Novel Writing

It’s a theme, not a scene

English: Chimpanzee Typing
What this story needs is a theme, something for the literary geniuses to expound upon in Freshman Lit. | English: Chimpanzee Typing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This morning, I’m typing up a couple of “found” scenes I wrote in a notebook almost four years ago. (I mentioned these scenes in an earlier post.) When I wrote these, I wasn’t really thinking about them in terms of scenes, but was scribbling out a freewrite with some ideas I had for a novel.

Many of my freewrites begin with me telling myself about something I want to do, and then they morph into scenes as I enter “the zone.” So it was no surprise to me when the first few paragraphs I typed up were back-story. But as I was typing, it occurred to me that what I had on the page at this moment was a theme, not a scene or even back-story.

These paragraphs will never make it into my novel in their current form. They’re telling, not showing. And we all know telling is bad, bad, bad. But these paragraphs are good. Not good writing, necessarily, but good thinking. They’re thoughts spilled on the page, meant to point out to me what I’m missing in my story.

What I wrote in those few paragraphs is a theme that I’ve probably touched on a bit throughout my current 225 double-spaced pages. But I haven’t fully developed it yet. As I read these paragraphs, a picture developed in my head of what my story needs. I have so many ideas all of a sudden, of how to increase the tension in scenes that have fallen flat. It has become clear to me that what I need to do is take this theme and develop it throughout the entire novel.

If you had told me four years ago that I would be consciously weaving themes into my novel, I might not have believed you. I have hated every literature course I have ever taken because of my professors’ focus on themes and motifs. I refused to believe that any entertaining writer ever sat down and intentionally wrote a story with a theme. That’s not how ideas come to me.

I realize now that, even though you may not intend to incorporate specific themes in your writing, they are usually there. You don’t have to think about themes in your first draft, but once you have your full story on the page, you really should dig through and figure out what they are.

Once you have your themes in mind, you will be able to develop your scenes in ways that may never have occurred to you before. Writing with a purpose in mind will provide a richer experience for your reader and a more satisfying accomplishment for you. Who knows, some literature professor may someday torture her students with discussions of the themes in your novel.

Do you think about themes before you write? In the middle, or after? Maybe you don’t think of them at all? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

~Mandy Webster

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3 thoughts on “It’s a theme, not a scene”

  1. Thank you very much for the link-back! I LOVE to hear how other people freewrite. It’s a fascinating process and one all authors do differently. In some ways I think it as much a part of our ‘author fingerprint’ as our voice is.

    I like what you say about how you work with themes. It’s not something you set out to do, it’s something you discover later that leads you to create even more depth and excitement in your work. Thank you for sharing and best of luck in your continued work on your novel!

    1. Thanks for the comment! I think too many people get so caught up in trying to be perfect, they just can’t write anything at all. For me, freewriting is the fastest way to bust through writer’s block. It works every time!

      1. I more than agree! It took me awhile to learn that I COULD write poorly, even downright awfully for awhile, because as long as I was writing in the first place I was at least heading in the direction of my goal. =) I think freewriting is a habit we have to break ourselves INTO.

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