Thursday, March 6, 2014

Theme: How can I use it for a more powerful reading experience?

With Guest Melanie Dickerson. 

Theme has always been one of those ethereal aspects of story that I wasn’t too sure I even understood, let alone something I could plan and/or harness to make my story more powerful. Lately I’ve been realizing that theme is something I should be paying a lot more attention to. But what is theme?

Here is the definition I like best from Merriam-Webster: Theme is an idea, ideal, or orienting principle that is dominant or persistent.

In other words, theme is a dominant principle that shows up persistently in a story. The more stories I write, the more I want each one to stand out and to make a powerful impression on my readers. And I’ve been wondering if I might be able to intentionally weave theme throughout my story.

But how? 

Now, I’m still figuring this out. In fact, the reason I volunteered to write my blog post on theme was because I wanted to learn more about it and figure out how to do a better job of incorporating theme into my stories.

I’ve been reading a book called Writing Subtext: How to craft subtext that develops characters, boosts suspense, and reinforces theme by Elizabeth Lyon. I realize that most of the things she talks about I am already doing, but not intentionally.
To be honest, I was never very good at figuring out the theme and underlying meaning behind poetry or classic novels. I guess I tend to think in literal terms. And it makes me upset when “experts” interpret a poem or story to mean something I don’t think the author ever intended—or when reviewers read something into my own novels that I never intended. So how can we make sure our readers don’t miss the theme of our novels, experience it in a deep and meaningful way, and yet, avoid beating them over the head with it?

James Scott Bell and Donald Maass, both a lot smarter and more experienced than I am, have talked about the fact that, if you do the work of developing your characters and your plot, theme will naturally emerge. But what can you do to reinforce it? And should you even try?

In my Beauty and the Beast story,The Merchant’s Daughter, one of the themes that naturally emerged was the theme of inner beauty and that it was possible to love someone in spite of their outward appearance. The main characters and plot epitomize this theme, as the hero was disfigured in an accident when he was younger and didn’t believe any woman, especially a beautiful woman, could ever love him. 

But I also had a secondary character who reinforced it. Stephen was the heroine’s good friend from childhood, and she loved him. Her friendship type of love was not hampered in the least by Stephen’s cerebral palsy, which caused him to walk in a way that was noticeably different from everyone else. But if I had wanted to be even more intentional about reinforcing the theme, I might have spent a little more time exploring Stephen and his experiences and interactions with other characters. I also could have had one of the characters mention the theme in dialogue.

I came up with three ways theme might be reinforced:

1. Subplots

2. An object that symbolizes the theme

3. Metaphors

3. Dialogue

However, I also got to thinking that this sort of reinforcement of theme could easily become overdone and seem heavy-handed. My conclusion is that, as the author, I need to be aware of the theme of my book, whether it’s while I’m writing the first draft, before I even start writing, or after I’m done, when I’m revising. During the revision process, I need to reinforce theme, but I should be careful not to overdo it. Let the story itself convey the theme, let the characters come to grips with the theme, but don’t preach the theme to the reader.

Two principles of good writing: 1. Trust the reader to “get it,” and 2. Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE).

Another theme I have used in my novels is that we allow social status to affect our identity and feelings of self-worth, but our self-worth should be based on how God sees us. Looking back on some of my books, I think I could have focused in on this theme and made it more impactful if I had been more aware of it. I might have highlighted this theme through the use of subplots and secondary characters struggling with this issue. I might have had a character make a statement in dialogue that would have encapsulated the theme so succinctly that it would have been an “Ah-ha!” moment for both the POV (point of view) character and the reader.

I’m still figuring out how to reinforce my themes, but I do think, from now on, I will definitely try to identify my theme as early in the process as possible. In fact, I recently identified the theme of my three-book series that I’m still plotting. I haven’t even started the first draft of the first book, but already I’m excited about the ways I’ll be able to highlight this theme, and the variations of the theme that will emerge with each of the three books.

Discussion time! Have you identified the theme of your current writing project? What are some ways you might reinforce this theme to create a powerful “ah-ha” moment for your characters and your reader? How can we avoid “preachy-ness” and still enhance theme?

Melanie Dickerson is the author of Young Adult fairy tale retellings set in Medieval Europe: The Healer’s Apprentice, The Merchant’s Daughter, The Fairest Beauty, and The Captive Maiden. Her fifth novel, The Princess Spy, releases in November. Published with Harper Collins Christian Publishing, she is a two-time Christy Award finalist and winner of the Carol Award in the Young Adult category and the National Readers Choice Award for Best First Book. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Special Education from The University of Alabama and lives in north Alabama with her husband, two book-loving daughters, and two cute-but-incontinent R.O.U.S.s, also known as guinea pigs, named Cecily and Rue.

 You can connect with Melanie through facebook,, twitter,, and her website,

Today Melanie is generously giving away a copy of The Captive Maiden to one Seekerville commenter. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.  And here's a special treat..CHECK OUT THIS VIDEO OF MELANIE reading from The Captive Maiden.

 The Captive Maiden by Melanie Dickerson.

Happily Ever After …Or Happily Nevermore? 

Gisela’s childhood was filled with laughter and visits from nobles such as the duke and his young son. But since her father’s death, each day has been filled with nothing but servitude to her stepmother. So when Gisela learns the duke’s son, Valten---the boy she has daydreamed about for years---is throwing a ball in hopes of finding a wife, she vows to find a way to attend, even if it’s only for a taste of a life she’ll never have. To her surprise, she catches Valten’s eye. Though he is rough around the edges, Gisela finds Valten has completely captured her heart. But other forces are bent on keeping the two from falling further in love, putting Gisela in more danger than she ever imagined.

It's not too late to Speedbo...


Helen Gray said...

You hear that sound? It's coffee bubbling. There's plenty.

I'm not good at figuring out all the underlying things I'm supposed to. Small brain, I guess.

Marianne Barkman said...

Melanie, I think the main part is don't over do it!!! Nothing turns me as a reader off quicker than a preachy story, no matter what your theme is. I'll forgive you once try twice, but by the third book I'll probably set your series aside. It actually happened to a once favorite author of mine. Go ahead and reinforce it, but does it really matter if the reader gets it, like you thought they would? Your post is great, and got me thinking! I'd love your novel.
Thanks, Helen you are always on the ball! You figure out coffee well enough without drinking it, I think you are better at figuring than you think you are?

Dianna Shuford said...

Hi, Melanie. Great topic and one that is often not discussed. I've always thought about the over-arcing theme I want my stories to portray. I guess that's the analytical part of my brain trying to enjoy the craft of writing.

My current WIP's theme is that people are more important than possessions. I set this theme up in my planning of the story by putting my heroine in the position of having to choose between helping her mother or keeping her possession. She has to come face to face with that choice. Her choice then force the hero to have to make a choice between a possession and the heroine.

For me, if I plan in theme from the beginning, through my character and plot development, the underlying things naturally come out through the dialogue and character actions with no extra effort.

I know everyone is not as nerdy as I am, but that's how I approach integrating theme into my stories. As a matter of fact, I have to start thinking about theme all over again tomorrow as I have to start planning a new story. Thanks for the push in the right direction.

AND, your book sounds fabulous. I would love to read it.

The coffee is a great idea, Helen; however, I'll leave it for all the other visitors. I'm a Dr. Pepper fan.

Nancy J Farrier said...

Melanie, thank you for your post. For me, theme is something that has to work in naturally and not slap you in the face over and over. :) Sometimes I don't even have the clear picture of the theme until close to the end when I see how everything works together.

Jackie said...

Thanks for sharing on this tough topic for me. I appreciate your honesty. I don't feel like I'm the only one now, you definitely helped.

Theme has been on my mind recently. The tv show The Middle does a great job with theme (at least the episodes I've caught). Recently an episode revolved around three characters & you think they are each dealing with their own junk (one kid is even away at college) and by the end of the show, they tie it together in one nice theme. The writers definitely didn't hit the viewer over the head. At the end it was a nice Ah-ha moment.

Thanks again for sharing.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Hi, Helen! I am the same way. I'm more interested in story than theme, but theme is good too, I'm realizing. ;-)

And thank you so much for the coffee! I don't drink it, so I don't know how to make it, but I'm thankful on behalf of the coffee drinkers! ;-)

Melanie Dickerson said...

Hi, Marianne! I too am turned off by novels that seem to want to make me believe a certain way, or that take on subjects that seem too deep for their conduit, a.k.a. a romance novel. But theme can also really help the author focus the novel, so that it doesn't have a scattered, all-over-the-place feel. I'm talking subtle theme here, not the beat-you-over-the-head kind. ;-) Thanks for putting your name in the hat for The Captive Maiden, Marianne!

Melanie Dickerson said...

I'll be scarce for a couple of hours this morning, as I have two kids to take to school! Pray the traffic isn't as bad today as yesterday!!!

Rose said...

This is a great topic. I always have to know the theme of my story before I start writing. I've done that for years.

Good luck with your current release, Melanie!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Dianna, I wish I thought more like you! It sounds like you have a great grasp of theme and how to incorporate it into the story. Kind of proves my theory that if you know what the theme is from the very beginning, it isn't hard to work it into the story. It plays into the characterization and the plot. Thanks, Dianna!

Jeanne T said...

What a great post, Melanie! I usually have an idea of my main theme of my book before I begin writing. But, I'm still figuring out how to show it, not preach it, through my stories. Therein lies the trick.

I like your idea of using a metaphor to reveal it too. How have you crafted metaphors into your stories?

Tina Radcliffe said...

I agree with Marianne. Theme should occur organically. By chapter four or so, theme will tell me its there and then you can put the Rule of Three into play.


Tina Radcliffe said...

So fairytale writer. Which fairy tale are you tackling next?

Your covers just keep getting more and more stunning, BTW.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Nancy, I'm the same way. I have trouble identifying a theme until closer to the end. But I do think it's important to HAVE a theme, so you can focus the story better. Thanks for commenting!

Haven Brown said...

I've been trying to figure out how to post a comment for a month... I can't seem to conquer technology. If anyone reads this pretty pretty pretty please say something!

Sandra Leesmith said...

Hi MELANIE and welcome to Seekerville. I love the cover of The Captive Maiden. Its gorgeous.

What a great topic. Like you I am amazed when people tell me they got the theme of my book and I didn't even know it was there. lol But like you, I really do want to understand it and think it would deepen my characters if I stuck to a theme and really enhanced it. Thanks for the advice.

Have fun today.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Great point, Jackie!!! When done right, theme provides a great "ah-ha" moment for the reader, or viewer, if it's a tv show. That's what I want. I want my readers to have a distinct moment near the end of the story when they think, Ah-ha! while the truth of the theme washes over them. ;-)

Sandra Leesmith said...

Hey Melanie, I am bringing some orange bread to go with Helen's coffee. Its my grandma's recipe and yummy.

Haven Brown said...

Did anyone see the comment i just left? I think I'm going to just start blogging to myself, since I'm not smart enough to work this. Haven, you're a dope... I know :)

Mary Hicks said...

Melanie, Thank you for talking about something I've never really understood.

In the broader sense, yes. But like you noted, I don't know how to reenforce the theme that I have in my mind for my story.

I'm printing this for my stuffed keeper file! :-)

Melanie Dickerson said...

Rose, you "get" theme. That's awesome. :-)

Hi, Jeanne! Metaphors in my stories? Hmm... That's a good question. I'm not sure if this is what you mean, but in The Merchant's Daughter, when the hero is wounded and burned in the fire, it's kind of a metaphor of his emotional scars from his first wife. He was "burned" by her and definitely wounded by her cruelty. But I didn't deliberately create that plot element with the thought that if would be a good metaphor. But it worked for the story.

Julie Lessman said...

MEL -- Soooo good to see you here, girlfriend!!!

LOVE the post and like you, I tend to go CRAZY when "'experts'interpret
a poem or story to mean something I don’t think the author ever intended—or when reviewers read something into my own novels that I never intended."

AMEN!!! I read reviews of my books that embark on these deep themes and all I can is, "Say what???" Makes me blink several times because I think, how come I never saw that in my own novel???

How come? Well, because apparently you and I have this "natural" instinct to write themes into our stories, and THANK GOD,eh?? But you are SO right that giving the theme attention ahead of time is a much better way to go, which is why Stan Williams' "The Moral Premise" is a great book to read, making one actually think about the message they are hoping to convey.

Love you, girl, and I'll let you know when Audra, Carol, and I plan our road trip to Bama!! :)


Jennifer Smith said...

Thanks for this great post! I love the covers of your books.

In my current WIP there was a point when I realized the theme evolving was something I was dealing with in my own life. I guess writing can be therapeutic that way. :)

Melanie Dickerson said...

Tina, yes, theme should develop organically, just as your plot should develop organically, in correlation to the characters and their personalities, wounds, goals, and motivations.
Tina, funny you should mention covers. I just saw the rough first mock up of my cover for my November release, The Princess Spy, which is a Frog Prince story. Can't wait to show it off! The cover artist did it again. He is amazing. I love him.
And yes, that is an awesome pic with the bride and the knight, isn't it? It doesn't exactly fit into the post, but I love it! LOL! Glad you used it! ;-)

Melanie Dickerson said...

Haven Brown, you DID IT!!! Way to go! ;-) Technology is a big challenge for me too. I think that's why I'm so drawn to historicals! They feel more friendly than this modern world of technology. ;-)

Julie Lessman said...

MEL SAID: ". Trust the reader to “get it,” and 2. Resist the Urge to Explain"

LOL ... this reminds me of my daughter when she was growing up (and everyone's daughter, I guess). "You're beating a dead horse, Mom," she would always say when I would try to drive a point home because kids HATE IT when parents over-explain -- makes 'em feel stupid, I guess, which is exactly what it does to the reader too. "Enough already," I find myself mumbling when an author hits on a point over and over again, but ironically, my copy editor has called me on the carpet for this very thing in the last two books BIG TIME, so it's definitely something to avoid.


Melanie Dickerson said...

Hi, Sandra!!! I am sometimes amazed at the deep thoughts some readers think about my books! LOL! It's not that I don't agree with them. I just didn't intentionally put that deep thought into the story. I think writers like you and me do a lot of this sort of thing subconsciously or instinctively. At least, I like to think so. I'd hate to think I am just accidentally getting stuff right. ;-)

Ruth Logan Herne said...

I want to live in your covers.

I want to dress like the fairest maiden and still have antibiotics and great medical care.

Mel, this was delightful and informative, and I nodded wisely when I got to the part where you were studying a book!!!

Go, you!!!!! :)

We talked about theme vs. moral premise vs. moral in my series writing class and in my head, I can cross all three and not worry about it because they're already inter-woven.

But it's so nice to see such a well-scripted point-by-point way of explaining it. Thank you for that!

Helen bubbled the coffee????


I want some bubbled coffee!!!!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Sandra, thanks for the orange bread! Sounds yummy!!!

HAVEN!!! You are not alone!!! You are not invisible!!! I can see you! ;-) Thanks for commenting. I am really glad you're here.

Eileen said...

Oh my, I would love your novel. I've read two already and 'Cinder' stories are a favorite. Working hard on Speedbo, I found theme very helpful. Your blog confirmed that I do have a theme, but I love the idea of having one character perhaps state it with a one or two carefully worded sentence if a great idea.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Aw, Mary Hicks, thanks! I'm glad it was helpful. For me, I think just identifying the theme early in the process will help me a lot. :-)

Melanie Dickerson said...

Julie, my twin!!! ;-) I would so love to show you and Audra and Carol my home state of Alabama--not the bad parts that Tina saw, though!!! Tina had a bad experience in Alabama, but I would not have let that happen to her if I had been with. ;-)
Anyway!!! Yes, Julie, once again we are alike in something. Theme has been something I never really wrapped my head around, and I'm still working on it. I need to read that Moral Premise book, for sure. But stuff like that, I just have to force myself to get through, and I never fully understand it! Ha. I am like you. I think I do it instinctively, and by concentrating on the STORY, a lot of the other things seem to fall into place--but not always, which is why it would be better if I kept theme in mind from the very beginning.

Thanks for commenting, Julie! You know I love you too, my twin!!!

Kathryn said...

You've stirred up the ole brain cells this morning! And I'm only on my second cuppa tea!! In Ruthy's online class we had a great discussion of the Moral Premise and the inspirational theme of story it's quite fresh in my mind! I think it's helpful to have a theme or moral premise either defined or in mind when creating a novel. Gives me a focus...but I agree with the comments about the need to avoid being preachy!

Off to get another cuppa and press on with my wip!!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Jennifer, you said: In my current WIP there was a point when I realized the theme evolving was something I was dealing with in my own life. I guess writing can be therapeutic that way. :)

This SO TRUE for me! I definitely think it is a subconscious thing, or it was in my early books. Now I go ahead and ask myself, How can I work these truths God is showing me in my life into this WIP? And it is therapeutic and does help reinforce the lessons God is teaching me. And it actually very much relates to the theme discussion we are having! Thanks for stopping in!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Oh, Julie, so many times when I tell my daughters something, thinking I'm imparting this wonderful nugget of wisdom to them, they will say, "Mom, you've told us that a hundred times!" And I'm thinking, No, I haven't!!! But apparently they had heard it before. I guess I should be glad they remember what I say to them better than I remember saying it! Haha!

But yes, I do the same thing in my writing sometimes. I tend to say something over and over, then have to take out the repetitious stuff when I'm revising. I don't realize I'm doing it, usually.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Ruthy, if you think you want to live inside my covers now, just WAIT until you see my new cover! Let me just say, if you like rose gardens, you will love it. ;-) This is my most colorful cover. So pretty!

Ruthy, my brain starts hurting when I think too much about moral premise and themes and metaphors, etc. This post was definitely a stretch for me! LOL!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Hi, Eileen! Hope you get a chance to read my Cinderella story! :-) Glad you are working hard on SpeedBo. I've been trying, but alas, I'm not doing so well. So many things stealing my time and brain power this week. Sigh. I only have 1,258 words so far. But hoping things will get better. Really hoping to have a 1,500 word day today! And you are right. A well-timed, well-written sentence or two succinctly expressing your theme near the end of your story can be a great way to powerfully get your theme across to the reader. Now go SpeedBo! :-)

Melanie Dickerson said...

Go, Kathryn! Hope you get lots of words today! And I didn't know Ruthy was talking about moral premise and theme in her class! How timely. ;-) Although I'm sure Ruthy understands it much better than I do! :-)

Sally said...

Melanie, I think I'm like you where what I put in a novel tends to be subconscious. I have a fountain in my WIP that my character loves, and a lot of key turning points happen beside it. I kept wondering if there was more to that place than just a fountain, and it wasn't until my third time (THIRD!!!) through the manuscript that I realized the significance of it and what it represented and how that all tied into theme. It certainly wasn't intentional. But as I rewrite, I'm able to work it into something that might strike the reader and have them go, "Hmm..."

Thanks for the post! Really good.

Tina Radcliffe said...

HAVEN, made it!


I already told Haven I claimed her name for my next heroine, so NO STEALING!@!!!

I got first dibs.

Connie Queen said...

Your covers just keep getting more and more stunning, BTW

I was thinking the same thing,Tina.

Melanie, just hearing words like theme and moral premise brings on a headache. I know they exist, but it's that enough? It's one more thing I need to "get". You did an excellent job explaining this. I need to print off a copy and put it in a notebook for easy reference.

Tina Radcliffe said...

I'm sure the entire state can't be full of fire ants, Melly.


Wilani Wahl said...

Melanie, I loved your post. It was so helpful. All of the posts this week have been great.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Sally, it does sound like we think alike! Wow, I bet a fountain could be a GREAT object that symbolizes the theme! Now you have me wondering what your theme is! But you are right. Once you realized it, you can make it more powerful by focusing on it in some way that brings it home to the reader. Excellent! That's what I'm talking about. ;-) We don't want to miss out on these opportunities to ... dare I say it? Make our books more "Christy Award worthy." ;-)

Melanie Dickerson said...

Haven is definitely a GREAT name, Tina! And I'm not sure you can call dibs on a name. Just sayin'. ;-) There could be a spate of heroines in novels in a couple of years named Haven. Would be surprising. ;-)
And yes, there are a lot of fire ants in Alabama, Tina. The key is to keep moving. Sitting in a mound of them is ... well, the worst thing you could do.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Hi, Connie! I know what you mean. It gives me a headache too! Haha! But I think it's really pretty simple--or can be, for people like me and you. Just think of what your story is really about, then make sure you kinda, sorta keep the story from straying too far from that idea. That's the simplified version that I need when it gets overwhelming! :-)

Myra Johnson said...

Great post, Melanie! I agree--theme is essential for fiction that resonates. It isn't always easy to identify my theme right away, but usually it becomes apparent as the characters interact and confront their problems, both internal and external.

I'm also a fan of Stan Williams's book The Moral Premise. It helped me see theme in a whole new way.

Linnette R Mullin said...

Hi, Melanie!

I like the caution you give about being aware of your theme throughout the story while being careful to not become heavy-handed.

The theme in my debut novel "Finding Beth" is finding your self-worth and security in Christ alone, and the courage to overcome - even in the hard things.

The theme in my current WIP, "Loving Tiffany", is a journey to fully embracing God's love for you no matter what has happened in your past.

My over-all theme for the series would be overcoming life's hardest Providences (different forms of abuse in this series) through Christ.

My over-all theme in my writing period is "life-changing romance". What is the greatest love story of all? Jesus. His sacrifice for us. I want my stories to mirror his love, his romance toward us.

Tina Radcliffe said...


Tina Radcliffe said...

Are you a Moral Premise girl? Melly?

Linnette R Mullin said...

Tina, what's a Moral Premise writer? I've heard the term, but haven't paid attention to what it is.

Kav said...

Wow, when I was just a reader I was blissfully unaware of the many layers that go into writing a book. It's hard work, isn't it?

And I love your covers too. They are really eye catching and reflect your stories. Can't wait to see your next one. And the Frog Prince? Who would have thunk!

Don't enter me in the draw -- I have Captive Maiden. Loved it -- and all your books. You're such a shining star for YA fiction.

Connie Queen said...

Just think of what your story is really about, then make sure you kinda, sorta keep the story from straying too far from that idea.

Very simply put. Thanks, Melanie.

Janet Dean said...

Hi Melanie! Always good to see your lovely smiling face post side in Seekerville!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on theme! I struggle defining the theme in some of my books. Other's the theme is clear from the beginning and almost writes itself.

I don't have room in my books for subplots but I like to use secondary characters to reinforce and articulate the novel's theme. Especially enjoy slightly wacky characters teaching the hero or heroine something they need to learn that usually involves the story's theme.

I've used objects to symbolize the theme in a few of my books. Should do more of it.

I actually love a reader getting more out of my story than I intended. Readers bring their life experiences to the reading experience so they may get different aha moments depending on what speaks to them.


Janet Dean said...

Melanie, your covers are all gorgeous, but usually more somber than this last one. I love it! It's bright and light. I'd love to be a captive maiden if I could dress and look like that!!


Tina Radcliffe said...

The Morale Premise

May the K9 Spy (and KC Frantzen) said...


Thrilled to see you in Seekerville today! How smart you are, volunteering to work on something you feel the need to work on yourself. Very smart. :)

I agree, whether you knew/know it or not, themes come out in your stories.

Maybe it's hanging around Seekerville, and the one word exercise we do at the beginning of the year, but I do think about one word (or precious few) summarizing each book. The last one's theme was redemption and forgiveness. Whether I succeed, or whether the readers get something completely different... Anyone's guess!!!

Thanks for taking this point by point. I too shall endeavor to weave more thought into theme as we forge ahead.

Congratulations on your success! It's quite exciting to join you on your journey!!!

DebH said...

First off Melanie. I ADORE your covers!!!!! The graphic artist in me drools. Second, I've got your first three books (awesome reads) and would love to be in the running to capture the Captive Maiden *heh*

I've never really thought about theme when writing and I know I put it in there, so this post is sort of a "aha" thing for greater theme awareness. thanks. must revisit the Moral Premise info as well. Lately my brain has been mush, but on a bright note: I'm writing words each day thus far for SPEEDBO! Only 25 more days of doing so and I've created a wonderful habit (go me *heh*). Only 500 words last night, but hey, baby steps.

HAVEN welcome to Seekerville. The ladies always see you if you should you brave to comment. I agree with the others that your name is really cool too. I don't think Tina should get dibs though... I kinda sorta want to use it as well. would love to hear the story on why your parents gave you your name and if you hated it when you were a kid. (enquiring minds want to know...)

Tina Pinson said...


thanks for the post.

I do try to incorporate theme in my stories. Forgiveness, accepting yourself, to name a couple.

I can lean toward trying to explain, but I hope I don't get too preachy. I hope my characters lives spell out the truth better than me getting on a soap box.

I find sometimes (probably a lot) my themes run with what I'm learning in my own life at the moment, my past or with things I've seen.


Lyndee H said...

Hi Melanie,
Great post and thoughts on a subject that I tend to fall into rather than plan for. In fact, my SPEEDBO project has an object that is a symbol of the theme without my thinking about it one way or another. So interesting what our subconscious does on its own. I'm getting closer to writing with more intention. I think this is the learning curve and practice of writing every day.

In the meantime, I think many of us will be dusting off our copy of Moral Premise off this week, lol.

Jan Drexler said...

Hi Melanie! It's so great to see you on the other side of Seekerville :)

I'm one of those nerds who starts every project with a theme, and then I start on characters, and then the moral premise (which I think of as the expanded/dressed up theme). The plot comes next - kind of growing out of all that thinking.

Your books weave their themes in beautifully. I'm sure the theme is lurking in your subconscious all the time, until it decides to reveal itself to you.

Great post!

And I foresee lots of books coming out in the next couple years with heroines named Haven :)

Chill N said...

Trust the reader! Yes!! Not wanting to be hit over the head with a theme or message, I will put the book aside. Theme should be organic.

There. I got that out of my system.

I've noticed in books I enjoy that may be several themes, just at different levels. When I discuss the book with another reader, we may have noted the same main theme but each noted different subtleties in underlying themes. That's when the word's "Oh my gosh, I didn't notice that!" show up ... and an even greater appreciation of the story.

Melanie, those covers are just as wonderful in print, which is my way of saying don't enter me in the drawing :-)

Nancy C

Melanie Dickerson said...

Myra, I really should get and read The Moral Premise. Theme really is an important element. Thanks for coming by!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Linnette, you said, "What is the greatest love story of all? Jesus. His sacrifice for us. I want my stories to mirror his love, his romance toward us."

I could not agree more! This perfectly says how I feel about writing romance novels. And it's great that you have such a good grasp on theme and know your theme in your novels! Keep up the good work! :-)

Donna said...

Melanie, just from reading your post I am guessing the best way to be subtle about theme is to have a character live it instead of say it.

Great topic, thanks!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Tina, you can try to claim Haven, but if, say, someone tougher than me, like Ruthy, decides to use it, what can you do? ;-) Just sayin'.

I have not read The Moral Premise. I know a little bit about it, but have not delved into it.

Linnette, The Moral Premise is a book about premise and theme.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Aw, Kav, you're so sweet! Thank you! And thanks for the kudos about the covers, although I can claim no credit for them. Mike Heath is the freelance person who does all my covers, and he has come up with another amazing cover for The Princess Spy, my Frog Prince story. What is so wonderful is that he actually takes things from my stories and works them into the covers. My covers aren't just a random girl posing for the camera. I am so thankful for his foresight, insight, whatever it is that makes him so good!

And yes, there is so much that goes into writing a book! I don't always get all the elements in there (heck, I probably NEVER get them all in!) but I try. ;-)

Melanie Dickerson said...

;-) You're welcome, Connie!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Hey, Janet!!! Aren't you sweet. :-) To be honest, I don't think I ever really even thought about my books in terms of theme until fairly recently. It was one of those elements that I hadn't really learned about. But you can bet I am thinking about it now.

Yes, this cover is lighter and brighter than my other ones, which I really like! I think you will like the new one coming up, as it is quite colorful! :-)

Melanie Dickerson said...

Thanks so much KC! It's great to see you here too! I've made a lot of friends here in Seekerville, and I know you have too! What a great blogspot. :-)

Yes, theme just naturally emerges sometimes, especially, perhaps, when writing fairy tale retellings. It's almost built in, which is a good thing for me, I guess! Thanks for commenting!

Melanie Dickerson said...

DebH, way to go, girl! Making a habit of writing every day is awesome. A little bit every day really adds up quickly. Before you know it, you've finished a book!

I hope you get to read Valten's story, The Captive Maiden! He kind of doesn't look so heroic in the previous book, but he is a heroic kind of guy, and I promise you will like him. ;-)

Thanks for the cover love! Can't wait for you to see the next one too!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Tina Pinson said, "I find sometimes (probably a lot) my themes run with what I'm learning in my own life at the moment, my past or with things I've seen."

This is me too! Most definitely. But I think that's good. After all, what is more authentic than what you've learned yourself? Thanks for commenting!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Lyndee said, "So interesting what our subconscious does on its own."
Wow! I so agree!
You also said, "I'm getting closer to writing with more intention. I think this is the learning curve and practice of writing every day."
Something else I can definitely agree with! I feel the same way. I am excited about the fact that I am still learning and my books and writing are still improving, and hopefully will continue to do so for a long time. :-)

Melanie Dickerson said...

Hey there, Jan! I would love to be like you, able to start my story in such an orderly way, first with the theme, then the characters, then the moral premise. Alas, well-ordered is not a word I'd use to describe me. LOL!
You said: "I'm sure the theme is lurking in your subconscious all the time, until it decides to reveal itself to you." That sounds so nice, I think I will believe it too. Haha! ;-)

Melanie Dickerson said...

Nancy C! Yes, trusting the reader to get it and still making sure they do have all the info they need is kind of tricky sometimes, but it is important not to talk down to the reader. Editors can be a great help with this. ;-)

And it's SO TRUE that different people see different things--and different themes--in a book. But that's okay, to a certain extent.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Donna, you said, "I am guessing the best way to be subtle about theme is to have a character live it instead of say it." Wow, I couldn't have said it better myself! Very, very good way to put it.

Janet Dean said...

Melanie, A colorful cover for The Princess Spy is intriguing! Does this story have a root in fairy tales?


Ruth Logan Herne said...

HAVEN!!!!! Is Blogger giving you a hard time, honey????

Here, I've got some chocolate chip oatmeal cookies for you, they're amazing.... and Missy brought sweet tea, at least she's SUPPOSED to bring the tea, but you know these Southern gals, they are (shh... lean in, I'm whispering....) not the fastest things on the planet, if you get my drift.

I love your name and have every intention of using it in a book because it's that cool.

Is it a family name????

Ruth Logan Herne said...



I should have staked a claim on it last week, and she could have a sister "Harley" (Pure Country with George Strait) I love that name too....

Meghan Carver said...

Your books look amazing, Melanie. I adore the covers!

I've just finished a detailed outline that really turned into more of a rough draft, so it's time for me to nail down my theme. It always helps to have a bit of it written first. Thanks for all the help!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

I love The Moral Premise.

Now youse know I don't read craft books, but that idea has stuck with me from the first time I worked with Stan here.

It makes such perfect sense to me, the pure balance of positive and negative outcome based on choice.

So our job as authors is to make sure the reasoning behind those choices stays true throughout.


Debby Giusti said...

Love your books and those gorgeous covers, Mel!

Only yesterday, I realized the theme of my WIP. It hit me over the head!

As I recall, Hauge talks about having the characters express the theme in dialogue about mid-way through the screenplay/manuscript. That spells it out for the audience/reader.

Must remember to do that.

I also keep hearing about Lyon's book on Subtext. Must order a copy.

Debby Giusti said...

Waving to Nancy Farrier!!! So fun to see you in Seekerville.

How's everything in Apple Valley?

BTW, Nancy runs the FHL Inspirational Readers Choice Awards each year. Thanks for all your hard work on that contest, Nancy.

Carol Garvin said...

Lots of food for thought here, Melanie. Thank you! I'm with Nancy Farrier when it comes to not knowing what my theme is until I'm almost finished writing the story. I'm sure it's lurking in the back of my mind, but I can't put it into words. As a reader I dislike themes that are obvious, so as a writer perhaps not being able to identify them isn't a bad thing. Then again, maybe I'm just too undisciplined. LOL.

Jamie Adams said...

Love the covers of your books, Melanie. I'm not sure if it's because I'm not much of a plotter, but the theme doesn't really come to me until I'm well into the story. I'm sensing my current wip has something to do with guilt and responsibility.

Haven Brown said...

I am so super duper giddy!!!!!! And here I thought I was going to have to go home and wallow in self-pity because the trig equations aren't speaking to me like they usually do. I have been so excited for Speedbo. I'll try to log on every day but as I am still in school it will be after 3.
My mom named me Haven because it means a harbor or a safe place. She thought it was a strong name and she wanted me to be that kind of person to people. When I was a little kid, I didn't like it because as the first girl in the family I took the brunt of my brothers teasing and they would irritate me over it. Now I love it because I never meet anyone else with it.
Thank you so much for replying to my comments!

Wilani Wahl said...


I too love your name and speaking from experience with an unusual name it can be neat to have no one else with a name like yours.

Tina, As I am developing my story it appears I will have at least one romance and who knows what else will happen

Wilani Wahl said...

I am having a rough day as far as being able to work on my book. The vertigo has been extreme today, but I hope everyone else is having good success. While it has been difficult to read or write, the book has still been progressing in my mind. I am so glad the Lord is with me even in the days when I struggle to stay upright and be able to see even through blurred vision. The Lord is good.

Missy Tippens said...

Love that new cover, Melanie!

Also loved this post. Theme fascinates me. I love playing with it. My next book, The Guy Next Door (Oct.), is about learning to appreciate the things that are right in front of us. (It's a best friends to "lovers" story.) And I actually have the characters voice this near the end in dialogue. :)

I'm still not sure on the next proposal. I originally thought it was about forgiveness. But now that I'm revising the proposal I'm not sure if that's still true. I think I'll know for sure once I get further into it. I'm wondering if it's more about trust after loss.

Missy Tippens said...

Jackie, we LOVE The Middle! (Isn't Sue the greatest?!) And yes, they do a good job of that. Seinfeld always did a great job of that as well. I always looked forward to that aha moment at the end of the show where they'd tie it all together. :)

Missy Tippens said...

Yes, Tina! I do like to try to use the Rule of 3. :)

Missy Tippens said...

Haven, I see you your comment! Glad you made it through. :)

Missy Tippens said...

Ruthy, I'll be glad to bring the sweet tea. But I usually use Spenda!! LOL

Carol Moncado said...

MELLIE!!!!!!!!!!!! I adore your books! You know that! And y'all totally need to get The Princess Spy :D. So good!!!!!

My theme for the manuscript out on submission grace and forgiveness. Both h/h have elements of the prodigal - the hero more than the heroine [who was never a Christian in the first place so not so much a PRODIGAL]. It will play a large role in book two as well - especially forgiveness.

The SpeedBo manuscript I'm working on [just over 2K yesterday for a bit over 14K total] I'm still trying to figure it out...

[and Mel - if you see this before you do - check your email!!! :D]

Linda Marie Finn said...

Good Evening Ladies, I am going to get in my writing tonight, I am at 6492. Been feeling sorta sick with a bad cold and headaches. I did get in the shower and steamed the bathroom up, so it helped some. Surprized not to see Mary here yet, must be with the calves. Wishing I had my van fixed, then I could go to TN to see my son and stop down to Melanie's and have a good visit. You know I started writing and wrote about what I knew and I allowed a great friend to read what I had written so far and she said it was very good and a powerful story that must be shared, So that makes me feel pretty good. She has her own book published already and CP's for a few others. Its nice to have good friends here. Theme, well I guess I have always thought that in Christian Fiction God's Love should always be the theme, otherwise how is it truly christian ? It would seem that one or part of the characters in the story would show forth the Love of God. And that something should point to Salvation. I have read a couple salvation experiences in fiction, one being in Julies book that brought me to tears it was so touching. Very well written and cut to the heart. Writing comes easy when we write about things we know and that makes theme easy to be included without even trying.

Sally Shupe said...

Thanks for the timely post! I didn't think I had a theme, then a title came to me last night, and now it fits in with where the characters are headed. Thanks!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Linda Finn, that's such a good point, that the love of God should shine through. Wonderful.

And I'm so sorry you're sick. (inserts frownie-face!!!)

But glad you've got the gumption to hang in there, that's wonderful!

HAVEN!!! I wondered if that was the reason for your name, or if it was a surname used as a first name.... but either way, I love it! Good job, Mom!

My son's middle name was Elijah and we called him "Eli" and he thought it was weird until he grew up and realized there were few "Eli's" outside the Amish, LOL! So he loves his name now. And it's so cool that you can join us after school, that's perfect!

Missy Tippens Splenda is fine, darling. Anything that helps shed some of this winter excess is a friend to me! And thank you for the sweet tea!

Wilani Wahl said...

Well life has a way of throwing curves. I may not get to add much to my book tonight, thanks to a severe asthma attack in walmart this evening. But the experience may find its way into my book.

I am finally breathing all right but it has left me feeling awfully week. Hopefully later this evening I can add more on my lap top while in bed.

Any way the Lord is good!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Wilani!!!! Is your name Native American or Hawaiian? Or just delightfully unusual?

And I "write" in my mind too, when I can't get to the keyboard. I find if I envision the scene, then I can put the words on paper much more quickly than if I go in cold and try to work a scene. So I'm always pondering the "what next" in a book, trying to keep it in line with the theme...

And the characters' personalities. Those two things, merged together, are what help meld a story for me.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Where's Connealy with her cow pictures today?

I haven't seen nary a calf in like twelve hours.

I'm going into WITHDRAWAL.

Which is scaring me, just a little. I'll go find her....

Tina Radcliffe said... one is tougher than me...just sayin'

Eva Maria Hamilton said...

Such a great post to ponder, Melanie! And I love your covers!!! You seriously lucked out on those :)

Wilani Wahl said...


My name is Cherokee. there is a legend that a man named Tsali gave his life so some of the Cherokees could stay in NC and not move to OK. Tsli's wife was named Wilani. I am not Indian but since I was born in old Cherokee territory my parents loved the name.

Mary Connealy said...

I'm sorry not to have stopped in all day.
Running around.
The whole THEME thing, Melanie?

I'm with the picture of the head with the hammer aimed at it.

I guess I don't really understand theme. I'll shut up now.

I will re-read your blog and read all 103 comments. Except Ruthy's cuz she don't know what she'd talking about.

Crystal Ridgway said...

Mary, me too!
I'm afraid I don't have a very good grasp on theme. (Visualizing oily fingers slipping on everything they touch...)
So, maybe the other expert commenters here can clarify for us when I ask what, exactly, is theme?

Cara Lynn James said...

Melanie, great post! I find that theme comes fairly easily with some books, but with others I can't find it until I've finished the story. Then it emerges on it's own. It's probably in our subconscious mind all along.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Oh my goodness! I'm so sorry I went AWOL, Seekervillians! I had a dr. appointment this afternoon and when I got back, I had an email will amazing news, so I totally forgot what planet I was on, and even forgot about Seekerville, if you can believe that! So sorry!!! (And if I could tell you the amazing news, I would, but I can't, but I will as soon as I can, I promise!)

Melanie Dickerson said...

Janet, The Princess Spy is a Frog Prince story. ;-)

Ruthy, we may be slow, but we're pretty and we smile a lot while we're taking our time. Just sayin'.

And Ruthy, I already put Tina on notice that she can't call dibs on a name. We should all use it, then everyone will be reading all these Haven stories. I think that would be downright adorable!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Hi, Meghan! So happy you stopped by! How awesome that your have your outline done! Good luck finding your theme!!!

Ruthy, I love the name Harley! It was my uncle's name. I used it in a book that still has not sold. But some day it will!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Hey, Debby!!! You didn't need my help, since you figured out your theme yesterday! :-) Always delightful to see you though. ;-) And I did not know Hauge recommends putting the theme (or moral premise) in the dialogue halfway through the screenplay/book. I might have to try that.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Carol, make your theme subtle, but I still think it needs to be in there. Some people won't pay attention to the theme, but for those who love to pick a book apart, they really want themes!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Jamie, that's a good point. The fact that you're not a plotter probably does have something to do with not being able to figure out the theme until well into the story. I'm not much of a plotter either, usually, but I'm becoming more intentional about these things, including doing more plotting before I write!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Hi, Haven! So sorry about the trig equations! The very thought of high level math makes me shudder! But glad you came back. I love the fact that your mother named you something because of the meaning of the word. She is a woman after my own heart! When I was naming my daughters, I wanted names that had rich, positive meanings. So I ended up naming them Grace and Faith. And I love "safe harbor." Very cool.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Wilani, I am so sorry about the vertigo. :-( Sometimes just having the time to mull our stories over can be extremely productive, but I do pray you will feel 100% tomorrow and be able to WRITE! And I also love your name. It rolls off the tongue in a melodious, exotic way, don't you think?

Missy Tippens said...

Melanie, you have us dying to know your news!! Way to torture us. :)

Can't wait for you to share!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Hey, Missy, my Southern sister!!! ;-) Thanks for coming to see me! ;-) I am so happy you enjoy theme, because it still is kind of a bear I haven't quite figured out how to wrestle. And I used to watch Seinfeld and don't even remember there being a theme wrap-up at the end. See how badly I am in need of learning about theme? I may very well be a hopeless case. And please make my tea with sugar! Sweeteners give me a headache! Sugar all the way!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Pass the Krispy Kreme doughnuts while you're at it.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Carol!!! I saw your good news! So happy for you, my friend! ;-) You are such a writing dynamo! I am really enjoying reading your Finding Mr. Write story, when I get the chance! Gosh, it seems I never have time to read!!!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Hi, Linda!!! I so agree with you that God's Love has to be a big part of every Christian book!
So happy you are getting some words in! You go, Linda! And come on down! We can have a write-in together at a coffee shop somewhere! (I certainly NEED to have a write-in! I've only gotten 1,258 words this month! Yikes!) Thanks for visiting me in Seekerville!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Sally, congrats on thinking up a title! I'm almost always terrible with titles. Maybe that's because I'm terrible at theme. ;-)

Tina Radcliffe said...

What news. Melly...come back here. What news???

You can have the heroine's name for your book. Just spill the beans.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Oh, Wilani! So sorry about your severe asthma attack. Please be well. And I am wondering about your name too. Hopefully I will see in later comments whether your name is Hawaiian or something else. :-)

Melanie Dickerson said...

Tina, you are definitely tough, chica.

Carol Moncado said...

Aw! Thanks, Mellie! I appreciate your kind words! Heart you!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Aw, thanks, Eva Maria!!! :-) I love the covers too!

Wilani, so cool about the name! I seriously love it!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Mary! We've been wondering about you all day! How many calves were birthed today?

Crystal, honey, I really don't know either! Ha! But maybe if I re-read my post, it will get a little clearer.

Cara Lynn, I think you're right. It's in the subconscious, but when you're subconscious is as scattered as mine, it's probably best not to rely on that. That's why I'm trying to figure this out.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Oh, Tina, you will just have to wait. I do know someone else who has news she probably CAN share now. Oh CAROL MONCADO!!!!!!!!!! Enliven this party and Share your news!!!!!!!!!

Linda Marie Finn said...

will try to check in tomorrow, prayers for my eyes, edema and BP appreciated. Not feeling to good tonight.

Tina Radcliffe said...

Linda Finn, put your feet up, close your eyes. No salt and think peaceful thoughts.


Natasha Kern said...

It is interesting how often the themes that emerge as novel is written is the 'theme' of the writer's life. Have you notived how often top author write similar stories repeatedly? Another Robin Hood or Wounded hero (Beuty and Beast) or lost child etc. We don't know what the themes of stories are because we don't know what our life themes are either--discovering them, revealing them, noticing which stories we are drawn to over time is similar to liking certain activities, points of view etc. like deja vue it seems familiar but not necessarily understood right away.

Natasha Kern said...

sorry for all the typos!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Linda, I'm saying a prayer right now that you will have a great night and your health will have improved greatly in the morning!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Natasha, it is so true! Our life stories permeate our writing if we are writing authentically. But I think you hit on a genius idea when you talk about core story. If we examine our own life story, it can help us dig up the theme in our novels. I love pondering this. Thanks for coming by!!!

Marge Knudsen said...

I agree with Natasha that themes emerge as we write stories and that these themes frequently parallel what's happening in our lives. Sometimes, as I consider my characters' actions and reactions, I begin to see solutions to issues in my own life. Writing is cheaper than therapy and much more fun.

Mary Connealy said...

HI MELANIE! Sorry to be absent. I had an eye exam today. (I do not need new glasses).
And I got my hair done. I'm not sure but I might now be blonde. That's the kind of thing that can sneak up on a person.

Mary Connealy said...

Melanie's got news.
Carol's got news.

You're both pretty good at building tension!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Mary Connealy said...

Also if a theme is something we revisit in our work...then I either have a THING about shooting people

Or a THING about crazy people.

Or a THING about dead husbands???


I may not want to be introspective, no good can come of it.

Audra Harders said...

I may be late...but I'm here : ) I wouldn't have missed Melanie's post for the world!!

Hear that, Mel?

Now about theme. You explained it so well, I'm completely equating it with the concept Vince touts of Rewards Per Page. If we make the reader think about the inner heart of the story, we get so many more ah-ha moments. The trick is, finding ways to incorporate the message and not let it slip through our fingers.

Oh what a wonderful post for the day. It's a printer-outer if I ever saw one. Gotta keep the thought of keeping the message of the book up front and center.

Thanks, Mel : )

Oh, and don't ever second guess the depth of your books, honey. Your stories are filled with ah-ha moments whether you see them or not : )

Pat W said...

Great post Melanie. My WIP's theme is that God doesn't waste any hurt he allows us to go through. He will use it to further his kingdom. I had trouble narrowing it down and still may need to do more whittling.

I haven't had a chance to write any at all today. Hope to sit down a few mins before bed and get a few words in. This is the first day of Speedo I have missed writing. I am a tad ahead of my goal so I'm technically not behind. Gonna try and keep it that way.

Mary Preston said...

A great post thank you. I look forward to catching up with all of your books.

Linnette R Mullin said...

Thanks, Melanie! :D

Natalie Monk said...

Can't believe I missed this post! I had a huge "oops" moment on my blog the other day that had me scrambling for a few hours and completely forgot to check Seekerville!

My story's overall theme would be, fully accepting God's forgiveness means forgiving one's self--thanks to my CP Elaine for cluing me in when she critted my synopsis recently. :) There is also a sub-theme of, every choice brings consequences.

Melanie, I still can't figure out which of your books is my favorite! The Captive Maiden was like a culmination of all my favorite medieval stories told in a fresh way! But then, Beauty and the Beast has long been a favorite, so The Merchant's Daughter gets close to my heart. I think one reason is because Ranulf is so wounded and broken. I love to see how the heroine helps him heal physically, emotionally, and spiritual. It's really such a beautiful story.

Don't enter me for the books as I already have them all! :) Looking forward to your next works! Keep them coming!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Thanks for all the great comments! Sorry I didn't make it back this morning for all the late night ones. Was gone all day with my daughter for her scholars bowl tournament. But I appreciate all of them! :-)

Lady DragonKeeper said...

It's neat as a reader to see how writers work. I'm so excited to hear about "The Princess Spy" --In my English class, we were studying fairy tales, and I was surprised to see the early version of Grimm's Frog King/Princess & the Frog doesn't have a kiss --the princess threw the frog against the wall and then he transformed into the prince! Margaretha[sp?] is so sweet and different from the spoiled princess of that tale ... can't wait to read your adaptation!

Emily Neyer said...

Melanie...I am a bit behind but I loved this post. It has me thinking about my story and if I have a theme and how am I presenting it. I am only just in the beginning of getting my first draft down, but I get a little more inspired every day.

PS...I read Captive Maiden over Christmas break and LOVED it!!! I have started The Merchant's Daughter, but I haven't gotten far. I don't want any more snow days, but maybe spring break will help me get caught up on my reading and writing!

Stephanie Coalson said...

Thanks for the dialog on themes. It's a great reminder as I begin my next book.