Once upon a time, Character fell in love with Plot. Right from the start, it was a stormy relationship. There was passion, there was romance, there were epic stakes. And conflict? Puh-lenty.
Sometimes they were pretty sure they couldn’t live with each other a moment longer. Sometimes they tried to give each other up altogether. But even the most adamant intentions couldn’t keep them apart for longer than a lukewarm novel or two. Inevitably, these two star-crossed lovers always reunited, their reincarnations seeking each other out again and again throughout the ages.
They never seemed to realize Theme watched them from afar, love largely unrequited. During all the glory days when fans fervently debated Plot vs. Character, Theme was the one who secretly made the relationship work. Toiling silently behind the scenes, Theme kept pushing Plot and Character together, even when they thought they hated each other. Theme gave meaning to their union. Theme made them a team.
And so goes the greatest epic saga in all of fiction.
Like some new chicken-and-egg debate, writers frequently weigh the respective merits of plot and character. Which came first? Which is more important? Which is the hallmark of the truly great stories?
But this debate is, in my opinion, a false paradigm.
To begin with, it’s a dilemma with no conclusive answer (character-driven fiction offers one array of fictional techniques, plot-driven fiction another—both equally valid and important). Even more importantly, this type of either/or questioning tends to ignore the fact that character and plot’s relationship is part of a larger triangle—crowned by none other than wispy, metaphysical, powerful, unavoidable theme.
Why Writers Believe They Can’t Plot Theme
Why is theme so often excluded from the grand tug of war between plot and character?
There are a couple reasons.
The most obvious is simply that writers often don’t view theme in the same category as plot and character. Plot and character are concrete pieces of story. Theme seems more like some abstract force. Plot and character are almost always discussed in terms of technique: “This is how you do it, kids…” Theme, on the other hand, is often referenced with vague hand gestures: “Oh, you know, it just sort of happens…”
In fact, some writers turn this principle of Thematic Vagueness into a kind of religion. When eager new writers look on high for answers about theme (“How do I write a story with a strong theme?), the responses are adamantly mysterious (“Thou shalt never write theme on purpose“).
The mysteriousness arises from a poor comprehension of how theme functions and interacts with other major story components. Because poorly executed themes are often those that are most obvious and on-the-nose, writers sometimes scare themselves off the subject altogether. We evolve from a healthy fear of preachy themes to an irrational avoidance of theme altogether.
It’s true that powerful, cohesive themes sometimes emerge naturally from a writer’s subconscious. But what’s even truer is that these seemingly subconscious themes inevitably emerge thanks to the author’s intentional understanding and use of those other storytelling Titans: plot and character.
Right there lies the secret. If you can execute your plot and character with understanding and intention, then you’re this close to a conscious execution of theme itself. No more hoping and and praying your subconscious talks to you in a way you understand well enough to transcribe. No more confusion about why your excellent plot and awesome characters sometimes refuse to play nice and combine into an equally amazing story. No more worrying readers will find your story soulless or—just as bad—a self-righteous sermon.
Instead, you can bring theme out of the mists and let it work in the daylight, allowing it to guide your every story decision.
Theme creates Character creates Plot creates Theme
In my opening allegory, I cast plot, character, and theme as a triangle. But perhaps an even more helpful geometric figure is that of a circle—representing the unending, regenerative relationship of fiction’s Big Three.
Plot, character, and theme are not individual, isolated aspects of story. As such, they cannot be developed in isolation. Rather, they are each part of a larger symbiosis.
Theme isn’t just a nice greeting-card sentiment randomly mouthed by the protagonist at some point. Rather, theme creates character, which in turn creates plot, which brings the circle all the way around and, in turn, generates theme, which creates character which creates plot which creates… ad infinitum.
Honestly, I geek out just thinking about it. Theme inherently signifies the unifying patterns found within a larger whole, so even on a meta level, it makes total sense that theme is both generative and receptive in its relationship to plot and character.
In his classic writing volume The Art of Fiction, instructor John Gardner wrote:
Theme, it should be noticed, is not imposed on the story but evoked from within it—initially an intuitive but finally an intellectual act on the part of the writer.
What this means is that you, the writer, have the ability to start with any one of the Big Three and use it to create cohesive manifestations in the other two. If you begin with a plot idea, character and theme will already be inherent seeds within that kernel. If you begin with character? Same deal. And if you begin with theme? Ah, no more worries about preachiness. You now have the ability to craft powerful messages that are shown via your plot and character, rather than told to readers.
At some point, once you become accustomed to looking at plot, character, and theme as three faces of a greater whole, it becomes difficult to extricate one from the other enough to even identify which occurred to you first.
Identifying Your Story’s Thematic Layers
As a storyteller, your end goal should be a seamless big picture for readers. One of the most useful processes for reaching that goal is, in fact, mentally breaking down the larger picture and keeping its specific parts separate within your own mind. This alone will dispel the haze of ambiguity surrounding theme. Once you can see what each major piece of the story is and is not, you will have a better understanding of how they relate to and impact one another.
Naturally, this is a deep and nuanced subject, one that encompasses all of plot structure and character arc for starters. (I plan to dig further into the nuances of theme in future posts throughout the course of this year.) But for now, consider the three (and a half) mirroring layers that can be found in almost every part of every story.
1a. Exterior Plot Action
This is usually represented in reactive/active behaviors from the protagonist (and other characters). This is what is happening in a story. It’s the action your characters experience and your readers visualize.
- Inman is journeying home in Cold Mountain.
- Juliet is talking to the islanders about their experiences during World War II in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
- Sydney Carton is rescuing Charles Darnay in A Tale of Two Cities.
- Kaladin is fighting as a slave in the never-ending war on the Shattered Plains in The Way of Kings.
1b. Main Conflict
Usually, the main conflict is part and parcel of the exterior plot action; however, because it often manifests differently, it’s worth considering it as a layer of its own. Whereas the exterior plot action is usually physical in some sense, the main conflict is often represented on a mental level. Effectively, it is a puzzle for the protagonist to solve. It may be either an outright mystery. Or it may simply be a series of goals/conflicts/outcomes, which progressively teach the protagonist how to reach the ultimate plot goal.
- Inman figures out how to get home, both by learning to navigate the mountains and by deducing how to get past the obstacles presented by each person he meets on his way.
- Juliet figures out, on a general level, how to convince the islanders to talk to her, while in pursuit of the more specific mystery of what happened to the missing Elizabeth McKenna.
- Sydney comes up with a plan to journey to France and rescue Charles.
- Kaladin figures out how to survive as first a slave, then a soldier.
2. Character Arc
The character arc (usually, although not necessarily exclusively, the protagonist’s) represents the inner conflict, which will, in turn, catalyze and/or be catalyzed by the outer conflict, presented in the plot’s external action.
Note that we started our list with the top layer—the most obvious layer—of plot. But as we dig deeper into successive layers, we get closer to the heart of the story. If you think of a story’s plot action as an externalized metaphor for the character’s inner conflict and growth, you will have discovered one of the key ways in which the abstraction of theme is made concrete within the actual story.
- Inman battles his own doubt and suffering in his overwhelming desire to escape the Civil War and get home to his sweetheart Ada.
- Juliet begins falling in love with Guernsey in general and the kind but taciturn Dawsey in particular.
- Sydney struggles with saving Darnay for Lucie, when it means cutting off any hope of his being with the woman he loves.
- Kaladin’s bitterness over his lot and his hatred for those who enslaved him war with his inherent nobility and his natural leadership skills.
And now we hit bedrock. As the least visible but most important of a story’s layers, theme is the realization of all that has gone before. It is the symbolic argument between a posited Truth and Lie, which is played out in the protagonist’s personal arc and throughout the external plot (which, in its turn, has forced the character’s growth).
- Out of Inman’s and Ada’s separate struggles and ultimately futile attempt to be together arises an introspective theme about the search for meaning in the face of suffering.
- In falling in love with the simple valor and loyalty found in Guernsey, both during the war and after, Juliet finally discovers purpose and meaning in her own life.
- In ultimately sacrificing himself in Darnay’s stead, Sydney surrenders his dissipated life in exchange for “a far, far better rest … than I have ever known.”
- Kaladin’s struggle to overcome his bitterness and hatred—mirrored, contrasted, and finally aided by the many characters around him—culminates in a growing commitment to selfless leadership.
Again, note that these elements are most visible in the stated order (plot > character > theme); however, their importance in defining the story is actually the reverse.
No matter what type of story you write, its success will arise from the balance of its three most important pieces: plot, character, and theme. When you work on any one of these, you are necessarily working on all three. If you can raise them all into purposeful synchronicity as you write, you will not only bring theme out of the shadows, you will also be able to craft a story of deep meaning and purpose every single time.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Which of the three—plot, character, and theme—comes most naturally to you? Which is the least intuitive for you? Tell me in the comments!
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