Since Suzanne Brockmann is a great source of inspiration to me and one of my favorite authors on earth, I have tell you about one of her quotes from her Day 5 Interview with Romance Novel TV. She sees her stories as having a spine and a soul. The spine is the central romance between her two main protagonists and the soul is almost like a subplot of that. It’s what else is happening in the story to make it deeper. It could take place in a secondary character’s life or in one of the main character’s. But it always gives deeper meaning to the story as a whole.
I like to think of this second layer as the theme. In Gone with the Wind, all we romance enthusiasts can say the story is about Scarlett finally growing up to realize Rhett is the one man for her. There’s a main story line, aka a plot, aka a “spine.” The End.
But one of the themes Margaret Mitchell makes about the human condition--the soul of the story--is about a woman’s endurance to survive through war and not only make it through by the skin of her teeth, but to triumph. That’s what makes Gone with the Wind such a classic. It has a plotline and a theme, a spine and a soul, layer upon layer of what the story it’s REALLY about.
Now the trick is how to bring in that depth, so that years from now scholars will discover our weighty, thoughtful prose and teach about them in their literature classes. My suggestion is to steal one. Hee hee! I know, I know, Linda, you naughty girl, copy-catting someone else’s brilliance. How wrong. But think about it a moment. Most of the great classics are great because they’ve borrowed their theme, their “soul,” from an even earlier piece of literature.
If you scour Stephenie Meyer’s website, you’ll discover Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice influenced her twilight book, Breaking Dawn. S. E. Hinton based her book, The Outsiders, on the Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” C. S. Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is a simulation of the Bible’s The Passion of the Christ story.
To tell you the truth, I tried to copy my YA story The Stillburrow Crush’s theme off a piece of classic literature too. It revolves around two lines from John Keat’s poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare.
The poem goes along with my theme on teen death. The girl who dies will always be known as that pretty, young cheerleader. She can never change or grow old. She’s immortalized exactly as she was, just as the dancers are on Keat’s famous urn. And the trees painted on the urn he’s describing will always have leaves. My heroine is also immortalizing herself by telling her story through a journal. We readers will always see her as this sixteen year old girl, experiencing her first crush.
Now, I’m not sure if anyone else will ever catch any of that symbolism I made, or even if it deepens the story for readers, but it made the manuscript come alive for me. Plus other great authors like Lewis and Hinton did it for their young adult books, so I thought I’d mention it as an idea for all you writers out there.
Once you have your plot and character down (might even wait until you’ve finished the entire rough draft), step back and look at your story as a whole. Is there a theme about the human condition waiting to emerge from your work? Is it by chance something you could glean from classic literature? If you can find something, grab a hold of it and hang on tight. It works wonders in the revision process and really makes your story bloom. It did for me anyway. In fact, I hadn’t fleshed out my entire theme until I’d sold my manuscript and was working through the first round of edits.