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Writing tips: Using theme to deepen your writing

Last week I mentioned I was going to the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference.  In fact, you probably remember me mentioning it more than once :)  I have to confess I was actually quite giddy about it.

romance, romantic novelists' association, rna
Fellow authors Anne Stenhouse and Marie Laval

Although I was only there for one day, in that time I packed in a lot.  First of all, it was lovely to meet other authors in real life, and people I’d only ever spoken to online.  I can’t tell you how much it means to be able to talk to people all day long about writing romance novels without seeing someone’s eyes start to glaze over.

One of the most useful sessions I attended that day was on the topic of using theme to deepen and focus your novel.  This session was run by author Julie Cohen, and I found it so useful I thought I’d share some of what I learned.

There can be several themes running through a novel, of course, but there should be one strong theme which is the emotional core of your book, and the main idea you’re exploring.

helena fairfax, romance novels, rna conference
A hot classroom, and a regency-style fan. Must be a historical romance author!

You can explore theme in the following ways: through the question you are asking of your characters, the reader (and yourself!) ; the problem you keep returning to; the focus of the feeling or ideas of the novel; the pivot on which your book turns.

We looked at Pride and Prejudice, as a classic example of how a fundamental theme runs through the heart of a great novel.  Here is the famous first line: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.  Right from the very start, Jane Austen has presented us with the core themes, which are marriage and money.  These themes are developed alongside the themes explicit in the title: pride and prejudice.  I often think of Pride and Prejudice as the absolutely perfect romance novel, and the way Jane Austen has laid down her themes right from the very beginning, in the title and the opening line, is a measure of her great skill.

Before Julie’s class I was already consciously using theme in my writing.  The sort of novels I write are short category romances, with the focus firmly on the conflict between the hero and heroine.  The source of their conflict will therefore be my theme.  In The Antique Love, for example, which will be released in September, my theme is the conflict between fantasy and reason.  My heroine is highly romantic and imaginative, and the hero is an accountant, whose actions are based on what he sees as logic.

helena fairfax, romance novels, rna conference
Exploring identity, a common theme in Julie Cohen’s novels

After Julie’s class, I looked back to how I had written The Antique Love, and was really pleased to find that I had actually managed to introduce my themes right from the start of the story.  In the first sentence, Kurt Bold steps into Penny’s antique shop.  He’s a reserved, logical character, and straightaway I’ve put him in an environment which requires him to use his imagination, to try and feel how it would be to live in the past.

Penny, on the other hand, has an over-active imagination, which often runs away with her.  She assumes Kurt is a cowboy, because of how he walks, talks and his rugged good looks.  In a way, her flights of fancy are quite intuitive.  Kurt does turn out to be a hero – but not in the way she imagines!

I picked up a few more ideas on how to deepen theme, and I’m working on applying them to the novel I’m currently writing.  Here are some of Julie’s tips:

  • Focus the first line/title.  The theme of my next novel is hidden emotions.  The hero has kept his love for the heroine secret for many years.  I’m working on a title to reflect this theme.  Something like Between the Lines.  (This has already been done, I think, but if anyone has any ideas I’d love to hear from you!)
  • Use theme to make the ending more satisfying.  In my own case, the theme must tie in with the resolution of the conflict between the hero and heroine.  The hero’s feelings will be revealed, and the heroine will learn to open her own heart in return.
  • Use theme to help select sub-plots.  In the shorter category romances that I write, sub-plots shouldn’t intrude too much on the main focus between hero and heroine.  However, in my current novel I do have a small sub-plot in which the heroine’s best friend is keeping a secret from her.  I’ve deliberately done this as part of the “hidden” theme.
  • Use theme in the creation of secondary characters (see point above)
  • Use theme to refine your hero/heroine’s conflict
  • Use theme in your setting…I love to do this!  I am a sucker for metaphors and symbolism of any kind, and love to write them into my books.  My current novel is set in London, where everyone is cramped and hemmed in.  The hero and heroine take a trip to the Yorkshire moors (yes, I know my locations!), and suddenly everything is wide open.
  • Use your theme to choose your metaphors and symbolism.  See last point!  I try and do this where I can, for example the hero of The Antique Love is the strong, silent type, who doesn’t talk a lot.  His name is Kurt Bold.  I deliberately chose this name for the symbolism :)

There is much more to be said on the theme of theme!  This class at the RNA conference certainly gave me plenty to think about, and the day after I got back I actually rewrote the entire first chapter of my current novel, in order to deepen the theme right from the very beginnning.

Do you think deeply about the themes running through novels?  Do you enjoy metaphors and symbolism as much as I do?  And is there any particular novel you’ve read where the themes were presented to great effect?  If you have any comments, or questions, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you!

15 thoughts on “Writing tips: Using theme to deepen your writing

  1. Hi, Helena: Meeting with other authors is a wonderful way to keep the creative spirit dancing. Thanks for the info on theme. In my serialized novel, Candle Without A Flame, I didn’t really think ‘theme’ although I realize on reflection that it is woven throughout the story–the flame of creativity never really dies. It sputters and falters but can be fanned into life again.


    1. Hi Mary, yes you’re right, Candle Without a Flame definitely has a theme! I think even subconsciously we writers incorporate a theme into our stories. The class at the RNA really helped me to deepen my themes though, and to give them more of a focus. I think it has helped my writing, having to think about theme more consciously.


  2. Very insightful post! Thanks for sharing what you learned about using themes! About your title for the hidden emotions theme, and I’m just spit-ballin’ here…what about “Harbored Hearts” or “Veiled Devotion” or something along those lines?


    1. Thanks so much for your comment! I like the idea of harboured hearts, and I had thought of having Heart in the title somewhere. I will think some more along those lines – thanks!


  3. What a great summary of a fascinating workshop, Helena! I too found the workshop very insightful and very useful to focus my ideas and characters. I am still re-writing the opening scenes of my WIP to take account of Julie Cohen’s comments and suggestions. I can’t believe a week has passed already since we were in Sheffield! What a great day that was!


    1. Hi Marie, thanks for coming! Yes it really was a great day. I’m looking forward to going for the full weekend next year :) And it really was good to meet you at last. I too am rewriting. I hope to get this book finished – one day!


  4. So happy to hear you had a satisfying and fun experience at the RNA. To meet authors in person after exchanging so many emails and thoughts would be very special. Thanks for clarifying what themes are as I always get the terms theme and plot confused. I actually didn’t know what my theme in Coda to Murder was all about as I wrote it, but when I typed the last word, I was hit with the realization the book was all about forgiveness. It was exhilarating when I discovered it.


    1. Hi JQ, yes it really was great to meet some fellow authors. I wish we could all get together for a MuseItUp weekend – that would be fabulous! Thanks for your comment. I think subconsciously we always know what our themes are. The workshop helped me to focus my ideas for my next novel. And I enjoyed reading Coda to Murder very much!


  5. Glad you had such a rewarding time, Helena. Yes, it’s important to talk face to face with other romance writers for a little outside validation. No matter how much we believe in what we’re doing, doubts creep in. Thanks for this clear overview on “theme.” I generally have a theme of “second chances” running through my books and frequently a “justice”or “truth” issue. Those seem to be the primary ones I focus on. I never thought of starting off so clearly with the theme before and will check my 5th book before I send it off to anyone.


    1. Hi Marsha, I like the sound of the “second chances” theme. Like you, I’m really working on focusing my theme right from the start with my next novel. Good luck with your fifth book!


  6. Very informative, Helena! I honestly hadn’t given it much thought until reading your post. And while reading it I went back over three of my books and the others in the works and found I’ve done something similar. Interesting. :-) Thank you for this. Shared on FB and Twitted also.


    1. Thanks for yor comment, Jo. It’s strange how a lot of authors have said the same as you. It seems to me from other writers’ comments, and from discussions at the conference, that at some level we know the themes we what we want to explore in our novels. This workshop really helped me to make a more conscious effort to focus on theme. Thanks for coming!

      Liked by 1 person

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