Want your theme? Your subconscious will eventually grab you by your short and curlies

To her surprise,  Bella finds the foot she'd misplaced two years ago. I’m knee-deep in my fourth draft when lo and behold, out pops my theme. It was freaking amazing how it felt, too, so I scribbled it down and realized that I already had so many elements in place it was a wonder I hadn’t gotten whiplash from it hitting me in the face before.

Are you a pantser like me still struggling with finding your theme during revision? I’ll share what I did that made it so glaringly obvious.

Lots of craft books on theme always say not to force it, that it will just come to you, and after a year and three drafts when it hadn’t, I had started reading that advice and saying, “Yeah, right. Pfft.” Finally, I settled for something like “love conquers time,” but it just didn’t ring my bells.

Meanwhile, I’ve been entering some RWA (Romance Writer’s of America) Chapter contests (three to date) and one of them required a synopsis. Gasp! I knew I had to do one of these dreaded things eventually so I sat down and read up on best practices, did some brainstorming exercises to help boil the plot down to its essentials and hammered one out, sat on it, researched some more, revised it, brainstormed, posted it for review, etc.

It was during one of those moments when I was looking at the macro structure of my story that I realized my theme. And then I made bullet points of every single way that theme was a part of my story already, and I was bowled over. I swear, it was like I’d planned it the whole time! The craft books were right!

One of the craft books I’m working with right now is Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors II by Alexandra Sokoloff and among other tips, she’d advised making a list of thematic words that will convey what the story is about so that you can start assembling a visual library in your mind as well as vocabulary you want to incorporate. So I did that and went back to my revisions and it really helped tighten my first chapter. Who knows if anyone will really get that I chose the visuals and setting specifically as subtext for my theme, but it’s now there and it feels great. It will also help me make final decisions on some backstory and as well as see that certain paragraphs aren’t really necessary – they’re now just clutter. I’m also keeping the theme and my word list handy as I work through my fourth draft to see if there are ways for me to strengthen my scenes and prose.

It’s also helped me to strengthen my logline/pitch, and when I get closer to the query stage, I’ll be sure to have it in there.

One thing I want to make certain I don’t do, is hit the reader over the head with it though. I feel it should be something that’s just lying there under the surface, helping to buoy them along as they read.

How about you? Plotters, is this another instance where you’re shaking your head at us poor pantsers? Pantsers, have you also struggled with your theme and how did it come to you? How do you ensure you haven’t been too obvious with it? Readers, do you like trying to find the theme?

13 Replies to “Want your theme? Your subconscious will eventually grab you by your short and curlies”

  1. From a fellow pantser, absolutely agree! As I’m plowing through a deep story workshop, I realized my themes are there in every book, just not stated. Maybe we pantsers have a different way of seeing our work, but even my “under the bed” stories have a working theme. How cool is that?

  2. Same thing happened to me. Mine was on draft eight or nine though. The key was that darned synopsis. Knowing that, I now forumulate the synopsis after finishing a rough draft. 🙂

  3. I generally have my theme before I even start my first draft, but it does tend to develop and mature throughout my revisions. It usually starts out simplistic, and by the end, it’s something very specific and complex.

  4. Great post! I love what you said about using vocabulary to enhance our theme. Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes! 🙂

    As for your questions, I’ve completely pantsed some stories and I’ve plotted out other stories. I had to “discover” the theme both ways.

    With my plotted novel, I *thought* I knew the theme when I started writing, but it ended up being too shoehorned in and hit-you-over-the-head clunky. Instead, my muse found a better, more organic theme. Like you, it took me *forever* to figure out what my muse was doing behind my back. 🙂

    But I like to think that “I didn’t consciously know” thing is what keeps the theme from being too obvious. After all, if it took us that long to figure out, then it shouldn’t be too blatant to the reader. 🙂

    1. Thanks Jami! I haven’t tried it with one in mind ahead of time, but I suspect you’re right. I think pantsers work better organically (which is I guess why we’re pantsers)… I know, I don’t want it to be obvious so hopefully I won’t mess it up too much. But then there’s some schools of thought that say it’s OK to make it obvious, so I guess it’s whatever works for the story…

  5. Ooh, interesting. I consider myself a reformed panster, which means I naturally pants and I’m learning to plot. However, I usually know my themes up-front, because my stories start out as a what-if, which is really just the theme. One of the fun things about writing is how writing the story is an exploration of a topic that my mind wanted to dig into.

  6. I’m a pantser by design… but it leads to major revision. My first draft had no “theme” as you put it. One of my betas said she loved my story, but she didn’t know what it was about. Because I “pantsed it” I neede to think of an overall plot arc and conflict to interject into what I’d already written. Like you, it fell in naturally because the elements were already there… I jsut needed to make it all work.

  7. Hey Angela, thanks for the shout out. Every time I teach a workshop these days I have the audience do that vocabulary list and it is just stunning to me every time how excited people get after brainstorming thematic words for even just a minute or two. I’ve had people shout out, “OMG, I know the ending now!” And “I know how the heroine kills the villain!” in the middle of it.

    Very exciting – glad it worked for you!

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