One of the most useful things I can do when I have finished a first draft is to examine the themes and the characters and follow their threads. Sometimes a character and a thread can be the same – at the moment I am looking at ‘ambition’, which is both part of Bess Bagwell’s character and a theme.
But generally I can make a list of characters and a list of themes. The themes tend to be more abstract – corruption, love, infidelity, glamour. I then take coloured ‘post its’ and work my way through the draft finding the scenes that embody those themes. A green post-it for jealousy, a blue one for insecurity.
How does this help? Well, what I’m looking for is a sense of escalation towards the climax of the novel, at which point some of the themes might disappear, but the ones that are carrying the whole book will remain. It also helps me to check the balance of themes, and to make sure the major theme appears strongly near the climax of the book, and also makes an appearance somehow in the last scene. The themes themselves need to increase in intensity, so it is also a way to check I am not repeating myself – that each scene expands the theme as well as moves the character forward.
In historical fiction, often the real historical events are one thread that form the backbone of the novel. For me, Pepys’s Diary, and his infidelity to his wife, forms the one thread I can’t tamper with, though of course I can structure my other themes around it. One obvious theme in the book I am working on right now is the Plague – which has its own timescale and escalation; from miasma to contagion, from fever to delirium, and finally death or release.
I usually have about ten themes, and six major characters. That might seem like a lot, but often the themes can be paired very nicely into opposites, like, for example, truth and lies. In my current novel there are several scenes showing someone’s untruthfulness, balanced against one shorter thread in which a minor character only ever tells the truth.
What I have discovered is that by controlling the threads I can also get more control over my material, and understand parts of my story in a new way. By heightening some themes and controlling their pace I’m able to make them more effective for the reader. I also see where there are gaps, or opportunities for expansion.
The advantage of the threads is that they carry the emotion. The abstract threads – greed, ambition, love, fidelity – are the ones that are universal and key into the reader’s psyche. Link these threads effectively with a character’s journey and there is suddenly more propulsion – the scenes have a bigger meaning.
You might also like in this series:
No 1 Light
No 2 Truth
No 3 Sound
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