Chasing the Elusive Butterfly: Theme


Merriam Webster makes it sound so simple.

“Theme is . . .the main subject that is being discussed or described in a piece of writing . . .”

Then why is it so evasive, almost impossibly difficult to define in my own writing?

Going in, I always think I know my theme. After all, my novels all follow a basic premise, which has become my tagline: Strong Women, Starting Over – Redefining Romance. Some elements are staples: there will be two people, a man and a woman, each facing their own challenging situations. Each with their own goals, and their own reasons for choosing those goals. There will be suspense. There will be mystery, and turmoil, and angst. There will be a love story.

I spend weeks, sometimes months, creating these characters from the ground up—what they look like, where they’re from, what their family lives were like. What baggage are they carrying? What do they want out of life?

That’s the key to any engaging piece of fiction, right? In the words of Ray Bradbury, “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!”sidewalk-1924670_640

Well, that’s how I started out my latest novel, the one to which I triumphantly added two, glorious words a few days ago: The End. I thought I knew my hero and heroine well. I thought I knew what they wanted. And yet, it wasn’t until I went back through and started at the beginning, reading the book as though I’d never seen it before, that the ah-ha moment snuck up and whacked me on the side of the head.

No wonder I struggled with this book more than the last three I’ve written. I had a pretty good handle on my hero. I knew what his baggage was, what his motivation was, what he wanted. But until this morning—at the ungodly hour of 5:23 in the morning, sitting in front of my monitor in my pajamas with my hair sticking up like Woodstock on Peanuts—I had no idea what my heroine’s real problem was. What she really wanted.

And how did I find out? Her father told me.

During this first pass through the completed, rough draft, I’d gotten only about fifty pages in when I detected a chink—a place where something was missing. Something needed to be added. I knew my heroine loved her father dearly, though she did have issues with her new stepmother. But the scene seemed incomplete. So I took a deep breath, tucked my brain inside my heroine’s head, and stuck her in a room alone with her father.

The five sentence conversation they had, which flowed directly from their mouths through my fingers, summed up the meaning of my 100,000+ word novel. I finally had my theme.

The lesson here? To an author, a story is not always a willingly malleable partner. Sometimes, you just have to place the characters you created, and who you think you know well, down on the game board and let them play out their own lives. Press blindly forward when you’re not sure where they’re headed, or why.

Just type. Listen, and play transcriptionist.

Just freaking

Because the important thing is this: you have to keep going. Get to The End. Sometimes, it’s not until the entire story has played out that the characters will be willing to give up their secrets—and to share with you, the author, the story’s true theme.

Now how crazy and messed up is that?


Claire Gem writes intensely emotional romantic suspense. Visit her at

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Love this – “Just type. Listen, and play transcriptionist.” My characters often misbehave or change course and I let them. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I discovered this holiday while living in Puerto Rico, Claire, and I rather liked it. Thanks for post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Obviously wrong place for this post. LOL I’ll try to keep up better.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. vicki says:

    I love how you reread and found what you needed. This can be worked with!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love when you can enter your character’s minds and have them take over, best feeling ever! Congrats on writing the damn book, Claire!


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