Anatomy of a Scene: Theme

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As a writer and editor, Susan is all too familiar with both sides of the publishing world. Since 2009, Susan Brooks has served on the board of directors for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, a nonprofit educational organization supporting both published and aspiring writers of commercial fiction. She holds a masters degree in publishing from George Washington University and is Editor in Chief at Literary Wanderlust, a small traditional press located in Denver,  Colorado.

Susan is an editor with many years of experience and occasionally takes on freelance projects. Recent editorial projects include The Homeplace by Kevin Wolf, and The Rampart Guards: Chronicle One in the Adventures of Jason Lex, by Wendy Terrien.

She tweets once in a while and you can follow her as @oosuzieq on Twitter.

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Happy Holidays everyone! I’ve taken a few weeks to ensure that I met my editorial deadlines, so I apologize for my sporadic posts. Having caught up this week I’m back to continue our conversation about the use of scenes as a way of writing your novel. Focusing your writing and outlining at the scene level helps to ensure that your writing moves your story forward. This week I thought we would talk about adding theme to your scenes.

What is theme? Theme is the main idea that is proven by the end of the story. It’s the underlying message that you want to share with your reader. It’s the central topic, and it usually can be summed up in a word or two, such as “coming of age,” or “the grieving process.”

Usually theme is implied throughout the novel (or movie) rather than stated but the plot directs the reader to the realization of the theme by the end. Imagery and symbolism are often used to reiterate theme.

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“Adding a theme to your writing adds dimension to your story…”

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It’s easier to see theme in movies than it is in books. Let’s look at Monster’s Inc. One of the themes in the movie is “laughter is stronger than fear.” This theme is not stated in the dialogue, nor is it specified in any particular scene. The (very) basic plot line is that a monster employed by a scare factory finds a human child who he must return home but he discovers that his behavior terrifies the toddler so he must help the child to overcome their fear.

The movie shows the monster’s callous behavior, the child’s terror, and the monster’s new outlook on life, and by the end of the movie it is clear that laughter overcomes fear. The writers incrementally showed the theme throughout the film so that by the end the theme was clear.

Adding a theme to your writing adds dimension to your story and makes it more satisfying because the reader will have some deeper understanding of the human condition. Adding a theme to your story will also help to guide you as you outline and write. You will know what fits and what doesn’t fit in your story based on your theme. For example, if you have some aspect of grief as your theme, then every scene should, on some level, explore the theme. If you find yourself exploring happiness you are off track. The imagery you use, the tone, the voice, each of these should reflect your theme. If you have grief as your theme but all of your imagery is sunshine and butterfly kisses, then you are off track. See how that works?

Take some time to think about the message you want to get across to your readers and consider that message each time you start a new scene. Add something that relates to your theme to the scene, and your reader will subconsciously pick up on your theme, even though you haven’t spelled it out.

Next time we will discuss more on theme and scenes.

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