Monday, February 8, 2010

Scene Structure Part II: Theme

Part of an ongoing series on Scene Structure.


mobydick Your book has a Theme*. It’s the whole reason you wrote the book, the point you’re trying to make. Here are some examples of themes:

  • Power Corrupts
  • Grieving is a Process
  • Love Conquers All
  • The Pen is Mightier than the Sword
  • Fight for What’s Right
  • Illness can be Overcome
  • Children are a Blessing

Every single scene in your book should contain a microcosm or a slice of the overall theme. Let’s take “Grief” for example. We’ve all heard of the Five Stages of Grief. We can assume that your character is travelling through these stages. So how does each scene encompass this theme? Well, your character is either in denial, angry, bargaining, depressed, or accepting. You may have some scenes in the beginning of the book where the character is not grieving, but even on those cases, there should be some Foreshadowing of the main theme. Why is your character uniquely set up to grieve in a way that readers will connect with? Grief comes from loss, so clearly illustrate what the character is about to lose.

Another way to think about Theme is to compare it to Blogging. You follow different bloggers for different reasons. You may follow this blog for writing tips. If today I decided to post a long analysis of yesterday’s Superbowl, comparing the Saints’ aggressive tactics with some of the greatest performances in Superbowl history, many of you would yawn and move to the next blog, and maybe a couple would be interested. This is what happens when you go off theme—you lose the reader. If you give the grieving character a love interest and start exploring themes of step-families and child-rearing, unless this love interest directly relates to the grieving process, you will confuse the reader. Sure, some would relate, and might find it interesting, but generally it’s just a distraction that will detract from the overall story. If you go off-theme, make sure you have a good reason that will make sense to the reader in the end.

Theme Goals

  • Every Scene explores part of the Main Theme. If your character adopts a puppy, their grief should color the entire transaction, from choice of dog to how they treat the pup.
  • Even the Secondary Themes must relate to the Main Theme. Maybe there’s a right and wrong way to grieve. Some of the subplots can explore how certain people get stuck in certain stages. They still must be related.
  • Each character explores a different aspect of the same theme. They play the different roles needed for your main character move forwards. Some might have dealt with grief before. How do they help? Some might never have experienced this level of loss. How does their lack of empathy hurt the main character?


  • At no time should you tell, clue, or otherwise inform the reader what the Theme of your novel is. This is for the reader to decide. You might have thought your Theme was “Grieving is a long, hard process,” but your reader might think, “the love of your friends and family help you through hard times” and never even think about the Stages of Grief. I read a YA book recently where the author put a blurb in front of each chapter explaining what the theme of each chapter was. I usually disagreed with her and found the blurbs annoying. Do not hammer your reader over the head with the theme.
  • On the other hand, don’t hide the theme too deeply. Remember, you are trying to illustrate a point or teach a lesson about life through your characters, so when you draw your conclusion at the end, the reader should understand completely, even if they weren’t sure before. If you go on and on about dealing with grief and then your character succeeds by learning that Power Corrupts and he should give away his riches, you’ve lost the reader. Why go through the grieving process if your character doesn’t learn something from it, and then a magic fairy gives him an elixir that makes him feel all better?

Do you know what the themes are in your writing? Have you checked to make sure you move them forward in every scene?

*Image is apparently the cover art for some edition of Moby Dick. What’s the theme of that book, and how does Melville show that in every scene?


  1. I try to focus more on telling the story rather than figuring out the theme. The reason I do this is two-fold a) no two people will pick the same theme from the same book and b) whatever theme I state will probably end up not being the one people decide is the actual theme.

    Which is also why I hate it when English teachers ask "what is the theme of this piece?" My answer tends to be "I don't care what the theme is, I care if the book is interesting."

  2. What a brilliant post I think your blog is fabulous.

    Love this line: Every single scene in your book should contain a microcosm or a slice of the overall theme.


  3. @Matt If your story isn't about something, then it's about nothing. The point I'm trying to get across is that each scene should contribute something to the whole. When I write, I have themes in mind which I explore, but I don't really know the theme of the book until it's complete, and usually it turns out to be something I didn't intend when I started. I wanted Steam Palace to be about love and finding your heart, but it turned into a social diatribe about classism and racism, and my MC prevails because she overcomes these issues in herself. The love interest is just a means to explore these issues. Now during the editing process, I'm going to ensure that every scene contains this theme to some extent and cut scenes that have nothing to do with it. But if readers still see it as a romance, that's fine with me. :)
    Thinking about theme is just one way to ensure that your book is tight and focused, but definitely leave it open to interpretation.
    Like I said, I could make a great, interesting post on the Superbowl, but if I don't tie it back into the theme of this blog, like comparing Brees' comeback from injury to the Hero's Journey, then I do my core readers a disservice and possibly alienate them.

    @Ann Thanks!

  4. Fabulous post Andrew!

    I Always learn something over here ;o) You've given me a lot to think about. My MC loses her sister and best friend seven years apart, I never thought of relating it to the stages of grief, but that's a great idea - thank you :o)

  5. @Erica: Thanks! Just on an aside, it's important to note that everyone grieves differently, and that these "five stages" are just a general guideline, and I don't want to make it sound definitive. It's just an example for illustrative purposes. :)

  6. This is awesomesauce, Andrew! And so timely for me. Thanks. Mwah!!!

  7. Wow, as someone just starting to experiment with a theme for my own blog (science), this post is really helpful!

    P.S. - I follow your blog for motivation. :)

  8. Awesome! I love your posts. Thank you for putting so much time and thought into these breakdowns.

  9. I think your blog is totally fabulous, too. In fact, I don't come unless I have time to sit a few minutes, because I know, and always find, some real treasures here. And I do love that there are so many different ones out there, something for all of us.
    But yours today made me think of this book I'm reading now and am not liking so much. It is so well written, but that's it. Goes off in the woods a few too many times. Like I have to pay to play. Got to watch for that in my own gibberish. Thanks, again!!

  10. So what you are saying is that I need structure. This post was well thought out and useful. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Steam Palace. how about that Superbowl..?

  11. @Tina: Thanks!

    @Andy: Hope it's helping

    @Laura Thanks!

    @jd It's nice when writers stick to the point instead of sticking every point they can in there.

    @RB Structure helps. The Superbowl was great, enjoyed every minute of it (except that lame halftime show by The Why

    BTW I may take back the point I made about sub-themes. Every character has different goals, and how they approach obtaining those goals brings in different sub-themes. My point then is to keep sub-themes in check to make sure they support the main theme or at least don't detract from it. Just bring it all home at some point.


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