Monday, August 20, 2012

Weaving Plot and Theme

I recently heard famous Hollywood producer, John Landau say that today's filmmakers should be more concerned with theme than they are with plot. He went on to say that theme is what brings an audience in and makes people want to see a movie. This made me think about how writers tackle plot and theme.

So what is the distinction between plot and theme? Plot is what happens to a character, the obstacles and intricacies that keep a reader interested. Theme however is more like a mission statement or a message that the writer wants to convey. Lots of writers don't like the word message when talking about their writing. Writers don't (and shouldn't) preach and a reader doesn't want to be preached to (I'm sure there are plenty of other places to go for that sort of thing). However, for a story to be satisfying to the reader, a character's journey must mean something.

As writers we often fall in love with a character or a plot idea first and don't really consider the deeper undercurrents of our story until we get to that yucky middle part of our novels where we hit and wall and ask ourselves, "What the heck is this all about? And what do I do next?" I've been at that wall many a time and it has driven me to despair, usually resulting in a huge carb binge and stuffing the manuscript in the drawer, never to be seen again. A way I've come to avoid hitting this wall is to do some preliminary journaling or just plain thinking about my character, the plot and what the heck I'm trying to say with my story. I also ask myself two questions: WHAT DOES MY CHARACTER WANT? and WHAT DOES MY CHARACTER REALLY WANT?

On the surface, these questions may appear to be the same, but let's look at an example from my soon-to-be released YA, Devil's Triangle.

Here's the premise (the short version): 17 year old Cooper gets another chance at life when Lucinda, the Devil's sister, sends him back to earth to find Grace, a girl he has known in another life.

So what does Cooper want? Cooper wants to find Grace, figure out what Lucinda has up her sleeve, and avoid Hell. This is essentially the plot.

But what does Cooper REALLY want? Well, if I had Cooper lie down on my therapist's couch, he would reveal to me that what he really wants is to feel worth-while. That, in his previous life as a juvenile delinquent, he realizes he did wrong and that this new life is a way to finally get it right. So the theme of my book, if I had to summarize it in a word is REDEMPTION. Now redemption or forgiving ourselves for screwing up is something we've all dealt with so when a reader reads Cooper's story, they will see a bit of themselves.

So that's the difference between Plot and Theme in a nutshell. What do you think about this topic? Are you conscious of the distinction when you write your stories?


  1. A good basic thought here, Toni. Wouldn't it be nice if all writers had plot AND theme firmly in hand before sitting down to write? Thanks for bringing this up.

  2. Sometimes it takes a bit of wandering through the woods a while to figure it out I think. Being aware is certainly a good, first step.

  3. Leslie, who is one of our readers tried to post a question, but was unable to. I'm copying it here, along with my response.

    Toni, I am sorry...I could not figure out what to do to post on your blog - wordpress would not take neither...Please teach me what to do; I am so technically challenged except for what I absolutely need to do!

    The question I wanted to post based on your article is: what if I have basically two themes within my novel (forgiveness and acceptance). Would you think that circling around these two themes would be too complicated for a middle-grade novel?

    Thanks for any help!


    Here's my response:

    Hi Leslie,

    Don't worry. I'm pretty tech challenged myself :) Too bad you couldn't post the question because it's a good one.

    Years ago I read Elizabeth Kubler Ross's theory of the grieving process. I believe a person must come to accept the situation (after a period of denial) and then that leads to forgiveness (at least in the best case scenario). Since it's a process, forgiveness may take a while longer or it may come right away (sometimes not at all). I guess this depends on the individual. As for your story, I would keep your character in mind and their level of maturity. Also how dramatic the incident was. If it's a matter of someone stealing something from the young protag than she may be willing to readily accept and then forgive the transgression fairly quickly (especially if the item stolen wasn't all that important). However, if your character has had something very dear stolen from them, it might be harder for them to accept and then forgive.

    I don't know if this is answering your question exactly, but I think acceptance and forgiveness definitely go hand in hand. Just keep in mind who your character is and let her lead you.