Part VI of the 8-Part BRING YOUR NOVEL TO LIFE Series
When you’re writing a book, you want every page to drag the reader to the next one, even if she’s late for work, even if it’s two o’clock in the morning and he needs to be up at six, even if the plane has landed and your weary traveller really must get bags in hand and get off the plane. You want what you’re writing to be compelling. Enthralling. Un-put-down-able.
And that’s where the themes and subthemes we’ve been working on come together.
First we’ll put together an example where our main theme of rage against misused power, by now well disguised, becomes the story of a heroine who has been wrongfully accused of murder and must prove her innocence. We’ll have a subtheme of unhappy divorce, wherein the heroine’s two children are being told by her ex what a horrible person she is.
We could do an enormous number of things with these two storylines, and I know dozens of ways to meld themes and subthemes together and use them to play off of each other, but I’ll give you my three favorite techniques here.
THE BLENDED SCENE
Start with the heroine discovering the body of a stranger in her basement. Since she and her husband split up, there hasn’t been anyone down there but her and the two kids, who are five and eight years old. She carries a load of laundry down the stairs, trips over the the body, scatters laundry everywhere, and goes racing up the steps to call the police, just as her ex arrives to pick up the kids for the weekend. She’s frantic, her husband first thinks she’s joking, then thinks she’s hysterical, and finally goes into the basement and comes out as she’s calling the cops. He’s not sympathetic—he wonders what’s going on in that house since he left, what sort of atmosphere she’s raising his kids in, and when the cops arrive, he gives a statement, then hustles the kids out of there fast, wondering aloud if she’s had men in the place while his children were there.
• Locate the characters—other than the main character—who are involved in the theme and those involved in the subtheme. In this case, those characters are the police (theme), and the ex-husband and kids (subtheme).
• Decide how to create ties between theme and subtheme–in this case, the husband ties the police into his vision of his ex-wife as a bad mother by suggesting she’s been entertaining strangers in the house with his kids present. The police, meanwhile, will tie the husband into the story as another suspect.
• Get elements of both theme and subtheme into one scene.
Now we’re going to play with time and space. We’ll write alternating four alternating scenes, two from the point of view (POV) of our heroine, and two from the POV of her ex. In each scene, we’ll work either the theme or the subtheme, but not both.
First, we have the heroine being questioned at the kitchen table, denying any knowledge of the man in the basement or how he got there, honestly describing over and over how she found the body, and then we have a forensics guy telling the cop in the background that the man had a note in his pocket signed by someone with the same name as the woman, and they’re going to need pre-existing handwriting samples.
Next, to the father driving the kids home, who’s asking his kids who comes over to the house when they’re there with mommy, and the kids saying no one, and the father asking if mommy told them to say that.
Third, back to the heroine, who is asked to go to the police station, and who is seated in an interrogation room, where, as soon as she’s left alone, she gets up and starts pacing, trying to work through where the man could have gotten a note from her, who he might have been, how he ended up in her basement, why he was dead, and who was responsible for his death.
And back to the father, who gets the kids to admit that, once they’re in bed, they don’t know if anyone comes over, and yes, mommy does have music on sometimes, and maybe someone could have been there, and while they’re at school, they don’t know what she does. Except for laundry. They’re very firm that she does lots of laundry.
• With intercuts, you want to show facets of who each character is, and how they’re acting toward their own ends, whether those are good or bad.
• You have to create change, but you are only creating change toward the specific theme you’re working on (at least visibly). The police don’t ask the heroine about her ex, they don’t visibly pursue interest in the ex. They want to know about her. Meanwhile, the father doesn’t mention or worry about the police. His focus is on his kids, and on finding out what’s going on over at their mother’s house.
Finally, we’re going to bring both of these themes into play again, as we have a scene involving the forensics folks. They’ve found a picture of both kids and the mother in the dead man’s pocket, and the picture is signed on the back, “Love, Lisa” (the heroine’s name). The signature matches the one on the note that was in his pocket. It’s not proof she was involved with him, but it certainly doesn’t look good for her. They call the police out of the interrogation room and let them know what they’ve found. The police go back into the room and ask her why the dead man had a picture of her and her kids in his pocket, signed by her, and she panics and starts crying, and can’t—or won’t—answer the question.
And that’s where you leave that scene. The reader is forced to consider the possibility that the heroine might have been lying, that she might know the dead man, that she might even have killed him. The reader could also suspect the husband, who could have had possession of notes and pictures signed the way these have been. But if the scene closes with the heroine in deep trouble, panicked, and not talking, the reader will have a strong incentive to keep reading to find out what happens next.
• Use elements of both theme and subtheme in your cliffhanger (the mother and her connection to the dead man, and HIS possible connection to her and her kids)
• Leave either the most important character of the theme OR the subtheme in desperate straits (in this case, the main character of the theme is in trouble…you can save trouble for the ex in a later part of the story).
• Pick up the next scene with a character from one of your subthemes, and gradually work your way back to the character who was dangling over the cliff.
By carefully using blended scenes, intercuts, and cliffhangers, you can weave your theme and subthemes together in ways so exciting and compelling your reader will stay up late, miss his stop, be late for work. Cruel, yes, but it’s the sort of cruelty readers will thank you for.
Next time, in BRING YOUR NOVEL TO LIFE, Part VII, Planning A Heart-Stopping Story, you’ll learn how to outline the bones of your story using theme and subthemes to keep things moving.
Full-time novelist Holly Lisle has published more than thirty novels with major publishers. Her next novel, THE RUBY KEY, (Orchard Books) will be on shelves May 1st. You can receive her free writing newsletter, Holly Lisle’s Writing Updates at http://hollylisle.com/newsletter.html