The Writing Life: To Theme or Not To Theme

Welcome, June! It’s a new month and a new theme for Mysteristas blog: The Writing Life (thanks to Diane Vallere for the fabulous idea!). As a group, the Mysteristas love to toss around ideas, brainstorm, and share. We agree, we disagree, we negotiate. And somehow, we all end up happy (which is a testament to the awesome ladies of Mysteristas). We like to keep things fresh, so our fearless leader checks in with us from time to time to make sure we’re all still pleased with our direction, as well as to identify any aspects of Mysteristas that might need a little freshening up. Our most recent conversation was about themes–do we like them? Do they help us or hinder us when it comes time to write our blog posts?

Which got me thinking about the themes in my writing. In the most basic definition, a theme is the central topic upon which a text centers, and there are many ways a writer can draw attention to, leverage, and develop the theme. I asked myself, how important is a theme to the writer in me? I’m not sure, to be honest. For me, the writing process is somewhat. . .bohemian. Ideas come and go, I forget to write some of the best ones down (or I forgot which notebook in which I wrote the fabulous idea), but eventually, something flashes inside my brain and I just have to write. The idea might turn into a whole project, but most times they don’t because that fabulous idea just can’t carry a whole, interesting story from beginning to end. Or, I write myself into a corner I can’t figure my way out of (seriously, I wrote a very cool locked room piece, and I love what I have–but I’m stuck, as is the killer). Sometimes I’m simply behind on meeting a deadline, and I just start typing.

My first published short story was written on post-it notes (the 2 x 3 inch ones, mind you), and I leapt out of the shower to do it. The whole story hit me–excuse the cliché–like a lightning strike. It has some paranormal elements to it, and I would classify it as noir: a little dark, a little twisted, but having some depth. The novel I’m wrestling with writing is a traditional mystery with historical elements. It’s on the cozy end, but not a true cozy because there will be sex in it, as well as strong language. This story has not written itself, and can’t seem to decide what it wants to be when it grows up is finished. My second short story is a paranormal thriller. I wrote three or four other partial stories while I waited for inspiration to strike, but the whole time this one was nudging me, kind of like a ghost in the room. I couldn’t quite see it or touch it, but I knew it was there. When I finally got a good look at it, I knew what I wanted to write, and another story poured out of me (this time onto the computer and not post-it notes, thankfully, and I was both dry and fully dressed).

So, I’ve written stories with paranormal and traditional elements; my stories range from cozy to thriller to hard-boiled. Where’s the theme? As I think over my (rather small) body of work, a couple of things occur to me. My protagonists are all strong, although somewhat damaged, women. They’re independent and self-sufficient, but not without friends. The stories are all mysteries, some with romance and some without, but I’m a mystery writer, for sure. Beyond that? Each project is different. Or, perhaps my themes are all the same within these different projects, how strong, self-sufficient women approach the crazy twists and turns life presents while solving a puzzle and dodging deadly adversaries. I think that’s what keeps things interesting for me as a writer, knowing that there are all these wonderful things to write about, but at the moment I sit down at the computer, I can choose to write anything I want. The idea I began with is just a starting point, an idea, an inspiration–not a rule book. The theme evolves as I write, and I don’t really plan it.

Likewise, we Mysteristas are a flexible group, so while we hope you enjoy our June theme of The Writing Life, don’t be surprised if we write something a little off-theme, too!

Author: Pamela A. Oberg

Pamela is a portfolio manager at an educational assessment company by day, writer by night. Founder of Writers on Words (a discussion and critique group), Pamela enjoys spinning tales of murder and mayhem, with an occasional foray into the world of the paranormal.

9 thoughts on “The Writing Life: To Theme or Not To Theme”

  1. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who doesn’t know what to do about theme. I just start writing. Theme comes later. Although I was discussing that “justice” is an overarching theme (indeed, a major theme in crime fiction), but it seems to general to me – almost feels like a cop out. Oddly, my readers are often better at picking out themes in my writing than I am.


  2. I love those stories that keep following me around and nudging me. Virginia Woolf once wrote in her diary that she wasn’t going to start her next novel until it had ripened, like a pear on a tree, and was ready to fall.


  3. Love this! I’d say my books all have a similar “theme” of strong female characters. None of my female leads take crap, even if they have different reasons for being that way or dealing with said crap. Hooray for strong females! That’s a theme that should always be around:)


  4. Every time I start to edit a manuscript, I marvel at the fact that it somehow got written. Like the shoemaker’s elves took it on between footwear cobbling projects. And I also marvel at the fact that, while I don’t consciously try to write to a theme, one seems to emerge: identity. LOVE that you wrote up a concept on Post-Its!


  5. Writers just gotta write. Readers are much better at finding theme. But it’s interesting to see patterns emerge. I like strong females, too, but mine usually take the long road getting there, finding their inner strengths and searching for where they belong in their world. Whatever genre I write, this keeps showing up.


  6. Great comments, everyone! Thank you. Love the Virginia Woolf info, and I’m glad to know I’m not alone. I suspect writers are more about the story, and readers pay more attention to theme. We have so much to think about as we write! Which is part of the fun, of course. (And yes, Sarah, let’s hear it for the strong females!)


  7. I love this. What a great topic. All of my books (so far) have things are not what they seem as a theme. Since I write mysteries, I find this adds depth to the story. The other common ‘theme’ although not really a theme, is in the arc of the main character. My MCs are women, it is important to me that they are strong (or I would be bored) and that they grow and change throughout the book and the series. Hum, again, maybe that is also things are not always what they seem to be!


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