Revision stage part six: theme and setting
We’re getting visual, and hopefully, your story already did. Imagery is important, as you should know if you’ve read the other revision stage posts. If not, they’re available in the “revision stage” category. Or, you can type it in the search.
Anyway, theme and setting. Setting is time, place, and it can even be emotion and tone. Your senses are incredibly important when writing setting, and if you need help with that, here’s an article on writing that. I’ve also conducted a group discussion about creating setting.
Theme is deeper. It’s the message you’re trying to send to your readers. Sometimes, the theme is prominent in the story, and that’s what drives it. If you read my book reviews, which I don’t do often, I recently read a book with a heavy theme, and that drove the story more than the characters or plot. It will be posted in a couple weeks.
Most of the time, though, the theme is something the reader discovers as the story unfolds. It’s something that allows them to have a deeper appreciation for the book and its characters, plot, etc. It provides meaning. It fills in blanks and allows the story to have a purpose.
So, how do we go about looking at these with revision goggles?
Setting isn’t just at the beginning of a chapter
Many times, I read a book that starts out beautifully. Sometimes, the imagery goes on too long, but when it stops, it stops. I know where the story starts, the rain slamming down on a tin roof while Charlie lays in the hay, breathing in the smell of horse hair and dust, the odor of wet grass and musk drifting in from the window. But, after the lovely exposition, I don’t get much until the beginning of the next chapter when Charlie is doing something else and the scene is set until dialogue and action take over.
Read through each scene
When you read your scenes, can you imagine it? Ask your beta readers this question, too. Do you see things as they happen?
If you can, does it tie into the scene? What I mean by that is there’s a difference between this:
The field stretched farther than I remembered, the grass in brown patches where they must have once been green. Smoke drifted into the air, touching the sky with gray tendrils of a battle’s memory. I walked through what looked like a war zone.
Dirt swam around my feet, lifting stray pieces of fabric and carrying it into the wind. I slowed my pace, gazing out at the field I had abandoned in haste. Grass peeked out of the ground in brown patches where they must have once been green. I barely remembered the color anymore, its life-giving shade only a folk tale in a land so filled with death. Smoke drifted into the air, touching the blue sky with gray tendrils of a battle’s memory.
Something like that. The point is, one uses the main character with the story, and the other separates the two. Most things I read have a lot more scene before the character is involved, but I’m not going to get poetic. Hopefully, you kind of get the point. It’s easier to imagine a character in a scene if they’re already there. It’s more engaging if a character’s senses (sight, feel, smell, taste, sound) and emotions are involved in the scene. Hopefully, you’ll write something a lot better than that little bit of impulsive up there, but still.
Don’t image-dump your scenes. When you read through, make sure you include at least one or two of the five senses. Don’t over describe things and image-dump on your readers, but don’t make the scene barren. Find your happy medium. Try writing it different ways if you have to. It’s your story and your voice. You can figure out what you like best and what works best, but these are my suggestions. Separating the two separates the images.
When you introduce new characters, there are two things writers do quite often: They provide too much detail or none at all.
If Joe is a bartender, something as simple as his clothing will help create the character. Use your senses, again, and make sure the scene introducing your new character isn’t empty of . . . well . . . your new character.
Like I said above, you don’t want to separate description with scene. The easiest and most efficient way to describe a character is to point out what’s abnormal. Tattoos, facial hair, odd odors, hats, etc. are examples of this. If a guy looks like any other guy, who is “any other guy”? What makes someone stand out to you?
You can practice this by looking at a stranger. What do you notice first then second? What do you notice the longer you look? Use this strategy to describe a character.
In your scene, consider how you execute that strategy. Do you give one long description of a character before moving on to the scene?
Don’t just give one long description of a character before moving on to the scene
I stress this for one big, fat reason: Readers won’t remember a thing. You could make a description sound poetic or beautiful. You could use the best words because you have the best words. You really could. But, readers only remember about ten percent of what they read in a chapter. Don’t quote me on that. I don’t have sources.
They don’t remember everything, though. If you’re spending several paragraphs describing Mr. New Guy, chances are your reader will remember one or two details that stuck out to them, and all that description you wrote is pointless. This is why I discourage it. That and it’s rather boring. I skip long descriptions after a couple sentences.
Take my first example as your third example, too. Use description with your scene. As it unfolds. let description come out as necessary with it. What does your reader have to know about this character? Use that and make sure your scene reads how you want it to.
From one scene to another
This part won’t be long because I’ve talked a lot about transitions. Simply put, if your scene jumps from a barber shop to a house or whatever, your character(s) need to go there, you need a chapter break, paragraph break (depending on the way you style your story), or ellipses. You have your options, but use transitions. Do something. Don’t just jump mid-scene. Please.
What does your story mean?
All stories mean something. Some are universal themes, which connect to all genres, all cultures, all audiences. Heroism, nature, motherly concern, abuse of power, rise to power, etc. are all universal themes. They apply to anything. These are common, and they’re embedded in the story itself.
More uncommon themes are things like life with sickness or appreciating the bad—things that apply to specific audiences because not everyone experiences it. It can provide an experience for anyone, but it’s respected by select groups.
What is your theme?
If you don’t know it, what is it about? You can look up universal themes, and chances are your theme is on one of those lists. The reason you need to know this is because you need to ask yourself something.
Did you make your point?
If your book is nonfiction, and it’s about respecting nature, can you say you answered the question “why respect nature” by the end of the book? If you wrote a mystery, and your theme is manipulation, can you say you’ve shown the consequences of manipulation, what it looks like, how easy it is to be manipulated?
It doesn’t seem like these things would be necessary for some stories, but these things make a story stronger. You don’t need an asphalt shingle roof when you’re making a dog house from scratch, but guess how much longer that thing would last and how much stronger it would be if it had one instead of a sheet of plywood?
Themes aren’t just for stories that want them. They’re for every story that exists. Harry Potter used friendship, Of Mice and Men used the nature of human existence and it used love, among others. (Yes, you can have multiple themes.)
So, did you make your point? If not, what areas can you expand or slice to bring out the meaning of your story? Even Twilight has a theme. 50 Shades of Grey does, too. What makes those stories shine? How much do you want to bet it’s what the story means to the audience? I guarantee it’s not because of the amazing imagery and . . . Okay, I’ve never read Shades, so maybe it had vivid images. I don’t know. That’s a different discussion.
Themes carry a story throughout time. So once you figure it out, where are you missing those digging moments? What can you do to bring that out? Your beta readers/editor(s) can help with this, too. Tell them your theme. Don’t ask them what they think it was. It’s not a school assignment. If you wait, your beta readers might not be able to tell you where you went wrong because they already forgot most of it.
This doesn’t mean your theme needs to drive your story
Some stories are more theme-drive than others. Don’t think yours has to be saturated with the meaning in your story. But, it does need to represent what you decided it should.
There’s something about themes that are hard for me to type out. There’s so much to it, and there are many exceptions. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to ask. But, the reason I have theme so far back in this series is because it encompasses the entire story, and by the time you’ve been through your story a couple times, you’ll know it better than you did when you thought about writing it. And, you should. It will help you understand, completely, what your story means to you and what it will mean to your audience.
Your theme and your setting don’t exactly meld to make each other shine. The setting can help present the theme as an image, but don’t think you need to create symbols this way. Let your symbols create themselves (unless it’s something obvious like a note or heirloom or something like that).
So, to review:
- Develop your theme and setting (individually) through your characters
- Use your senses to keep an image in all your scenes, not just the beginning
- Don’t image-dump your characters into existence
- Develop the setting and avoid image-dumps at the beginning of chapters
- Consider what your theme is and how prominent it must be in your story
- Don’t try to create pointless symbols to make your theme shine
As always, I welcome anything you’d like to add. There’s plenty to say, and I’m not going to pretend I’ve covered it all.
We cover the last part of the revision series! Filler words aren’t just the simple things like “that” and “just.” I’ll also cover unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, etc. No, this doesn’t mean remove all adjective and adverbs. That’s silly, and those can be useful.