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.
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.
- 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.”
Layering the Ending and Language