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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Theme Matters. Or What Cupcake Wars Taught Me About Theme by Lori Wilde

Theme Matters.

Reality shows are all the rage on TV and one of my
favorites is Cupcake Wars.

Cupcakes pull viewers in.

Wars (conflict) keep them hooked.

But unlike what the title suggests, the show isn’t about food fights with miniature, frosted cakes.

Rather, it’s about creating tasty pastries that also follow the theme of a gala event where the winner of the cupcake war will showcase their cupcakes. Such events have included—the Rose Parade, Valentine’s Day, I Love Lucy 60th anniversary and the Tony Awards.

Here’s how it works. There are four competitors and three rounds of competition. The first round is for taste only. The second round is for taste and decorations 50/50 scores. In the final round the bakers must bake 1000 cakes in two hours and create a floor display—to house the cupcakes—that represents the theme of the event.

Part of the fun of watching Cupcake Wars is trying to guess who is going to win. It’s fairly easy to figure out who will get eliminated first. It’s the baker who forgot an ingredient or burned the caramel or broke down under the pressure. But when it gets down to the last two contestants, I guessed right only 50% of the time until I realized something very important.

It’s not always the best bakers with the tastiest cupcakes that win.


That’s right. The best tasting cakes don’t always win. Rather,  it’s the baker who most closely followed the theme who comes out on top.

Which leads me to the title of this blog—What Cupcake Wars Taught Me About Theme.

Theme matters. 

      If it’s a Christmas theme… 

Don’t use a Halloween decoration.

Let’s extrapolate the cupcake lesson to writing. Theme matters. Just as much in your books as in Cupcake Wars. Theme unifies the story in a way that nothing else can. It acts like a magnifying glass, showing the reader what central idea the author wishes to impart. Theme enriches, edifies, and electrifies a story. Without the direction of theme, a book will wander and meander, go off on tangents, and leave the reader feeling dissatisfied, even though they might not be able to say why.

A writer might deliver a tasty story, but if they can’t tie it up with a pretty thematic bow, they’ll be beaten every time by the author who can. Ultimately, the writer who knows how to effectively use theme is the writer who will win the war for readers’ attention.

How do you feel about theme? Do you consciously consider it before you write? Or is it something you address during revisions? Have you ever seen Cupcake Wars? If so, can you understand what the heck Florian Bellanger is saying?

About Lori Wilde
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, Lori Wilde, has sold sixty-nine works of romantic fiction to four major New York Publishing houses. She holds a bachelors degree in nursing from Texas Christian University and a certificate in forensics. She volunteers as a sexual assault first responder for Freedom House, a shelter for battered women. She has served as the RWA National conference workshop chair and PAN retreat chair. Lori is a two time RITA finalist and has four times been nominated for Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award. She’s won numerous other awards and is a popular online instructor and workshop speaker. Her books have been translated into 22 languages and excerpted in: Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Complete Woman, All You and Quick and Simple magazines. She lives in Texas with her husband, Bill.

I hope you will join my class
Plotting From Theme
Hosted by
Fantasy-Futuristic & Paranormal
Romance Writers
This 4 week class starts September 10th
For more information click HERE


Betty Hamilton said...

What a wonderful blog... about 2 of my favorite things... cupcakes and books!! Thank you, I enjoyed your perspective and I know i would enjoy your book!

Lori Wilde said...

Hi Betty. Have you ever seen Cupcake Wars?

Christie Craig said...

Great Post, Lori. But now I'm hungry for a cup cake. And I've never seen Cupcake Wars. It sounds interesting. As for theme in books, I do always seem to have an underlined theme. Theme can keep you on track.


regencygirl01 said...

Love books. I have never really watched much reality TV. Biggest loser is my only one and I don't watch it much anymore. Would rather read.

Kathleen O said...

I like this post... I have watched Cupcake Wars a few times. I love themes in books I read.. and if it is Cupcakes, what's not to like.

Christine Houser said...

I love cupcake wars, I am constantly on the look out to try new cupcakes, and I love to read. Some of them look good enough to eat and others I wouldn't eat if it was my last meal

Kelli4321 said...

Generally before I start a book I have a general idea of the feel of the book but the THEME itself always surprises me. Sometimes it takes several round of editing myself before I end up with the fantastic bow-tied ending - and sometimes it takes a beta reader to tell me that the end is a little flat before I can see it clearly enough to fix it.

Lori Wilde said...

Cupcake Wars if fun. I usually put it on while I'm cooking.

Lori Wilde said...

Good for you Regencygirl. I hafta watch TV, don't you know or I wouldn't have any material for blogs. Hehehe.

Lori Wilde said...


I can pick the winners every time now that I figured out the theme thing.

Lori Wilde said...


The cupcakes that weird me out are the savory ones. Salmon cupcakes? No thanks.

Lori Wilde said...


Yes, sometimes you have to write the story before you figure out what the theme is. My class strives to teach you how to do it upfront, but sometimes you just have to wait for revisions to figure it out.

Donna Flint said...

Mmmmmmmmmmmm Cupcakes. This show makes me hungry. Guess I'll have to go read to take my mind off them.



Laura Ferrari said...

I've never seen it but, being an OCD amateur baker, I have to find it!

I'm torn about theme: sometimes is a bit too much (read some Christian-themed novels and couldn't finish them fast enough).

If the writer is good, theme is secondary: I've read books that I still cannot place in one category and loved them, and others which had a pretty nicely tied-up theme ending and yet felt almost "too themed" (yeah, I suck at describing: that's why I'm a reader ;))

Lori Wilde said...

Mmm indeed, Donna. Why are cupcakes so appealing?

Lori Wilde said...


You certainly don't want to hit readers over the head with theme. Preachy is not the way to go. Theme is subtle but effective when well handled.

Anonymous said...

The cupcakes are so pretty, I don't think I could eat them!

CrystalGB said...

I love Cake Wars. They make some really interesting flavors and neat decorations for the cupcakes. :)

Lori Wilde said...


Cann you understand Florian?

JenM said...

I've only seen Cupcake Wars once. It was fun to watch. Neither of the two finalists' cupcakes sounded that great to me, but like you said, they were judged mainly on how well they carried out the theme rather then how good the cupcakes tasted. I guess I can understand that. Everyone has different tastes, so in the end, it comes down to how well you executed.

Brooke said...

Great post, Lori! I've never seen Cupcake Wars (though I'd like to), but previous winners have opened a local cupcakery just down the street, and their cupcakes are divine.

I don't usually go into a story with theme at the forefront of my mind. I often think I know, only to finish a draft and realize the original thought is only part of it. I want to take this course--loved the last one I took.

Amy R said...

I haven't seen the show, only because I have a feeling I will start making more cupcakes and I don't need that! I am also new to your work. I need to go check out your books. I am always looking for new authors! I have read all of Christie's so far and have enjoyed them. Thanks for the post!

Gail D said...

I love watching the show. They have even had a couple of GF bakery's. I'm like you about picking the winner 50% of the time. Sometimes the ingredients sound really weird. Enjoyed the bloc.

lkepstein said...

I watch cupcake wars via my Hulu Plus account. It is certainly challenging enough to come up with a great recipe, but for the network to require the addition of some odd or unthinkable ingredients it makes me glad I'm not one of the judges doing the taste testing. I also find it unfathomable how the initial round always seems to go so very wrong or the contestants are way behind. Geez, we're only talking about 3 different cupcakes for the 3 judges. Now making the final cupcake display, is always exciting not only to see how their designs come together, but watching them madly piling these gems before the deadline. I admit to having a lot on my project list at any one time, but a lot of their issues relate completely to organization and better time management. With all of this said though, I still watch with earnest anticipation of what twist the network will throw at them. Very much like writing, and the difference between a good read and one that appears to be thrown together via a cookie cutter mold. So Lori are you thinking about including a cupcake like contest in one of your books?

Lori Wilde said...


If it was me, I'd be all about the taste. Don't care how it looks.

Lori Wilde said...


We have a cupcake bakery just down the road from me. It's delcious, but they charge $3.50 for a cupcake! I can make a whole cake for that.

Lori Wilde said...

Amy R,

I have learned a lot about the different kinds of frosty from watching it.

Lori Wilde said...


There's a GF baker that's been on there a bunch of times and she keeps winning. Makes me want to try her cupcakes.

Lori Wilde said...

Hi Linda!

Haven't thought about putting a food war in a book, but who knows?

Nancy said...

It is a wonderful blog and it took me two trys to read it all...kept stumbling on the cupcakes. I will have to also sit back and discuss THEME with my muse.

Terry Spear said...

Great blog, Lori! I watched a food cooking show, don't recall what it was called now, but they had different themes--cheapest meal with most nutritious ingredients for families on a budget, chili cook-off, etc. It had to fit in with the theme, the price, the cooking time, the taste and the appearance. Man did the chefs fight to win out during the show!

I'm writing my first SEAL Wolf Christmas story and I'm thinking, hmm, what if as a joke, someone made a Halloween cupcake? LOL

Okay, back to writing about jaguar shifters. I probably need to stop for the night. LOL

Maureen said...

I've never watched cupcake wars but have watched other cooking shows and I see what you mean since part of the challenges are to create a certain overall impression and feeling with the food.

Dawn said...

Watch tv? Ha.....too busy reading. :-)

Na said...

When I see pretty cupcakes like these it almost pains me to eat them. Almost. And then I think of how good it tastes and in my mouth it goes.

This is the first time I've actually heard about Cupcake Wars but it sounds entertaining. I like hat the themes changes because it keeps it interesting.

I think theme matters and when I read a story I want or more to stand out. It does give a book a direction and although I won't know exactly what happens it'll keep me on track and in the loop of the plot.

Refhater said...

Awesome blog! We love Cupcake Wars! A local cupcake store here is auditioning to be on the show too. My favorite episode was the roller derby one.


Jill Archer said...

This was a fantastic post. Top scores for both taste/content and decoration! Love those cupcake pictures. Haven't seen Cupcake Wars but you make it sound fun.