Sunday, November 22, 2009

How to Write a Romance Novel--Theme

Theme is my favorite aspect of a novel to think about. I honestly believe that all novels have themes. They might be simple ideas, but themes nonetheless. No matter how “fluffy” or shallow a book may seem, it will have a theme. So what is a theme? It’s the underlying message, the moral if you will, of the story. It’s the reason the author wrote the book, even if she didn’t know she was doing it.

All the events, plot, characters, conflict, POV, etc., feed into the theme. Look at what the author wrote about-- the topics--and what she says about those topics, and you will find the theme. Is she writing about family dynamics? War? Running a business? Running a kingdom? How does the story turn out? The way the plot resolves will give you the clues to find theme.

A theme is a universal idea that the author holds to be true. Most novels have several themes. Short stories may only have one. Poems can have themes, as can songs, photos, paintings, series, dance, etc. It will be stated in universal terms, not in terms of the plot of the particular story. Often they can be stated in proverbs or clich├ęs: beauty is in the eye of the beholder; the ends justify the means; love conquers all; war is hell. It can be stated as a sentence: doing the right thing is often difficult; just because you can doesn’t mean you should; with great power comes great responsibility. It is the idea that the author wants to share with you, the idea that she believes you should also believe.

In the movie “Second Hand Lions,” which if you haven’t seen you should, there is a beautiful scene where Robert Duvall gives Haley Joel Osment part of the speech he gives to all young men. In it the character gives his beliefs and rules of life. Great speech by the way. Within this speech is the theme of the movie, and it isn’t that you should get rich, have adventures, and buy a second hand lion. The theme should never be couched in terms of the plot. The theme is bigger than the plot.

For example, in my next release, THE WISH LIST, I have several themes, ideas that I believe in my worldview. The story is about a CPA in San Diego who finds out she’s next in line to a fairy godmother, and with the onset of her powers, her simple life disappears. One of the themes in my novel is that all gifts have a cost. One might think that suddenly having magic powers would make life easier, but instead she realizes that her new magical gifts come with a responsibility that she never anticipated. But in my own life, I’ve found that gifts do come with a cost. The cost might be minimal--a simple thank you--but more often a gift comes with higher costs. The imagination I have to tell stories, which I consider a gift, also can make me jump to conclusions, or make me incapable of paying attention at times (I go off on tangents too easily--off dreaming somewhere). Another theme of THE WISH LIST is that all decisions have consequences. And also “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Notice that I haven’t used plot to describe any of my themes. I haven’t said, “using a wand can cause trouble.” Plot is not theme. You’re looking for the deeper sense of the story. Harry Potter’s theme is not “a boy wizard fights evil.” That’s plot, not theme. One theme of Harry Potter is “sometimes you have to fight evil, even when you know it will be difficult.” (Dumbledore actually says something like this in the book.) Other Harry Potter themes: sometimes an unlikely hero is the best; friends and family are the greatest treasures; sometimes what’s on the surface doesn’t reveal the true contents; sacrifice can be painful; be true to yourself.

One of the fun ways to find theme is to look for quotes from your novel that stick out, lines that you love. So here are some quotes from my novel:

And in that mix of emotions that swirled through Kristin--the shock, the disbelief, the exasperation--there was a spark of hope, a wish that it all was true.
(Sometimes the impossible is possible, never give up hope)

Her wand wasn’t alive exactly, but it seemed to read her thoughts. When her magic wasn’t working, it lay cold and stiff in her hands, but when things were going right, it seemed supple and warm and a graceful extension of her body. And at times, like now, it reminded her of the burden she had inherited.
(Every gift has a price)

Tears filled her eyes. “I’ve turned you into a criminal.”
“No, just a rogue.” He grinned at her.
“Count us in as well. We’re rogues too,” said Hyacinth.
“Now have a sandwich, dear.” Rose passed her a sandwich. “Here try this one. It’s turkey and Swiss. Your favorite.”
(Sometimes doing the right thing requires breaking the rules.)

So look for your theme. Realize that romances will have a theme and while you will produce one, you don’t have to write specifically toward your theme. Although you can. By the way, the theme for a romance usually isn’t “love is a many splendored thing.”


Books I’m reading now:
The Innocent Mage by Karen Miller
The Awakened Mage by Karen Miller
Vision in White by Nora Roberts
Bed of Roses by Nora Roberts


  1. Hi Gabi :)
    Thank you VERY much for this excellent post on writing and the theme. I read it three times so it would sink in. Thank you for taking the time to post it.
    I hope you have a wonderful week and a Happy Thanksgiving.
    All the best,

  2. Thanks. I love theme (I said that above). I love to find theme and then see if I agree with an author's theme. Geez, can you tell I'm a lit major?
    And a Happy Holiday to you too.