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February 21, 2013

How to Revise for a Stronger Theme

Rope with text: Revising for a Stronger Theme

Last time, we talked about using our story’s and characters’ themes to keep us on track as we draft. But no matter how well we know our themes during drafting, we can probably make them stronger in revision.

Maybe we thought a character’s arc would focus on one theme, but another one popped up during drafting that fits better. Maybe the theme revealed in the actual story isn’t the theme we want, possibly even being a negative theme (“bad guys always win”). Or maybe the theme feels too superficial and needs more development.

Let’s take each of those in turn…

Should We Go with Theme A or Theme B?

As we discussed last time, our stories can have multiple themes: for the story itself, for the characters, for the relationships, etc. That’s not a problem unless the different themes interfere with each other and prevent the others from being strong.

So we might have drafted with one theme in mind (“embracing responsibility”), but after we finish drafting and see the story as a whole, we might see other possibilities (“rising to our potential,” “the struggle to feel worthy,” etc.). Guess what? We don’t have to choose.

Look at those examples. Those themes could easily interrelate. A character could embrace responsibility and thus rise to their potential, and that self-actualization would help them feel worthy.

Taken together, each of those themes is like a layer for one big, umbrella theme: Working to be our best makes us feel worthy. Not a bad theme.

As long as our various themes play nice with each other, we can explore multiple themes without worry. They can even add up to something greater than the parts. However, we have to ensure that we’re bringing them together in the correct order.

In the example above, we’d want to ensure the character didn’t fully feel worthy until they’d embraced responsibility and risen to their potential. Otherwise we could be left with a theme that gives the impression: We don’t need to be responsible unless we feel worthy.

Uh-oh. That’s probably not what we were going for, and that brings us to the next issue…

What If Our Theme Is Sending a Bad Message?

Editor/author/Edittorrent blogger Alicia Rasley’s article about themes goes into this problem in depth:

“If I show the hero constantly failing at being heroic, or even competent, then reward him with Hummers and universal acclaim and the heroine’s love, I’m not sending the message I want.”

Alicia gives several examples of problem themes in her article, from heroines who appeal to the hero solely for being innocent (what happens when she’s not innocent anymore?) and heroes who “earn” the label simply because they were born into the right family to our positive themes being undermined by buried cynicism. In all cases, we need to discover what’s creating the wrong impression.

  • Do we have plot events developing the wrong theme?
  • Is the climax (or other emotional turning points) the source of the problem (often the case)?
  • Is a plot event itself a problem, or just the results/reaction to the event or scene?
  • Would changing earlier scenes improve the theme arc by showing a “trying and failing” approach until they learn to do it right?
  • Is it a characterization problem (how they’re shown) or a word choice problem (too harsh of words)?

Broken themes can seem overwhelming to fix. Themes lurk in the subtext—the “message” behind the story or character arc—and they emerge from the big picture, the way plot events and character reactions add up over the entire book. So a broken theme implies that the whole story might be “off.”

But more often than not, we simply need to identify what’s creating the wrong impression. It might even be just one scene, one reaction, one description. And if we find that one thing, tweaking it can be enough to fix the theme for the whole story.

This is yet another area where beta readers are invaluable. They can help us find those details creating the wrong impression. Just like plot events, reader impressions are based on cause and effect, so if we find and change the cause, we change and fix the effect.

How Can We Develop Our Theme More Deeply?

A couple of years ago, I did a post on themes that shared these ideas for ways to explore our theme more deeply:

  • Have the antagonist’s beliefs be an opposite or twisted version of the theme. “Love is strong” turns into “love is weak” or “love can be forced.”
  • Make the character’s emotional arc be learning to trust the theme during the course of the story.
  • Show the protagonist’s current attitude toward the theme in the “normal world” scenes at the beginning of the story.
  • Reflect the theme with the inciting incident in some way.
  • Echo the theme in the choices the protagonist faces.
  • Show the protagonist losing faith in the theme during the black moment near the end of the story.
  • Demonstrate the truth of the theme with the climax.

I shared another idea, specific to romance stories, in the comments of the last post:

  • The hero and heroine’s character arcs can explore similar themes.

For example, they might both be dealing with trust issues, so their themes might approach learning to trust from slightly different angles. One might learn “trust is required to live fully,” and the other might learn “those we love deserve our trust.” That echo in their character journeys can reinforce the idea that they’re the perfect match for each other.

Whether we’re trying to integrate, fix, or deepen themes, we need to remember that nothing in our draft is set in stone. Every scene comes with endless choices. Who’s in the scene? Where is it set? What are their goals? What’s their motivation? What’s the conflict? What changes during the scene?

After we’ve been writing for a while, we realize there are (at least) 100 different ways to have the same people in the same place with the same goals, motivations, and conflict reaching the same change. We get to choose what to show, what to emphasize, what to explore.

We make hundreds of choices when we write without even realizing it. Revising is all about becoming more conscious of those choices to determine if we made good decisions during drafting. The “best” choices for our revision—the choices that will lead to a more meaningful story—are those that fit the big picture we find in our themes.

Do you use multiple themes in your stories? How do you bring them together? Have you ever had readers come away with the impression of a “bad” theme? Were you able to find and fix the source of the problem? What tips can you share for “fixing” themes? Do you have ideas for other ways we can explore themes in our stories?

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16 Comments on "How to Revise for a Stronger Theme"

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riley Murphy
Ooh, I likey! *rubs hands together* Lemme see… In my latest release, Required Surrender, I used one method you mentioned. I had the hero and heroine have a similar issue. Only? The hero had buried his deep and locked it away so tightly the reader doesn’t get to see it until the black moment. The interesting part for me was this. The hero may have blocked out his issue to circumvent heartache, but that didn’t stop him from recognizing it so acutely in his heroine. In fact, this subconscious recognition leads him to be almost ruthless in his efforts to get his heroine to confront her truth. Of course, it’s her bravery – when she embraces this – that forces him to not only reveal, but face his own. It’s a very intense and emotional scene, but hey, that’s fiction, right? As for reality? I believe when people see something so clearly in others – it usually means they’re dealing with a similar version of that “something” themselves. Conscious or not. And to have a hero and heroine mirror each other so they both grow emotional, but on opposite ends of the story arc? That can be special. Of course, I’m currently getting reader mail with questions about why my hero was so adamant about the heroine facing her truth when it took him so long to face his, but that’ the gold for me. The hero wasn’t perfect. He never said he was perfect. In fact he said on… Read more »
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Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Interesting post! Unfortunately I don’t have that much experience in this topic yet: so far, all my scenes are so spontaneous—I am constantly in the state of “not-knowing-what-I’m-doing”, lol. Maybe that’s a bad thing, but I just have to have faith that my subconscious wandering will lead me somewhere eventually, lol, and hopefully some meaningful theme that I really care about will emerge. (Fortunately, this approach usually does boil up something nice. :D) Apart from that, I do know that the first scene and last scene in the novel is extremely important, especially the latter. There was this short story I wrote where I wanted to end it in a certain way, because I thought it would be cute and funny. But then I realized that such a comical ending would just ruin all that I’ve done, and make the story moral look like it wasn’t that important after all, or that it was just a random moral in the middle of the story—that this story was actually nothing more than a silly comedy. And thus, I had to write tons more after this comical scene so I could conclude the story at an appropriate place where it reemphasizes the moral. As a result, my short story became twice its length, lol. But thanks for this post; I know it’s going to be very helpful to me later on! P.S. I really liked the “having a similar theme in the hero’s and heroine’s character arcs” tip.
Misha

Hi Jami,

You’ve been nominated for the Paying Forward Awards in the category of Giver of Best Writing Advice.

Congratulations!

Misha

Laurie Evans

Thanks for writing this post! And your last one about theme, too. I’ll be printing out both of these posts. I learn so much here.

I figured I was *sort of* on the right track with my theme, but now I know what I need to do.

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[…] Gold: How to Revise for a Stronger Theme. Excerpt: “Our stories can have multiple themes: for the story itself, for the characters, […]

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[…] gives tips on how to analyze your story structure to make sure it’s solid; Jami Gold shows how to strengthen your theme in revision; and Nevena Georgieva shares a lesson from “Downton Abbey”—kill your […]

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[…] been doing a lot of reading about theme in particular, and I’ve been trying to apply what I’ve learned so far. I’ve identified three […]

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[…] gives tips on how to analyze your story structure to make sure it’s solid; Jami Gold shows how to strengthen your theme in revision; and Nevena Georgieva shares a lesson from “Downton Abbey”—kill your […]

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[…] is especially powerful as the clues add up over the course of the story. During revisions, we can make our theme more powerful by weaving our message through all the different elements of our […]

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