Sometimes plot and theme are confused as being basically the same thing. Other times, they’re viewed as so distinct they don’t even belong in the same discussion.
So which is it?
First questions first: is plot basically the same thing as theme? To some degree, the answer is yes. Or, at least, intuitive phrasing often links them.
Let’s consider, for example, Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. One way of summing up this novel is as follows:
A poor woman and a rich man improbably fall in love.
Plot or theme?
If you’ve been following our informal series of posts exploring the various aspects of theme, then you probably already know the answer. What this premise reveals about Pride & Prejudice is plot. How do we know? Because what’s described is all external action; it tells what happens in the characters’ world. Even in a romance or social novel, in which much of the “action” is confined primarily to verbal exchanges or even to just the characters’ thoughts and emotions, we know we’re dealing with plot when we’re dealing with anything that references a linear progression of events or realizations.
The theme of Pride & Prejudice, of course, is obvious, since Austen spelled it out in the title.
Now consider another proposed premise for Pride & Prejudice, and tell me if this one is about plot or theme:
A poor woman and a rich man are able fall in love only after overcoming their mutual prides and prejudices.
It’s both, right?
And this is where we find that inherent link between plot and theme.
Plot and theme are not the same thing. As already discussed, theme is an abstract argument (moral or existential) that proposes a truth about reality. But without plot, theme is nothing but an idea. It’s a theory to perhaps be discussed over coffee with friends or colleagues. But it’s a not a story.
A story is what you get when a theme meets a plot. In our second premise, we see how vital one is to the other. The plot (“falling in love”) provides the exterior action that proves (or disproves) the theme’s proposed argument (“pride and prejudice are both roadblocks to meaningful romantic relationships”). In turn, the theme provides a why to the plot’s how.
Plot and theme are neither identical, nor segregated. Rather, plot joins theme and character as the third and most visible of any of storyform’s Big Three. Plot is the load-bearer of the partnership. Not only must it produce a story experience that is both convincing and entertaining, it must also take on the substantial weight of providing the characters with the external conflict that will force them to engage with theme.
Plot Should Always Be About Theme
What’s a story about? That’s an extremely broad question. As we talked about last week, the answer any given person provides might be variously plot-, character-, or theme-centric. But as we’ve also talked about before, the true answer is always theme. What this means for writers at its most practical level is that what your plot is about is theme.
Plot and theme must be linked at such a granular level that it becomes difficult to describe the specifics of one without at least hinting at the specifics of the other.
Or put another way: plot and theme will be linked, whether you plan it or not.
The decisions your characters make and the actions they perform will always comment on reality in some way. When a character gets away with murder—or falls in love at first sight—or becomes a conscientious objector—or succumbs to alcoholism—all of their stories will inevitably say something about how reality is or at least how the author thinks it should be.
Your story will say these things whether you plan it or not, whether you even recognize it or not. Sometimes these oblivious breathings of our subconscious minds provide the most seamless and powerful themes of all. But even more often, an author’s lack of awareness about his plot’s message will lead him to one or both of two undesirable outcomes:
1. The plot ends up “proving” something the writer never intended.
2. The writer unintentionally proves one thing via the plot, while consciously trying to prove another thing through a pasted-on theme that isn’t actually borne out by the story’s events.
The former can arise from the author’s over-reliance on plot conventions. Instead of searching out honest answers from within herself, the author just reaches for the same old familiar stand-by she’s seen in a hundred other shoot-em-ups or romances. As readers or viewers, we’ve all experienced these stories—the ones that expect us to believe the good guys did the right thing just because they’re the good guys or that the romantic leads fell deeply and lastingly in love just because they’re young and hot and had a meet-cute.
In contrast, the latter arises from the author’s good intentions but poor understanding of what his story was really about. He intended one theme, but failed to realize the events created in the plot were actually speaking to another thematic argument altogether. The result is an erratic story that, at best, presents two different themes. At worst, it fails in its presentation of both.
5 Questions to Align Plot and Theme
Creating a fully-formed story with a mutual plot and theme is one of the highest aspirations of any writer. Doing so requires skill, and that skill requires awareness. Following are five crucial questions you can use to gut-check yourself about whether or not you’ve married your theme to the right plot—and vice versa.
1. Why This Plot? Why This Theme?
Two questions for the price of one—because, seriously, this is probably the most important query you can make in examining your story’s effectiveness. Why must your character endure this particular plot in order to learn this particular theme? If there is no obvious connection, then either the plot or the theme is the wrong choice.
2. Does This Plot Facilitate a Character Arc That Proves Your Theme?
Your story inspiration may originate with any of the Big Three, but assuming for the moment that it originated with theme, you need to bring your investigation full circle. The theme must be proven within the character arc (via the Lie/Truth debate at the heart of the character’s inner conflict), and that character arc must alternatively cause or be caused by the plot. For the storyform to work, all three must be linked.
You can, of course, proceed with this same investigation no matter which of the Big Three is your entry point. If you’re starting with a plot idea (or if you’ve already finished your first draft), ask yourself just what the events of this plot—and your character’s journey through it—is saying about reality.
Or, if you’re starting with character, you can find the Lie/Truth at the heart of her arc and then circle around to find a plot to prove that specific theme.
Very often, when you are struck with an idea for one of the Big Three, you’ll get simultaneous ideas for one or both of the remaining two. Just make sure you’re not taking any one of them for granted.
3. Can Your Plot’s External Conflict Be a Metaphor for the Character’s Internal Conflict?
We already know theme and character arc are inherently linked. From there, one of the single best ways to get your head around the further symbiosis of plot and character is to think of the story’s external conflict as a metaphor for the inner conflict.
For instance, if the character is working through beliefs about pacifism, the appropriate external and visual metaphor for this conflict will very likely be a theater of war (or a century of wars, as in Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle).
Or perhaps your character is arcing negatively into the degradation of deeper Lies, as in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, in which the antihero Heathcliff spends the second half of the book inflicting upon his enemies a grotesque reconstruction of his own childhood humiliations.
4. How Do the External Changes of Your Plot Catalyze Your Character’s Inner Changes?
For a storyform to work properly, the outer and inner conflicts must mirror one another. More than that, they must act upon one another. Every beat of the external plot must create enough inner turmoil that the character’s arc inevitably advances. And for every beat in the internal arc, the character’s changing mindset and motivation must be turned outward to actively affect the exterior events of the plot. Only through this interweaving of outer and inner causes and effects can a consistent theme be fully realized.
Proper scene structure can be a great aid in harmonizing the inner and outer conflicts. Although the entire structural sequence can apply fully to either the outer conflict or the inner conflict, usually it’s helpful to view the first half the structure (Scene: Goal > Conflict > Disaster) as active in the external conflict, and the second half (Sequel: Reaction > Dilemma > Decision) as the internal reaction that will, in turn, roll back around to impact the external conflict in the next Scene.
5. Have You Vetted the Thematic Pertinence of Every Scene?
A story is the sum of its scenes. Remember our example, above, of the author who wanted to write one theme but ended up with a plot that proved a different theme altogether? Very likely, the problem lay less in the overall plot than in a few individual scenes that got away from the author.
Consider every scene in your story. Just as each and every scene should sequentially advance plot via its external conflict, each and every scene should also be active in its service to the theme. It’s not enough to ask yourself, at the end of the book: What is this story saying? You must ask that question of every scene: What is this scene saying?
If the scene is saying something tangential to the thematic premise or, worse, at odds with it, you must reevaluate the scene’s effectiveness at every level. Like a mosaic, all your many different scenes must eventually combine to produce a meaningful big picture.
This is what I call “thematic economy.” If the scene in question doesn’t tell something crucial about the theme(s) and the character’s relation to said theme(s), then it either needs to be reworked or expunged in service of the tale’s potency.
Quality matters more than quantity.
— Michel Sabbagh (@Watfen64) March 1, 2019
A story that is about theme is a story that has found its theme deep within its characters and used that theme to, in turn, create its plot. When an author can pull this off, story’s Big Three become integral to each other in a way that presents a powerful and compelling visual metaphor for even the most deeply personal and relatable moral quandaries.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How have you harmonized plot and theme in your story? Tell me in the comments!
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