How to Write Theme into Scenes
Here’s how to tell whether your theme is working.
Your protagonist should have an internal and external need. Both needs are connected through the theme. So if your theme is working, most of your scenes should be designed to be a net win for one need while also being a net loss for the other need.
It’s how you design theme into your story. And the first time you work with theme, you should probably address it while you’re breaking the story. I use cards. Other writers use outlines or treatments. But however you do it, evaluate your theme work by doing this simple double-check.
If the scene was an “external need” win for the character, it should be an “internal need” loss.
If the scene was an “internal need” win for the character, it should be an “external need” loss.
Here’s a silly example I like to use. Two rivals race tricycles from Los Angeles to New York. Let’s call the protagonist John. He also wants to woo his one true love. Let’s call her Mary.
John has a clear external need: win the race.
John has a clear internal need: win over Mary.
So, in the first leg of the race John beats his rival badly. During his victory, he acts like a pompous ass, which offends Mary. This is an external win but an internal loss.
The next leg of the race, John is out to a huge lead in the race. He takes a moment to chat up Mary and steals a kiss. But it took too long to get that kiss, so he loses that leg of the race. This is an internal win but an external loss.
Now, the win and the loss don’t always appear in the same scene. Sometimes it’s the next scene that shows the clear connection between the two. The more often the two happen simultaneously, the stronger the connection to theme becomes.
And not every scene requires theme; sometimes you need a couple utilitarian scenes to get from A to B. But great stories incorporate theme into almost every scene. Why? People feel the theme. The more you expose them to the theme, the stronger they feel it. I’ve never heard anyone, in the history of ever, say something like, “There’s too much theme in this story.”
Tying characters to your theme sets up the ending. The audience knows the protagonist must confront their darkest fears before the curtain closes. There must be a sacrifice to earn that ending. Commonly, the protagonist sacrifices the external need to satisfy the internal need — and in doing so is handsomely rewarded. Or, in a tragedy, punished horribly. Either way, setting it up with theme in the first and second acts makes your ending resonate with the audience.