February 19, 2013

Can Story Themes Help Pantsers Write?

Landscape with Magnifying Loupe in foreground with text: Themes: Our Story's Big Picture

My favorite blogger, Janice Hardy, had another great post last week. This time she talked about how writers can develop their theme. She shared three tips for understanding how themes work in our stories.

One of her tips struck me—a confirmed pantser—as a great way to keep our pantsed stories on track. When we draft stories by the seat of our pants, it’s easy to get sidetracked by tangents, subplots, interesting side characters, etc. That can make for a tough revision.

Okay, now here’s where all of you who have struggled with a hot mess of a pantsed story will hate me. Um, those sorts of don’t-fit-the-story tangents have never happened to me. Ever.

I know story structure backward and forward, so my knowledge trickles by osmosis into well-plotted stories despite my pantsing technique. But Janice’s post gave me insight into how that actually happens. Which means I can attempt to explain it to others. *smile*

How to Keep a Pantsed Story on Track? Know Your Themes

I use themes to keep my pantsing self on track. And Janice pointed out the now-very-obvious-to-me truth: You Can Have More Than One Theme.

Like in my NaNo project (which is fresh in my mind because I’m looking for beta readers right now), the story has several themes: love conquers all, discovering yourself, standing up for what you believe in, feeling worthy, finding redemption, sacrificing your desires for those you love, the difference free will makes, etc. Some of those apply to the story as a whole, some just to the hero or heroine, and some to their relationship together.

I knew only the high-level concepts when pantsed this story from beginning to end. A reveal in the hero’s first scene (that I didn’t see coming until I typed it) becomes a major plot point later on. And I didn’t have a clue how the big showdown would happen until I got there.

Yet all the scenes hung together and built into a coherent story from the very first draft. How did I manage that? By having vague ideas about those themes.

Those themes provided the framework to know what high-level concepts I wanted to accomplish. And more importantly, how to accomplish those concepts.

Themes Provide the Framework for Story and Scene Concepts

If we know the big picture with our themes, we’ll know whether this point A or that point A is a better start for the scene to get to point B. We’ll know what subtext to layer into the motivations. We’ll know what mood or tone will fit our goals. And if our muse tries leading us down a path that seems out of line, we can ask ourselves if it’s furthering the big picture we’re painting with our themes.

For example, when drafting this story, I was several pages into one scene and still didn’t have a clue where it was going. However, it fit the theme for the character and made sense plot-wise, so I followed my muse’s lead. A page later, a literal gun to the head forced the hero to make choices that set the next phase of his emotional arc into motion.

If I hadn’t known the theme, I might have deleted that scene before letting it play out. I might not have trusted my muse to give the scene a turning point. If I’d deleted it (and believe me, I was tempted), I would have been stuck for what should happen next.

Knowing the big picture themes gave me the confidence to trust in my muse. If my subconscious knows the themes, it will figure out a way to bring them into the story.

What If We Don’t Know Our Themes?

Often, our subconscious will know our themes better than we do. Many writers don’t consciously recognize their themes until after the story is done.

But I’d argue that we often know our themes better than we think we do. Themes are usually generic, like the “love conquers all” type ideas I listed above. And our themes often repeat from story to story because they usually reflect our personal worldview.

So all we pantsers might need to know is that our heroine’s theme is about discovering her inner strength. In other words, the theme is often a simplified, generic version of the story or character arc.

When we get an idea for a scene, we can make sure that scene has multiple reasons for existingincluding illuminating the theme in some way. If the conflict follows the previous plot point and has our heroine question herself, that scene could be a perfect fit.

On the other hand, if the conflict doesn’t refer to any of the themes, maybe it could be tweaked. Not every scene has to refer to the themes, but I’d bet that most do, at least in subtle ways.

Scenes that do refer to the theme will likely be stronger. And more importantly, scenes that tie into the theme will help make our whole story more meaningful.

Do you have problems with unrelated tangents as you’re drafting? Do you know your themes in advance (at least in a vague way)? Do you think themes can help us shape a scene? Or know if it belongs at all? Have you used themes that way before?

(And Beta Readers, let me know if you’re interested. I’m reluctant to pester. *grin*)

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Comments — What do you think?

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Melinda S. Collins

Hi Jami!

I loved that post from Janice, too! I’m one of those subconscious-theme-writers. I usually don’t notice the themes of my story until I’m either halfway through, or completely done with the first draft. But like you said, my muse is well aware of the themes, and he keeps tracking according to those themes. Well…not all the time, to tell the truth. I’ve definitely found areas where my muse’s attention wondered a bit here and there. *makes note to get muse some Ritalin* 🙂

Themes definitely are one of the best ways to keep a scene on track, especially during the drafting phase. After that, it’s a combination of themes and a scene checklist that helps. I’ve deleted at several sections from various scenes during this current round of edits because the conversations just didn’t fit into the overall scheme of things. Some were meant to be fun, and while I kept *some* of those fun moments, i didn’t keep them all, especially if they didn’t a) fit the theme, or b) have a reason for existing in the first.

As for a Beta Read, yes! You know I owe you one. 😉 I just read your blurb too, and…I LOVE the concept! And the new title for your award-winning novel, TREASURED CLAIM. 😀

Sue Roebuck

Jami, we all have different ways of writing – no-one seems to do it the same way. I definitely don’t plot. I have a vague idea what the story’s going to be about but then start writing – sometimes even the genre isn’t clear! As a complete pantser that means I write into holes, witter on about stuff because I’m not sure where I’m going and get myself in a general mess that I always manage to drag myself out of. I’ve learned to tell myself that if I have the slightest inkling that something’s wrong, then it is! So this has been a fabulous post for me. I’m heading through the first edits of my new novel (third one) and I’m ready to beta read for you. Feel free to contact me 🙂


One thing I’ve found helpful is to draft the blurb—what would go in a query letter or back cover. These days, I usually do this once I’m a scene or ten into the book, once I’m far enough in to know my major characters and options. For example, with A Fistful of Earth, I figured out that I could make it a political fantasy, a romantic fantasy, or a more coming-of-age/epic fantasy. Now, all three of those aspects did end up in the final version, but all three couldn’t be the primary focus of the story. Drafting up the blurb for the different possible versions helped me see which way I wanted to go. I tend to not think of themes so much as…goals. For instance, Destiny’s Kiss is pretty dark, but I wanted the overall story to have a hopeful aspect (which meant there were certain things I did not want happening to my poor narrator during the main plotline). Then I wrote a scene that had fantastic emotions and relations to the plot…but keeping that scene would destroy the overall goals for the story. So I went back to the scene before it and figured out 1. who had to be in the scene, 2. who could not be in the scene (to prevent the goal destruction), and 3. who could be in the scene. Putting that together let me figure out how to be true the plot without losing track of my goals. The goal can be…  — Read More »

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

I’m not the greatest at themes…I’ve tried to consciously think of themes when beginning a story and then during a story and then even at the end, but I’ve never really grasped the concept.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing my novels justice, you know, since I haven’t themed them out 🙁
I love this post. I think after I reread it many times over (just to make it stick in my very spongy brain) it’ll help me grasp a theme.
Thank you for the many links!
Have a great evening,

Shelley Munro

An interesting post. You write much like I do, but I hadn’t thought about the theme angle. That’s a great thing to keep in mind while writing and it should, in theory, strengthen the book overall.

Melissa Maygrove

You have such a wonderful way of explaining things. I always get a lot out of reading your posts. 🙂

I’m turning into more of a plotter as I go, and I’m one of those writers for whom theme shows itself and gels as I write. My stories often have more than one. I think what really happens is that theme was always there, just not consciously. I notice it as I write, then strengthen it as I keep writing.

Janet Boyer

I’ll be a beta reader for you, Jami. :o)


LOL, I’m also a pantser who never goes on subplot tangents either, high five! For some reason I just stick to the main story from beginning to end, and maybe I stick to it too much that I’m not developing and fleshing out things as much as I should. However, my kind of story is good for the people who just want to know “what happens next”, because my stories tend to be really fast-paced. (To a fault, lol.)

For the big themes, I do know a few themes that I will probably write about, e.g. the wonder and beauty of friendship, simply because nearly ALL my stories talk about friendship. But there are themes that emerge as I write: I never expected this story to be about parental love for their child, or about sibling relationships.

But what helps me keep from going off on tangents, is that I know the basic ending: they’re all going to escape the kidnapper and emerge victorious, and go back home. Very simple, but it keeps me on track. 🙂

Rinelle Grey

I always find working out the theme the most difficult part of writing. I guess I have one, since I don’t seem to go off track, but I always struggle to find it! I suspect it’s made more complex by the fact that I generally have a romance theme, and then a sci-fi/fantasy theme/storyline too.

Happy to beta read for you if you need any extra eyes on the story, it sounds fascinating.

Reetta Raitanen

It’s a relieving notion that there can be more than one theme in the book. And readers likely discover some themes you didn’t even think when reading your book because they view it through their own worldview.

I love these process posts, and tying the theme to the scene goals is a really useful technique.

As for beta reading, me, me, pick me 😀 I promise to give you detailed feedback on the big picture. And focus on the things you want to hear about.

Linda Adams - Soldier, Storyteller

I’d love to have a tangent or two. I always run too short when I write!

Laurie Evans

One theme to rule them all! 🙂

I agree on school making this concept something we ALL dreaded. I remember the moaning & groaning when this subject came up. I hated it because I never “saw” the same theme the teacher did. And, they always made it seem like there was only ONE theme per book. Period. Just one.

you said:
“Yes, I write paranormal romance, so I generally have at least one theme for the story, at least one for the hero, at least one for the heroine, and at least one for their relationship.”

I really like the idea of a theme for the relationship.


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Jessica Schley

Themes are good for “architects” (planners) too. I always find that even though I have a good sense of my story’s structure, the theme helps me in revisions to figure out which pieces need to go where. Themes + beat sheets = something I can pull together.


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Gene Lempp

At one time I would have argued that pantsing without sufficient pre-built structure would lead to a bad result. However, recent days have made me question that assessment – and much of this thinking revolves around theme.

Theme and a core story idea usually come to me at the same time. Yet, in an effort to have a structurally sound story, the story idea gets worked out, with the theme pressed off to the side. It does work its way into the story, but not as centrally as the idea you have above.

As I consider your idea, approaching the design of scenes with theme foremost in mind would make more sense. Theme is the resonating power of a story and I’ll be taking a look back at the latest story to tighten things up on this point. Somehow I think it will help tremendously.

Thanks, Jami 🙂


[…] Gold: Can Story Themes Help Pantsers Write? Excerpt: “When we draft stories by the seat of our pants, it’s easy to get sidetracked by […]

Lena Corazon

Great post, Jami. I find that themes tend to come to me early in the brainstorming process, alongside my characters and my early conceptions of the conflicts that they will have to navigate. I’ve been experimenting with pantsing vs. plotting, and I think I fall somewhere in the middle. I like to have a general sense of the movement of the novel, but I depend on my characters to take me along on the ride (makes me wonder if this is the blind leading the blind…?).

If you are still looking for beta readers, give me a shout. I’d love to give your MS a read. 😀


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