Finding Themes in Writing

I belong to the Internet Writing Workshop, or IWW, for short. It’s a wonderful, supportive community where writers discuss the craft of writing, the business of writing, and the ongoing changes in the publishing industry. We also share our trials and our triumphs, as well as our opinions on stories we have “in the works”. The IWW includes many different sub-groups: non-fiction, poetry, fiction, and for romance writers, the “Lovestory” group.

Recently I began work on a full-length historical romance tentatively titled “A Breath of Scandal”. I submitted the first few scenes to Lovestory in order to get a little feedback.  The opening scenes included these lines:

Claire was his angel, his salvation. She would absolve him of his
sins.

Another Lovestory member commented on this.

“Interesting,” she wrote. “This may be one of your trademark themes: sinful men being saved by the love of a good woman. I think I’ve seen this before in some of your other works.”

I smiled when I read her words. She’d provided me with an awesome opportunity, a chance to step back and see myself as a writer in the fullest sense. Not just someone scribbling down stories, but someone with something to say, someone who has written enough and shared enough to actually have certain themes beginning to emerge.

Recently I read an article about thematic substance in our stories.  The article appears in the new November/December issue of Writer’s Digest. Called “Transform Your Novel Into a Symphony”, it’s advice from Elizabeth Sims on harmonizing the various elements of a novel. Theme, of course, is one of the most important elements in any story.

Themes

Although I agree with the author’s assertion that theme is a novel’s melody, I disagree with her belief that we must put serious thought into themes from ths start of the writing/planning process.

I don’t. I can’t. I won’t.

When I begin a story, I begin with people and vague ideas about them. I explore their needs, their thoughts, their desires, their likes and dislikes. I let them speak, and I listen to them. They tell me who they are, what hurts they’ve suffered in the past and what hopes they hold for the future.

Then, I write. I don’t think about theme. I don’t look for morals or messages. Rather, I let them slip up on me, like quiet little whispers breaking the stillness of a quiet night, or gentle rays of morning sunlight illuminating a new day.

I don’t plan to express specific themes, but because moral issues are part of the human experience, themes appear as I write about the people who’ve come into my head. To paraphrase Kahlil Gibran — badly — I can say that my themes are not my themes, they are the hopes and dreams of life’s own search for meaning.

People know pain and suffering. People know longing and loneliness. Always there are questions about goodness and evil. Always there is a search for that most intangible thing we call happiness.

My characters ultimately do find happiness, although it may not come in the form they expect. Along the way, they grow, they change, and many times they find forgiveness. It’s not because that’s how I’ve written them or how I’ve told their stories. It’s because this is the way of life, and especially, this is the way of love.

Yes, I do believe that love heals, saves, forgives, and absolves. This is why I write romance, and I hope this is why readers choose to read my stories.

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