interest is living under another name.
- You Remind Me of X: Bobby gets told by a waitress how much he reminds her of his long-dead and barely remembered father. Sure enough, at one point when she's totally petrified she calls Bobby by his father's name.