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How to write part 5: Themes

Theme or first cuts?

There are many literary themes

I debated which order is considered “correct,” to talk about these in if we are trying to be formulaic. Theme, or cutting room floor. The reality for me is that these happen at the same time. They are two sides of one coin. Just like we have said before, there is no correct process of writing, it is about what works for you. This series is trying to teach the essentials of how we go about generating a formula by which anyone can be creative.


I have decided the first thing to really consider is theme, because theme is what tells me which things to cut. Let’s briefly recap. By this point you will have characters, their interactions with one another, how they feel about one another, specific scenes you want to have take place and fun world building settings that will show your reader all the gifts of your imagination. The problem is that some of them will be too long. Some will be out in the corner, doing their own thing, not really tied to a main plot at all. Some will contradict each other, because we didn’t say everything had to be consistent.

The final arbiter of what stays and what goes will be the theme.


Theme: By Miriam Webster:

-          a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation

-          a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic, or concern


In other words, why are you telling this story? If someone had once sentence to say what it was about, what would they say? Plots and arcs, interactions and scenes all have to be building toward something. This is where MacGuffin becomes reason. It is entirely possible to tell the same tale with different morals depending on which characters we anchor the story to, which perspectives we let the reader get close to and ultimately, in the terms of conflict, who or what wins.


Let’s take the world we have been lightly building up in our examples. Levitation dictates position in society. That is easy enough. Next take the characters and some of the relationships we picked last time, like a prince and princess who are being requested to marry by their parents. We said that for example maybe she would rather get levitation now, not help her children, from back-alley deals, and he doesn’t want to marry a woman who is beneath his station. If we anchor to her, and her story perhaps we have the heroine’s journey of gaining powers and breaking out of a mold of her society to become something better. If we anchor to his perhaps, we have a story about his journey of overcoming prejudice about a lower caste. Maybe you change the ending, and terrible things happen to her, and the moral becomes about patience in generation-to-generation growth.


These are very different themes, even though they are the same basic story.

If we anchor to the parents, we could tell a story about how one generation relates to another, and how progress through society is, or is not made, depending on the ending.

Maybe we anchor to the character who gives her the powers. The prince and princess are just tertiary players in this tale, and it is about the grunts who work and slave away at the bottom who feel the repercussions of the royalty’s actions. Then perhaps we are telling a story about underdogs and how to perform actions of political dissent for better or worse, depending on how we end the tale.


Before you can begin to think about what you keep and what you throw away you need to know why you want to write the story. Make no mistake, that artists are more powerful than any politician, and more minds have been changed by works of fiction than all the speeches ever made from a podium. You are telling a story for a reason, and you need to articulate it so that you know what serves that story and what doesn’t.

That could take time. Here are a few brief pieces of advice.


-          Have only one theme.

When there are too many themes a book can become heavy handed with them, trying to preach to a reader, and nobody enjoys that, even when they agree with the sermon. Additionally, it can get very busy. When you become a master writer, perhaps consider more, but to start keep it simple and keep one theme.


-          If you have never written a book before write a theme you agree with.

Exploring the mind of characters and belief structures you are opposed to is fun, enlightening and very difficult. When writing a book there is already so much to do, and pull together. The key to starting out in this process is to keep the first few themes something that you believe in.


-          Take your time.

Trial each theme against the scenes you have, and see which ones fit. You may decide you have a theme that you do not have enough scenes to support. That is ok, you can always do this entire process iteratively or front to back multiple times with more understanding of your end goal each time.


Finally, once you think you know your theme sort the scenes and interactions you have outline before this point into a pile that belong with the theme, and those that don’t. Technically this grouping is going to be your first cutting room floor mega cut. Don’t throw anything away. It is time in our next chat to start considering that we need to cut and par down scenes, characters and interactions to create a cohesive story, plot and satisfying collection of arcs.


Next time: The cutting room floor.

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