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Theme: How I Understand It

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I have been struggling with theme for a time now. I research and research, and it seems that theme slips from my grasp with every knew opinion and idea about it that exists.

But, I think I may have finally had that epiphany that you get when having a shower. That aha moment when you finally get it.

So I am going to explain to you my idea of theme. How I see it. How I plan to implement it. How I believe it can be integrated into story.


So first off: Every story has theme. 

That part is true. At least every good story has theme. Any story I have read, heard, or watched had theme.

You can have multiple themes:

Every story has theme. Some will have one major theme that sticks out. But if you look, you can find other smaller themes. Some themes are directly related to certain characters, or certain plot lines. Some themes cover the whole story. You can weave this as you want.

Every scene relates to the theme:

This one was hard for me. It felt very restrictive. How could I relate every scene to the theme? But then this was part of that epiphany moment. You can have more then one theme. Also, you don’t want to yell your theme into the faces of the reader. You don’t want to be preachy. So this is also when you can add in the theme like a little salt and pepper. You can be obscure, but not so obscure the reader can’t find it if looking.

You can also be blunt. But not all the time. Maybe a few scenes in the book slaps the reader around and says, “this is what I’m trying to say Jack. Right here. Listen to me.” If you do that to much, though, the reader may put the book down.

Theme is a statement:

Theme isn’t a question, or a motif. Theme doesn’t dance around the message. Theme says “You will die a lonely and sad death if you don’t get along with people.” It tells you directly, without dancing around the bush.

Theme picks a side:

The different plots taught in English class: man vs man, man vs nature, man vs himself, etc. Okay all fine and dandy. Your theme will pick a side of that vs. The side that proves the theme correct.

How To Implement Theme

This is the tough part. This is were it gets hard. I found that first you have to pick your tricks of the trade. The tricks that will help you show theme. I’m sure they all have their own English Class names. But I’m using my own descriptions for these tricks. So bite me.

The Reverse

This is when you show something in the scene that is opposite the theme. Say you have a theme for a specific character that says: “Love is like a thorn bush, prickly and full of hurt.” You can then show a scene of the character enjoying the soft side of love. Little does anybody know you have the prickly side waiting for him a few pages down. haha. Your evil.


We will stick with the above theme: “Love is like a thorn bush, prickly and full of hurt.” So maybe while your character is enjoying the soft side of love, he is making love to his girl and they are outside, and they roll into a thorn bush. Blunt/Subtle. The readers don’t know the wording of your theme. Only you do. They may just think it is funny that the character has an ass full of thorns. But it is theme. It is there. Anybody that wants to look will see it. Especially later when things get rough and theme comes out bluntly.


Theme can come out in dialogue. In conversation. There are different methods to this. You can be blunt and have somebody even repeat the words of your theme. What fun is that? I mean in some instances it probably works. But I want a word count here. Lets stretch it out. Lets show the theme through a conversation without actually saying it. Maybe the character is talking to his buddy about what a bitch his girlfriend is. His friend has experience and says love is rough. You get cut. You bleed inside.


A sound can help show theme. Maybe the rattling noise of a dry thorn bush nearby disrupts the lovers during a pick nick in the woods.


Action is sometimes the best way to show theme. A fight ensues between the two lovers. Maybe the character is trying to think about the right thing to say as to avoid making things worse: He is trying to avoid the prickly situation.


Your plot is the story. You will have smaller subplots, and then the larger one. And they all relate to the overall goal of the story. Your story overall plot is best reserved for that big thematic message. But maybe, since we are talking about a character theme, we will stick to the plot of this relationship. The overall plot, and all that goes into it, will, in the end, show the theme. Because theme is a statement and will be proven correct, the fact that love is like a thorn bush, prickly and full of hurt, the plot has to prove this. So in the end, the character  will get hurt from his love with the girl. The whole plot leads to that. But just to not confuse people, that doesn’t mean that is the end of the relationship. A new plot can start and they can prove the theme wrong by having a new theme that states love will win over all, or something along those mushy lines. You can, of course, be evil and just leave the character hurt.  ha ha.

Motifs and Symbols

Motifs are identified as symbols, mistakenly.

Symbols: images, ideas, sounds or words, represent something else. They help the reader understand an idea or a thing.

Motifs: images, ideas, sounds or words, help explain the central idea of a story, like theme.

Another major difference. A symbol may appear once or twice. Motif appears throughout the story as a recurring element.

People get confused and think Motif is theme. It isn’t. Motif is an element to help carry theme. Example theme: “have hope and the day will come through”. The motif may be the word “hope” from the lips of a crazy lady throughout the story. Or it may be the sunrise every morning. Imagery, Dialogue, Action, and Sounds, all tools of theme themselves can also be motifs, if you decide to use that same element throughout the story.

Symbols, not directly used to show theme, may be used to show an idea or thing that helps show theme. Very subtle indeed. “Have hope and the day will come through” The idea of hope creating hope helps show this theme. Maybe the idea, of a person in a bad situation, to help another, in hopes that person will help others as well, symbolizes hope creating hope, which leads to the theme “have hope and the day will come through”. Very subtle indeed.

Using this all together

These are all independent tools to help incorporate theme. The best use is to use them all together, quite often in a complex weaving of each other. Have a scene with dialogue, action, sound and imagery. In that imagery show symbols of an idea that supports the theme, and through action show a motif that appears throughout the plot. What a powerful scene that will be. And the best part, the part that makes you a writer, is you show all these elements and still move the story forward in its goals and plot.

Have fun.


Written by Cali

October 29th, 2014 at 3:34 pm

How to Be an Organized Pantsing Writer

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I will tell you before you read this that all of what I’m about to say is total speculation. I’ve had an issue with my writing techniques for a while now and I always seem to come to the same conclusion: Planning a novel takes way to much time.

I have read so many books on how to “Plan” a novel. The writers selling these books put out great stories. I love their stories and obviously their techniques work for them.

I have also read many great stories that were so intricately woven I thought for sure they were planned. But lo and behold they were pantsed stories. By the way “Pantsed” refers to writing a book by the seat of your pants with little to no planning of the novel.

Would you believe that The Song Of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin were pantsed novels. Such an complex world I could only dream to create myself.

My current WIP “New Earth” has approx 6 months of after work evenings put into just the planning. After all this work my greatest disappointment lies in the fact that I still don’t have nearly all the info I want in my world planned. All the history, languages, realistic politics, culture. I have two binders of straight text on just one character.

I have a world map. Zoomed in maps, all from specific countries, cities, islands, regions, language boundaries, etc. I have about 12 languages in basic creation, and 3 that go in depth.

I have plot cards and timelines. Subplot out shoots and back history. I have plots cards that will never be written. They are just there so I know what is going on in the background.

I initially wanted a 90,000 word novel. A first to publish. I did not want a trilogy or series. But with all this world building and character development, it almost seems a sin not to use it.

And do you want to hear the worst part? I’m bored. I feel like my story has already been written. I have no surprises. I feel restricted. The whole time I worked on all this information I just wanted to start writing. I was scared I would mess up. I was scared I would conflict information and people would notice. I’m scared that my characters will fall out of character if I don’t plan down to the day they were born and how their parents dealt with them from the stages of infant to adult.

Essentially my mind is so overloaded with information that I want nailed down perfectly before I put the first words on the page I feel I’ll never get tot he writing.

I finally told myself to let go and just outline the plot on a timeline and write the scenes as I planned out. This got the ball rolling at first. Eventually I found myself bored.

So how could pantsing help me? Well I don’t think I could become a full Pantser. There are still things in a story that need to be concrete. Especially in the genre of fantasy which is my favourite to write in.

Which things must be nailed down before you start pantsing this story in a organized fashion? I’m going to roll out a checklist and when I work on my story I will see if I can pants a story following my own advice.

The Organized Pantsing Checklist:

Characters and their Personality Types: Do a Myers Briggs Test to find out what type of people they are. Read the articles on their personality type. This will help you know what type of decisions they will make in specific situations. If you already have an idea about who your character is write down that information. If not, you can pants it in your first draft.

*Note*: You can do the Myers Briggs Test after you have written a bit about your characters so you already know a bit about how they act if that is something you think will work best. This will help you stay congruent to the character you pants at the beginning of the story.

Setting: You can either draw out a map first, or pants a bit then draw a map. You could draw a map as you pants, expanding out like a “fog of war” in a real time strategy game. This is up to you. Maybe you already have a few different cultures in your mind and you want a place to put them. Maybe you have no idea what cultures are in your world and you’ll add them in as you run into them. Maybe that ruin you hid in while being chased by the Graklorans just showed up and you add it to your map. You can also pants in some history on it – no info dumping here – and add it to your map. Setting is something you can draw up a bit, or pants then draw up. You can decide on this one.

World Building: This is where I really get caught up in.  I want to know all the cultures, languages, political tensions. I need to stop.  If you have a few ideas for some cultures write up a quick document on each culture. Don’t go so deep that you don’t learn anything when you meet these cultures. Just write up the interesting bits. Write up the parts that sparked your imagination. Write up the things that might be contentious to a nearby culture. Write any enemies the cultures has. Write whatever you want. If you have the idea write it down. Don’t go looking for new info to write. Just write what you have.

Languages can really get you sucked in. If you already have a cool name for your culture or some aspects of it, write them down in a language journal. Learn how languages work and follow the rules of language building for the rest of your language based on what you already have written down. Don’t build your language past your cool ideas. Only build when you get to a part in your story that needs language.

Political tensions are perfect for pantsing. What better then to throw in some political tension just as things are slowing down. Once again if you already have an idea then write it down, if not save this for your own discovery.

Plot: This is where the pantsers really don’t write down a thing. You have characters set up and ready with a few character rules set in place. You have your setting or plan on how you will discover. You have any quick notes on your world. Now it is time for Plot. Screw plot if you want. You can just start writing.

Or you can once again write down real quick anything that has been rumbling around in your mind. Jot down the cool scenes you want to write. No more. Don’t go looking for more scenes. You don’t want to plan the book before you write it. That is what I did and I was done with my story before it started. You want fresh.

You need an end. Most novels end up not being written because the writer had no end goal. Give yourself a main theme. It can be as simple and cliche as you want it. Face it, all themes are cliche. There is no “Original Fiction”. There is only your version of a story already told. This isn’t a bad thing. This is how it has been since the beginning of story telling. Once you have a theme, tell your self what your main characters will achieve at the end of this story. You don’t have to write this at the beginning. You can pants it for a while, see what problems your characters end up having, and write down an ending with them resolving their problems.

Your ending can change. Maybe you pants it for a bit and your character needs some quick gold to pay off that corrupt guard. Your end goal: pay off the guard. As you pants it you realize that while trying to achieve his goal of acquiring gold, he is busted by the rich wizard on the mountain top as your character is stealing from the wizards treasury and the only way to pay penance for his crimes is to sacrifice a child or some other crap your character is spiraling into. Along his journey he discovers bigger and bigger problems to be solved until finally your end goal is rescue the maiden from the dragon, win the war against the dark lord, and become dictator of all the land.

Of course it is your story, you do as you see fit. This is pantsing by the way. I think an end goal, if ever changing, at least drives your characters forward without getting so sidetracked you don’t know what to do accept cut ten chapters and restart. The theme also helps you write with a focus.

Record Keeping

My biggest beef with pantsing is loosing track of all my information and plot lines. I think it is great I’m not planning my whole novel out a head of time. I keep it fresh. At the same time I would like to reference all the info I have written down so I can at least flip through a book and remember the name of that culture I discovered. The eye colour of that babe my character met at the bar and I am sure I’ll have come back later in the book.

I want to record on a map, or build a map, as I’m discovering. I need to write or draw this down. I need to write down world history as it pops up in the book. I need to record language creation as I developed a sentence in a cultural language. I need to make sure that I keep army sizes consistent to the population of a country.

Essentially all information that I put in the book from my imagination through pantsing has to be recorded in an organized fashion so that I can find it again when I need to.

I am calling this my Pantsing Journal.  Now you can organize this any way you want. I’m still figuring out for myself how I want to do this. I don’t think I’ll have my Pantsing Journal figured out until I actually start writing. When the time comes and I run through my Pantsing Journal trial and error I’ll post up my results.

I do know

The Process

As I write I will have to stop to develop certain aspects of the story. Sure I can throw in certain things on the fly, but to keep the story realistic I’ll still need to do the math so to speak. Maybe I’ll describe an arid land with little growth. The people are far and few in between but the country is vast and wide. The leader of the nation wants to raise an army while not devastating the farming industry. The nation dies without food in this land. So I need to do the math and figure how many men can actually join the army. I have to check population density. I literally have to stop and do the math. Everything I stop to figure out needs to be entered into the Pantsing Journal. Next time I work in this world in this time period I will have accurate information to refer to so that my stories stay accurate. This ranges from stopping to develop language, writing history, etc. If I need to stop and develop something, it goes in the book. I call this “Mid Pants Recording”

Now after every writing session I will read through my words. I am not editing. What I am doing is looking for any information that I wrote that is important enough to be recorded. Anything that I did not stop to develop but wrote down and kept moving. Now is the time to record this information. I call this “After Pants Recording”

*Tip* I would consider, for your own purposes and convenience, that you split your record keeping up into “World Information” and “Story Information”. This means your information on the world itself – like village sizes, cultural preferences, history- be recorded in a world journal. Story information – like character development, wounds, appearance changes, clothing change, etc. – be recorded in a section for the story info only.


Once again, once I develop my own Pantsing Journal Process I’ll let you guys know what I did.


Have fun writing




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