my theme illus from istock

I once read that every writer has a signature theme, a theme that shows up in almost every book.

Your theme, the article said, can probably be expressed in one line, if you dig deep enough.

At first, I thought that couldn’t possibly be true. Not about me! My stories may all be romances, I assured myself, but within that they are diverse, as different from one another as winter from summer, dawn from twilight. I’m special. ;)

Oops…not so fast. As I was writing my Bell River Ranch series, I realized I do have a recurring theme. I even know a single line that expresses it perfectly.
The line is from an old country song about a man who wants to help a broken-hearted woman find happiness, but she won’t forget the past. He compares it to rescuing a drowning person.

rescue drowning from istock

“If I’m ever going to save you,” he says, “let go of the stone.”

This is my theme! Maybe it just took my Bell River Ranch series to make me recognize it. The theme is front and center for all the Wright sisters. They were traumatized years ago when their father killed their mother, and they haven’t trusted men – or love – since.

But, when I looked at my other books through that prism, I discovered it everywhere. I guess that’s because, bottom line, I believe all of life is really a variation on that theme.

The humiliations, the insecurities, the failures. The strict father, the smothering mother, the mean girl, the boy who broke our hearts… The mistakes, the regrets, the missed opportunities… The shy years, the wild years, the lost years…

broken heart istock

We carry them around like a ball and chain, often letting our past get in the way of moving forward. Even if we’re lucky enough to meet the perfect person to love us back to happiness, they can’t help us if we don’t let go of the stone.

What about you? Either as a reader or as a writer, is there a theme you are drawn to, over and over? Is there a line, from a song or a book or a friend, so full of wisdom you can’t forget it?

Secrets of Bell River cover front only

I’m giving away a copy of my upcoming SECRETS OF BELL RIVER, a May Superromance, to two random commenters today.

Our spam filter is a bit touchy lately, and we’re working on that.  In the meantime, be assured that Jaunty P. Quills will liberate your comments!


42 thoughts on “That’s My Theme Song!

  1. Kathleen;

    I love that theme. I can see it in your books now that you’ve pointed it out. I don’t know if I return to one theme again and again but I like one in most of the television shows, books and movies that I really love. It is sort of beauty is only skin deep/beauty on the inside counts more. But then I struggle a lot with image issues so I can see why stories that reaffirm beauty on the inside appeal so much to me.

    Kathy :)

    1. I’m sure that theme resonates with everyone, Kathy! I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have image issues, and I’m not sure I’d enjoy people like that much, even if I did! Funny how to the outsider it might seem crazy for you to have such issues — as your having them does to me :) — but on the inside they’re so very real.

  2. Thank you, Kathleen. You’re very perceptive. Sometimes readers can tell and describe an element of an author’s work better than the author can. But not in this case!

    There are lots of themes that interest me as a reader, too many to list here. But I suppose the one most relevant for this blog would be “Such is the power of love.”

    That’s the predominant theme of the romances I write as well. But I’ve also noticed it’s usually expressed in two different ways.

    One is what I call the “If love were all” mode; the term is from the title of a song by Noel Coward. Two people are in love. Then one decides something else is more important than love. Bad choice, bad consequences. This kills their relationship for good. Or does it?

    The other is the “cruel and unusual” mode. It starts out the same way: two people are in love. Then something terrible and usually bizarre happens to one of them. Now it’s up to the other one to save the day. Seems like a simple, straightforward task. It’s not. Even if he/she succeeds, neither person will ever be the same. Nor can their relationship.

    Do these story patterns have any relevance to my real life? You better believe they do! But for obvious reasons, I can’t discuss that on a blog.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Mary Anne, as always you’ve brought such great depth to the topic! I do think we all probably have some personal connection to our signature themes, but often it’s indirect, not easy to explain. The two you mention aren’t ones I might have thought of immediately, but they’re both so powerful, and stories with those themes can be wonderful!

  3. Shana Galen Shana Galen says:

    That’s a great theme, Kathleen. I’d have to say mine is about going after what you want no matter what.

    1. Oh, I love that theme, Shana! Ever since I met Scarlett O’Hara, I’ve loved reading that kind of heroine!

  4. Kathleen O says:

    The theme that come to mind is Affair to Remember, “If you can paint again, I can walk again”, at the end of the movie. Great love scene that summed up the whole theme of the movie, that love makes everything better but you have to suffer a little to get to the happy ending..

    1. Suffer first…great one, Kathleen! I do think that’s key. We need to believe our characters deserve their happy endings!

  5. Karen J says:

    Maybe that’s why I love friends to lovers books so much!!! My husband and I started out that way and then realized we were in love! I had never really thought about it that way….lol

    1. That’s so cool, Karen! I can imagine that living a certain kind of love story would definitely draw you to reading the same. Congratulations on discovering you had true love in a good friend…what a perfect combination!

  6. Susan G says:

    Great theme Kathleen.
    I am drawn to novels where two people are brought together under unusual circumstances , overcome a difficult situation and during that process fall in love.
    Downton Abbey is one of my favorite tv shows. Mary and Matthews love story took three years to play out and this year she struggled and figured out how to go on without him. She’s not quite ready to move on and put her memories behind her. The one true love story can be a great theme as well.

    1. Ah, Susan, it’s hard to beat the love story of Mary and Matthew! Their particular relationship embodies one of my other favorite themes–that with the right person, you actually become a better person. When she said she always wanted to be able to see herself through his eyes, I just melted. But shhhh…no spoilers! I haven’t had a chance to watch the Post-Matthew Season! :)

  7. Rochelle says:

    I think one theme that always comes to mind for me is All things in moderation. I tend to be excessive in many ways and when I think of this saying it makes me take a step back.

    1. Rochelle, that’s wise advice, indeed. But, like you, I often have trouble following it. I never feel I’ve had enough (emotion, excitement, food, whatever) until I’ve had too much. Definitely have to work on that!

  8. KateS says:

    I think that letting go of the bad bits in the past is the hardest because it’s all inside your head alone.

    1. Kate, that’s so true. I think, especially, that if you don’t have someone to share your feelings with, someone to help you put things into perspective, it can be almost impossible to move past old wounds.

  9. Lovely, lovely blog, Kathleen. When I think of my own books, the theme that persistently pops up is that of the loner searching for family and home. It’s amazing how these deep-seated tropes surface in so many surprising ways.

    1. Vanessa, I know exactly what you mean about the themes surfacing in surprising ways. That’s what’s so beautiful about these archetypal themes. You can design the story in a thousand different ways, and it still sends the same message. The loner searching for home might, I think, be one of mine, too–or at least some version of it. Certainly the minute I read “Home” in your post, I felt a wriggle of recognition. Gotta think on that some more!

  10. eap says:

    Live in the moment

    1. So true, and so hard to do, isn’t it, Eap? But I love those words, because I think they’re are actually a version of “let go of the stone.” If you are living in the moment, you’re not living in the past. It’s hard to hold onto right now and still cling to yesterday!

  11. Fabulous blog, Kathleen! I thought about this for a while and realized that my writing theme has to do with loss/displacement and rediscovering one’s place in the world.

    1. Nancy, do you know I got a hitch just reading your words? I wonder if that’s the most primitive, universal theme of all? After all, each of us will probably lose something of our birthright–the city we lived in, the home we grew up in, our parents, siblings who move away, our first loves, our beloved careers… So, in a way, we’re all always trying to reinvent ourselves, to find a new place to belong. Love, love it!

  12. Kate Person says:

    I love coming of age movies and similar themes in romance novels. The ah-ha, or ohhhh moment when a character understands and actually changes.

    1. Coming of age stories are among my favorites, too, Kate! It’s such a pivotal moment…the moment everything changes, and you literally step into your adult self, your grown-up life. Many, many of my favorite short stories are coming of age stories! Now I feel the itch to go reread a few! :)

  13. catslady says:

    I know I tend to go towards the historicals and I do dwell too much in the past. I’m also a people pleaser so a lot of the times I like to read about those that are opposite of me at least on the outside but always good on the inside lol.

    1. So you like to spend time with characters who *seem* to be wild or arrogant, or hard…but who are really sterling hearts inside, Catslady? There are some fabulous characters like that. One of my favorite is a hero from Georgette Heyer’s “These Old Shades.” He’s such a devil, but when he meets the right woman… Oh, it’s wonderful to see him revealed as the darling man he is!

  14. I love your theme, Kathleen! My theme is one of outsiders finding love and acceptance, quirks and all. I don’t have a cool quote to go with, though!

    1. Love that one, Jesse! But you know that sounds like a challenge, don’t you? Surely there’s an awesome quote fitting that theme! There has to be! I’ll be on the lookout, and I’ll let you know if I run across one. If you find one, tell me, okay? I’m a fool for good quotes!

    2. Flora says:

      “Truely loving another means letting go of all expectations. It means full acceptance, even celebration, of another’s personhood.” -Unknown

      1. Absolutely beautiful, Flora! Such a wonderful goal to strive for!

  15. Joanna M says:

    I think I do, now that you mention it. It’s about the tortured or rogue hero that no one can get to or through until the witty and strong heroine comes along and they clash. Neither one of them realizing they are meant for each other because they are both very stubborn. I think I’m talking about myself here LOL

    1. Ooh, Joanna, that’s a great one! I’m laughing about your recognizing yourself in your description, too! So many of us who talked about this topic did! I like the flip side of that theme, too…when the repressed or wounded heroine can’t open up until the witty, wonderful hero comes into her life and goads her into revealing who she really is. Makes me think of Castle, or, going waaaay back, even Moonlighting!

      1. Joanna M says:

        Yes, I was thinking that too!! I’m the repressed, brooding heroine waiting for my charming and wonderful hero… *looong sigh* LOL

  16. bn100 says:

    tortured hero

    1. Bn, the tortured hero is a theme I’ve loved ever since I saw “Sleeping Beauty” and realized how wonderful it was for Prince Philip to be thrown in Maleficent’s dungeon and have to escape to save Aurora! Laura Kinsale used to do wonderful tortured heroes!

  17. Marcy Shuler says:

    When reading romance, I feel they all have this in common for me: Love will find a way. :)

    1. Marcy, you’re so right! I think that universal theme accounts for the popularity of the genre, don’t you? It’s so comforting to believe.

  18. Kristin says:

    I didn’t realize that was your theme either until you pointed it out and then it’s like DUH. And I think that’s why I like your writing so much. Because I didn’t have a picture perfect childhood, my family is completely dysfunctional, and everything I’ve done it want to do seems like such an uphill battle. But your books tell me that I can’t let the past stop me from having the life that I want and that it is possible to overcome your past.

    1. Kristin says:

      or want to do not it, yeesh.

    2. Kristin, don’t feel “Duh” about your not seeing the theme…consider that even *I* recently twigged to it! These things are so subconscious! I had to smile about your dysfunctional childhood. Not sure there’s anyone who doesn’t remember childhood that way. It is simply a traumatic time, which is why we end up with such big sacks of rocks we have to release somehow. :) As my sister used to tell me when I lamented how weird our family was, “Kathleen, ‘normal’ is just someone you don’t know well enough yet.”

  19. Laurie G says:

    theme: Be true to yourself

    I like the independent women who go after what they want and make choices to attain their goals that aren’t always popular with family, friends or other members of the community. They don’t need a man but will accept a partner if he is willing to see her as a strong, intelligent, loving person whom he doesn’t have to change.

    1. Oh, yes, Laurie, this kind of heroine is so inspiring, isn’t she? My favorite books (and interestingly, the ones that were the easiest to write) have heroines like that. Even as I write her, I am inspired by her courage!

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