Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Importance Of Story Theme

Theme is one of the cornerstones of good fiction. When done well, it's practically invisible. I'm a big fan of it, and identifying theme is now part of my writing process. It didn't used to be though. I'm going to share what I've learned about themes and how to identify them in your writing.

The overarching theme of my A'yen's Legacy series is a dual one: the importance of knowing and being who you are, and what does it mean to be free. The funny part? I didn't do it on purpose. It took me almost three books to see what I was doing and move to where I could do it intentionally.

Writing My Name Is A'yen was a healing process for me, after going through the worst two years of my life. Who I had been no longer existed, and this worked itself out in the novel as A'yen lost who he used to be and had to find a new identity. Again, I didn't do it on purpose. My Name Is A'yen was written because it was easy and pouring out of me, not to explore a particular theme.

As I started on the second book, I still wasn't thinking in terms of theme, either for The King's Mistress or A'yen's Legacy as a series. At that point the series title was The Lokmane Chronicles. Yeah, it's awful. A'yen's Legacy is a much better one. And you know what it does? It conveys the series theme. The King's Mistress, book two which came out on 1/20, is part of the book's theme conveyed in the title.

In TKM, A'yen is struggling to reconcile who he's found out he is with the person he's always been. A snarky smart-ass is the last person anyone expects to lead an enslaved people group into freedom. His wife and owner, Fae, is also struggling with moving from her position as the king's mistress to the king's wife and eventually to being queen. It's all about identity and how it can both change and stay the same.

In the third book, To Save A Life, the theme is a little more in your face. It's all about how every life has value and is worth fighting for. Doesn't matter what the person's done, they still deserve to be free. Everyone A'yen loves is under attack and he chooses to defend them all. Because they're all worth saving. While writing this one is when I started purposely looking at theme and how best to incorporate it.

In 2014, everywhere I turned in my writing circles I ran into theme. One of the writing blogs I read focused on theme in 2014 and I learned so much by doing the exercises and asking myself the questions presented in each post. Go over to Helping Writers Become Authors and have a look through the theme posts if you want hands-on help exploring theme and learning how to identify it in your writing.

I also stepped back a little and took a look at my writing as a whole, encompassing every single thing I've ever dabbled in and every random scene I've ever written, to see what themes were hiding there. Yes, I'm going to tell you what I found. Variations on identity and what does it mean to be free, along with family is the most important thing.

The identity one is the one I can't figure out where it came from. I'm one of those people who's always known who I am, always been comfortable in my own skin, and not afraid to march to my own beat and blaze my own path. My identity is not something I've ever struggled with in a huge way, even while navigating the hardest two years of my life. I didn't lose who I was, I lost my dreams. Yet it's something I keep writing about, over and over and over. And I never get tired of it. There is so much you can do to explore identity and all its facets and variations.

My secondary theme, what does it mean to be free, also shows up in just about everything I've ever written. This one I'm pretty sure I know where it came from. I live in the American Deep South, where the ramifications of slavery and Reconstruction are a part of daily life. History has always been my favorite subject, and one of my favorite time periods is the 1850's, 1860's, and 1870's. Over these three decades, America as a nation was struggling with what freedom meant and what it should look like. This is a time frame I know a lot about.

I've done extensive research on slavery, Reconstruction, the fallout of Reconstruction, what the federal government did wrong in freeing the slaves and how it continues to affect life in the Deep South, and I worked at a plantation turned museum for three years. Getting paid to research! It did not surprise me at all to start writing about slavery 3,000 years in the future.

The third theme, family is the most important thing, is one I've never wondered for a moment where it came from. I'm blessed to be in an intact, strong, close family where we help each other. I also consider my parents and siblings my best friends. Growing up, our cousins are who we spent the most time with. We're not as close now as adults, but whenever we're together we have so much fun.

As I continue to write, I continue to explore new variations on these three themes. It never gets old, and I never feel like I'm repeating myself. Each set of characters gives me a new lens to explore through.

Take a look at your writing and see what themes you like to write about. I'm also curious if anyone has already identified a favorite theme or something you find yourself writing about, so leave a comment and tell me what it is.

Rachel Leigh Smith writes romance for the hero lover. She lives in central Louisiana with her family and a half-crazed calico. When not writing, which isn’t often, she’s hanging with her family, doing counted cross-stitch, or yakking about life, the universe, and everything with her besties. Her debut novel, My Name Is A'yen, is available at AmazonB&NKoboGoogle Play, and iBooks. The sequel, The King's Mistress, released 1/20.
She blogs sporadically at, hangs out on Facebook, and can sometimes be found on Twitter, @rachelleighgeek. You can sign up for her newsletter here.

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