Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 25, 2013

Shaping a Theme

I started my work-in-progress with a quiet, curious girl and an intention to write for children about ten years old, tossing in some magic. I had a big old house in mind and a shimmering sense of a world beyond. That’s really not so much, but I managed to get a few characters talking, and started to learn more.

Of course I bumped into silences as I worked my way through the first few chapters and tossed ropes toward what might be a corner of the ending. At the ends of my chapters I stuck in notes about what might happen or be spoken, but not yet. I followed up on some of these, but when I feel disoriented, or wonder if the plot I’ve lightly sketched will hold, I’ve been returning to a single scene in my second chapter. The action there takes less than a minute and it’s not particularly spectacular. I mean there are no tornadoes picking up houses, boys flying through bedroom windows, or governesses sliding up banister rails. But it’s a scene I found early on and feels important to me.

So I keep coming back to shine up this little scene of a sister and brother on a plane. I knew a bit about what they’re leaving and where they’re going, but learn more as I return to the snapping seatbelts, safety plans, tray tables that rise and fall, the paper sheets meant to protect them, armrests that can hardly fit two elbows, an aisle that pretty much goes nowhere in either direction, and small windows looking out to the night sky. What I find gives clues about the roles in my book of safety, intimacy, getting stuck, and looking out.

And I’m looking for other ways to suggest the theme through gestures or the subtext of conversations. Maybe I’ll even be so bold as to spell it out in a conversation. In Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder tells us that in the movies, a minor character often states the theme within the first five minutes. Composers of musicals speak of songs early on that express the main character’s yearning. In poems, too, I’ve often been swept in by images, then found direct statements in the second or third stanzas. So now I‘m looking for ways to slip a sense of what my book is about into the dialog without being heavy handed. Or maybe I’ll try to press my hands a little harder. I don’t want to set up placards with arrows. A theme should be the bubbles under the waves. We don’t necessarily need a girl to tap her shoes and murmur, “There’s no place like home,” to get a sense of a journey’s meaning. But sometimes a song or wise person speaking up can help.



  1. “bubbles under the waves” I like that :).

  2. Lovely! Subtlety is your stock in trade.

  3. Theme is something that usually comes slowly for me; sometimes I don’t realize what I’m writing about until the 2nd or 3rd draft. But I think you’re wise to trust those touchstone scenes. And I love the way you write about this one!

    • Thanks, Amy. Theme showing up after you’ve torn apart and put back together lots of layers makes sense. I’m far from starting out with theme, but have heard a few whispers from this image. Of course the next one might send me in a whole different direction.

  4. This post makes my creative wheels turn. Hmmm. Now I need to think about my themes. Thanks for this. And of course, even your blog posts are poetic 🙂 Lovely

    • Very happy to kick your very creative wheels around for a new turn, Sera! I guess the trick is to think about themes… but not TOO much.

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