Theme, Theme, Who’s Got Theme?

Gayle_BozemanFamilyChristian_smallThis post by Gayle M. Irwin

I’m taking a fiction writing class at the local community college this fall; as of this week, only two weeks remain of the six week course. In the class prior to Thanksgiving, our instructor, Mary Billiter, spoke to the art of ‘theme.’ At first, I felt disconnected from the subject matter; when I hear ‘theme’ I think more along the lines of my journalistic background: the subject or reason for the story. Within the pages of my dog books, I weave what I call lessons and in the nonfiction they are topics.

holding handsBut, now,I’m writing a romance – what does theme have to do with a girl-meets-boy-and-falls-in-love (with some hiccups along the way)? Of course, a good story needs to have a “hook”, which can be the reason/purpose for the story, but a theme? Then, the light came on, as the saying goes: what one or two words sum up the NATURE or ESSENCE of the story?

For example, my work in progress, the one I worked on not only for the class but also for National Novel Writing Month, can be summed up as “Starting Over.” My primary female character not only “starts over” romantically, but also does so in her faith and her relationships with people in her community (with whom she harbored grudges/resentments). She is an angry and bitter woman toward people, but she helps dogs “start over” with new lives and in new homes. She, too, “starts over” in so many ways as the book progresses. So does the ‘romantic interest’ in my story – at a young age, his former fiance’ left him a month before the wedding and as a kid he had a dog, so my main male character/love interest,“Clint,” ‘starts over’ with “Sarah” and with a dog he helps Sarah rescue. So both “she” and “he” have new starts to their lives in various aspects of this story.

dog with roseWithin the main theme you can create subplots or sub-themes. For example, in this new work of mine, tentatively titled “Rescuing Sarah”, the main theme of ‘starting over’ can be sub-plotted or sub-categorized with words such as “change,” “trust,” “determination,” and “relationships.” Each of these work together under the main theme but aspects of the story can be approached differently, such as new homes for the dogs or new, more positive relationships with other characters.

As Ms. Billiter, who is both a novelist and a journalist, continued her lecture that November night, I began to smile. What she taught began to resonate once that light bulb clicked, and I began thinking of my WIP and how to apply her teachings. I had encountered roadblocks to my writing of this WIP and truthfully was about to bag it, but I left class that night once again excited to see where the story would lead, especially in light of this, for me, new discovery about theme in fiction writing.

Another aspect of theme Mary mentioned is that it helps set the pace of your work as well as can help create the setting. I’m still processing those thoughts although I see ebb and flow in the pace of my story: starting off with a break-neck speed and then slowing down as my main female character, Sarah, processes the various aspects of “starting over.” I think the quickened then slower pace can work… at least for now it does.

Rescuing Sarah book cover draftI am still writing “Rescuing Sarah;” – I didn’t make the 50,000 word goal for NaNoWriMo. However, I wrote 5,000 words in one day prior to the end of the month, and I will continue working on the story, developing the subplots within the theme of ‘starting over’ until the story is completed … or I feel I have to ‘start over’! – NOOOO!!!!

If you’ve ever played “Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?” then you’ll know why I titled this post as I did. So, I’m wondering: What about you? Do you have a theme to your story/stories? Do you think in terms of ‘theme’ when you write? What are some of the themes of your works?

Gayle M. Irwin is writer, author and speaker. She is the author of several inspiring dog books for children and adults, including Sage’s Big Adventure, Walking in Trust: Lessons Learned with My Blind Dog, and Devotions for Dog Lovers: Paws-ing for Time with God. She recently released Devotions for Dog Lovers 2: Sage Advice – Lessons from a Blind Dog and Other Canines I’ve Known, available in both Kindle and print formats. Gayle is also a contributing writer to five editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul, including the latest dog book The Dog Did What?, released in August 2014, and she writes for WREN (Wyoming Rural Electric Network), Crossroads, Creation Illustrated, and Our Town Casper magazines, as well as for the Casper Journal, River Press, and Douglas Budget newspapers. She’s also authored a guidebook for owners of blind dogs, available on Kindle. She has a passion for pets and volunteers for and donates a percentage of her writing revenues to several animal welfare organizations. Her current works in progress are a pet rescue romance and a pet rescue educational book for kids. Visit her website at

SageBigAdventureFront-small   SageLearnsShareFront-small  Dog Devotions 2 Book Cover Sage Advice Cover  Dog Devotion Book_Cover_Final  Blind Dog Ebook Cover_updatedMay2014Walking_FrontCover_small


17 thoughts on “Theme, Theme, Who’s Got Theme?

  1. Enjoyed the post Gayle, but I’m going to have to take a little time to wrap my head around this. I thought plot and theme were the same thing. I’ll have to look at my books in a different way to determine what the theme is. Good information in this post! I’ll send my answer to your question as soon as I process it in my head! Your new book sounds charming. Can’t wait to read it!


    1. Linda, I appreciate your comments. “Plot” may be the same as theme, I’m not sure. I never thought of my romance as having a plot either, although that could be “dog rescue” which is a sub-theme of “starting over.” I’ll ask in class tonight and let you know what I find out! This is new territory for me — my “reasons” for writing aren’t necessarily the “theme” — and now I think I’m confusing myself! HA!


  2. I a so excited for you and this story you are telling. Watching the ‘light’ go on and the words that flow after…

    A fun and useful post, Gayle. Thanks! Doris


    1. Thanks, Abbie — it’s somewhat out of my element … actually, A LOT out of my element! but I’m weaving things I care about (like dog rescue and faith) and that makes it even more intriguing to me. Good luck with your new book as well!


  3. Great post Gayle. Informative. I believe my theme is always to foster emotional self-growth in the characters and the reader, whether fiction or non-fiction. Hope I understand that right. Anxious to read your book. Neva


    1. Thanks, Neva, for your comments. We both have several projects going on with goals for those manuscripts and hopes for our readers. I’ll be sharing more from the new work at writer’s group on the 17th! 🙂


  4. Your WIP sounds like a winner. Interweaving what you know best, and even including rescuing dogs. You have a built-in readership. I went to a Henderson Writers Group meeting last night and heard a speaker, the head of nursing at a local hospital. With many at the meeting writing crime/detective stories, the questions centered around autopsies, poisonings and blunt head trauma — as in tire-jacks, etc.


    1. WOW, Mike, that sounds like some meeting! I like the idea of having “an expert” come and talk to the group — we’ll have to discuss that at our Dec. meeting, perhaps some “new elements” to add in the New Year. I appreciate your encouragement and your comments!


  5. It sounds like a great course, Gayle. I know of authors who definitely know what their main theme is before they write a word and those are the ones who can encapsulate the book in around 25 words. Me? I think I’m more inclinded towards more than one theme. My WIP just completed for a YA audience has multiple themes including: bullying, trust, maturity… If your story is short, or novella length, it might be a great exercise to have a single theme focus in mind as every word is written.


    1. I appreciate your comments, Nancy, and you give great insight into more to think about. As mentioned, this is all kind of new to me since I’ve written mostly nonfiction and “fiction based on fact” with certain goals and “lessons” in mind. Perhaps those were actually ‘themes’. Glad I’m part of this group and taking the class as I have developed greater understanding about creative writing!


  6. Interesting and informative post, Gayle! I don’t know that I’m always conscious of the theme of my writing–certainly not when I start. I sometimes discover it as I go. My latest book is about accepting the shadow, and I knew that from the beginning. Then the story fell into shape around that theme. Good luck with your own WIP. As Mike said, it sounds like a winner and the perfect story for you to tell.


  7. Stephanie, I appreciate your kind words! And, your added comments to the subject of ‘theme.’ I’m like you — I just write and let everything fall into place. I knew I wanted the story to be a romance and I knew I wanted to weave something I’m passionate about — pet rescue — into the story; makes it more interesting to me as a writer. As I read all these comments, I’m getting more and more excited to finish this WIP and start another!


  8. I really don’t think about a theme in my writing. I suppose your teacher is correct, there is a theme to all my work. The theme sometimes differs from article, to book, to blog, but there is always one there.


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