Theme in Romance

So, I know some people like to pretend romance novels are trash. Let’s in turn pretend none of those people are reading this, shall we? J I’ve been thinking a lot about theme lately because I feel like I’ve kind of missed the boat a few times in using it effectively. I just finished writing my fourth manuscript, which I’m submitting (or have submitted depending on when you’re reading this) to Mills & Boon, and in the process, I pretty much decided I still have a lot to learn about writing.

Full disclosure – I have a degree in English Literature*, so I’m predisposed to think about stuff like theme and structure when talking about writing. And guess what? It’s way easier to analyze it in someone else’s work than your own. That means I have to think about it extra hard. And do homework.

Wikipedia defines theme as: “A broad idea, message, or moral of a story. The message may be about life, society, or human nature. Themes often explore timeless and universal ideas and are almost always implied rather than stated explicitly. Along with plot, character, setting, and style, theme is considered one of the fundamental components of fiction.”

And now that I’m reading the definition again, this is probably going to be more than one blog post. Because wow. That’s a lot to digest.

Let’s break it down. “A broad idea, message, or moral of a story.” That, my friends, are three really different things. Here’s a broad idea – two people fall in love. But that’s not a theme IMHO, that’s plot. Maybe I’m missing the point. What about a broad idea like, two people from opposite social classes fall in love? Now I think we’re getting warmer, though that’s still about plot. I think defining theme as a broad idea is too…broad.

Moving on. A message, I like. Love conquers all. That’s a good message and the core of romance. Don’t run with scissors is a message too. But not overly sexy. (Now I’m trying to plot something with that message as the core theme. It’s a sickness I tell you) I’m not sure I can come up with a message for a romance novel that ISN’T love conquers all. You guys have any ideas?

So now I’m on the moral of the story. I think this has a lot of good meat on it. I can tap into this using the main character’s love belief that I talked about in this post. The love belief changes by the end of the story and transforms into the moral. For example, in the manuscript I just completed, the heroine believes a fairy tale of her very own is out there and she just has to find it. By the end of the story, she realizes romance reality is better than a fairy tale (full credit goes to Cynthia Justlin for this realization, btw J). That’s the moral of the story and I can assure you the entire manuscript is rife with fairy tale thematic elements.

Let’s pretend I’m right. (Doing a lot of pretending today. If I was into Freudian psychology, I might know why) So the moral of the story is your theme. Now what? I say that theme drives your plot. Whoa. Maybe that’s how we jump back to a broad idea or message and tie it all together? Because really, when you write romance novels, there are some things which have already been decided for us. We don’t have to ponder idea questions like, “Will they live happily ever after?” Perhaps I didn’t miss the point – the broad idea and message are just not flexible in our case. That makes me feel so much better. Whew.

Now that I’m good with the first part of the definition, let’s think about HOW the theme drives the plot. Next time…

Am I on the right track or did I ramble for ten minutes?

* Yes, I have a degree in Literature, but my favorite class was Women in Science Fiction, followed very closely by Writing the Novel, taught by romance author Deana James. Sigh. I loved college.

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