~ George Orwell
Are you ready? Are you sitting down all cozy with your cup of tea and your WIP?
Now think of one scene in your WIP, just one. The one scene that you would keep if someone locked you in a room with a shredder and withheld food and water and the new season of Vampire Diaries until you shredded every other scene in the only existing copy of your manuscript.
Have you got it? Excellent.
Next, consider what you adore about that scene. Why does it speak to you? What emotion, phrase, or idea do you take away or want your reader to take away?
Chances are, THAT'S the emotional heart of your book, the glimpse of life truth your story is really all about.
Theme is a nebulous thing. It's much easier to define plot, the cause and effect that connects events into a pattern. As writers, it's our job to show plot in a way that the reader sees and understands. But theme in fiction, the meaning behind that pattern, is different for every reader.
By its nature, theme can't be obvious. At its best, it's open for interpretation, thought, and discussion, an echo left to resonate long after the book itself is read. We can't present theme directly. Sometimes we have trouble grasping it ourselves. We know what our characters want and the obstacles that may keep them from achieving their goals. We know they must struggle with conflict on every page, from their antagonists and within themselves. We know their life histories, their thoughts, their emotions in every scene. But do we know what they take away once the last word is written? What they will do when the story action is over? What philosophy or life view will carry them through whatever will come next?
Discovering that truth, that echo, is the part of writing that I love best. Once I know it, I can start layering in the richness and complexity that makes me fall back in love with my book after all the months of wanting to hurl the computer across the room. The minute I grasp that, I can go back and follow the trail of symbols and clues my subconscious left scattered in the manuscript like breadcrumbs, and see where I need to add something, or delete something, or sharpen something. It all comes down to knowing the heart of my story.
And that, just as Donald Maass said, is in that one scene that I would never, ever cut.
What about you? Can you think of a scene like that in your WIP? Past WIPs? How do you develop theme? And is it your favorite part of the story?
Let me know your thoughts! I've got a copy of Jennifer Brown's BITTER END for a random winner.
P.S. -- Want more on theme? Here are some good resources:
Deepening Your Novel with Symbolism, Imagery, and Figurative Language
Know Your Selling Point
Does Your Novel Have a Theme (Had to edit the title, but the post is worth reading!)
Fiction that Wows: Theme vs. Plot
Strengthening a Thematic Motif Through Repetition
How Do I Plot the Thematic Significance of a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay?
Character Emotion and Thematic Significance
If You Can't Describe Your Story, There Probably Isn't a Story
Theme and Strategy: How to Build a Strong, Narrative Structure to Help Your Fiction Stand Tall, Run Fast, Hit Hard, and Soar to Success (Elements of Fiction Writing)
Writing the Breakout Novel
The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers
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