Interweave Your Novel's Themes and
By Holly Lisle
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
About the Author
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