Monday, July 4, 2011

Layering Your Scene -- Theme

The next layer to add to your scene are the all the elements that have to do with the novel’s theme. For those of you who weren’t English majors (there must be a few of you out there) theme is basically the one-word definition of the abstract concept or ideal the book is about. For example, Othello is about jealousy, Hamlet is about revenge, Romeo and Juliet is about love. Often a work can have more than one theme. While Hamlet could be about revenge, it can also be about justice -- or indecision.

The theme is always a moral quality. It broadens the story’s scope, transforming it from a series of incidents that happen to a certain individual during a certain time at a certain place to a fable to which a broad audience can relation. In other words, the theme makes the story universal.

Although the theme itself is a universal quality, what each writer brings to a particular theme can be very different. For example, Titanic, Romeo and Juliet, and When Harry Met Sally are all about love. But they say very different things about love:
  • Titanic: Love lasts forever.
  • Romeo and Juliet: Love overcomes hate.
  • When Harry Met Sally: Friends can turn to lovers.
Every scene should reinforce the theme. But how do you do that?

One way to state your theme is to use the formula put forward by Stan Williams in his book The Moral Premise:

            ___________ (virtue) leads to _____________ (positive
            outcome) but  _______________________ (opposing
            vice) leads to _________ (disastrous result).

Once you’ve stated your theme, ask yourself, “How does the scene support this premise?” In other words, what lesson does the reader learn from the scene?

For example, in the first book of my Arthurian trilogy, The Deadly Peace, the moral premise is “”Trust leads to allies and success; lack of trust leads to lack of allies and failure”. In the opening scene of the sequence in which my heroine, her best friend and her maidservant plot to set a day for my heroine’s coronation, my heroine’s inability to trust men leads her (a) to have powerless allies in the form of her female companions (b) to be reluctant to team up with a potential ally, the hero.

If your scene does not support either the positive or the negative half of your moral premise, your scene is not working hard enough. In fact, it may be totally superfluous. At this point, evaluate the purpose of the scene, especially if you’re running over your target word count. This may be one of those scenes you can omit.

Or, if there are good plot reasons why the scene is necessary, consider the following alternatives:

  • Combine it with a scene that does support your moral premise (can you slide the information you need to convey from this scene into that scene instead?)
  • Revise the scene to support the moral premise.

Once your scene supports your moral premise, you’re ready to add another layer to your text: symbolism.

In the workshop she gives on Layering Your Scene for Maximum Impact, best-selling romance writer Lori Wilde claims adding this layer made the difference that led to her first sale. Lori adds to every scene a “concrete symbol that represents the POV character’s state of mind or the plot or the theme or the misguided belief or the goal or their vulnerability.”

Often the McGuffin can work as a central symbol.

In the movie Titanic, for example, the gem “The Heart of the Sea” starts as the McGuffin that the treasure hunter (and later Cal) seeks. But it also represents Rose’s imprisonment in a role she deplores, and ultimately as the symbol for her own heart.

 While overarching symbols can contribute to the literary quality of the work, not every symbol has to be carried through the book. A symbol can be specific to a scene. For example, at the beginning Titanic, the porters bring a number of the works of early modern French artists into Rose’s cabin. They’re easily recognizable as the works of artists who are famous today, but back in 1912, they would have been barely known. We never see these paintings again, but they reverberate on several levels. Rose’s recognition of the potential of these undiscovered gems says a lot about the heroine’s artistic sensibility, but her financé’s scorn for the same works also tells us a lot about him. The paintings become the focal point for the conflict between Rose and Cal. They also foreshadow Rose’s relationship with Jack. On a wider scale, the later loss of these potentially priceless works under the sea mirrors the incalculable value of the disaster’s lost human lives.

 Checklist for theme:
  • Scene supports the moral premise.
  • Scene contains a symbol that “represents the POV character’s state of mind or the plot or the theme or the misguided belief or the goal or their vulnerability.”
Next week:
Layering the Ending and Language




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