Your Plot and Theme: Are They a Team?

We all know writing a book is no easy task. The reason it’s ultimately so tricky is that a novel must bring together about a gazillion little working pieces, which the author then has to somehow fit together, so they all start ticking together as a seamless whole. That’s like taking apart a Swiss watch and trying to juggle all the little gears. (Who says it ain’t rocket science, right?) The biggest of these pieces, which we have to make sure work together, are our plot and theme.

I recently watched the 1969 musical version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips—starring Peter O’Toole—which presented a really good example of what happens when your plot and theme are out of sync.

This is James Hilton’s classic story of the awkward young professor who, over the course of his life, evolves into a beloved headmaster at an English boys’ school—largely thanks to the vivacious influence of his wife Kathie. This adaptation opens and closes with that emphasis: in the beginning, Chips is frustrated and depressed because his students dislike him; in the end, he is overwhelmed with gratification to discover they’ve actually come to love him.

goodbye mr chips 1969 peter o'toole

Right there, you can see the character’s arc—and the basic heart of the movie. And yet, the plot—particularly in the first half—has nothing to do with Chips’s learning how to be a great teacher. The first half transforms his relationship with Kathie into something of a romantic comedy, with Kathie being the entirely unsuitable showgirl who falls for Chips and must adjust to his lifestyle.

Petula Clark Goodbye Mr Chips 1969

By the time the plot gets back to Chips being a teacher, the original foundation of theme and character development feel very out of sync.

Take a look at your story. Are the major occurrences in your plot advancing your character’s arc and your story’s theme? If not, you might want to consider switching out some of those Swiss watch gears you’re juggling.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What are your plot and theme–and how are they working together? Tell me in the comments!

Your Plot and Theme: Are They a Team?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. What an insightful commentary. And so direct, with a great example. It made me look across the novels I’ve written – a sort of flashback of the plot arcs – and now I shall review everything with a different eye. My WIP gives promise of fitting theme and plot firmly into character arc.
    I believe that an organic story will find the rightful shape. I also believe that we ought not to FORCE events into a story for the sake of cuteness, or drama, or merely to send a message to the reader. The example of the Mr Chips MUSICAL explains why I hated the movie without realising why. I loved the original movie that followed the novel quite closely, and fitted the marriage gently into the school scene without wandering off-theme. Indeed, it added to theme by showing how the wife fit herself into the school and endeared both herself and her husband to the students.
    .
    MY plot and MY theme? Over four historical novels following the career and personal life of a German officer, the theme is ‘Honour’. A strange idea if we think of a general in Hitler’s army. What was honourable about Nazism? A general who tried to find ways to remove Hitler – honourably. In all four novels I think the plot clings very closely to the theme of honour, so that by the time we end at Nuremberg in 1947, the circle closes back to the beginning, when, in the name of honour, a starry-eyed young Englishman joined the Kaiser’s cavalry to win his lady love.

    • Lyn, I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never taken the time to learn anything about your stories, despite connecting with you on LinkedIn, etc.

      Since I love WWII stories (don’t ask me why), I’m off to check out yours now.

      Actually, when thinking about whys, the reason may well be that the situations during WWII, particularly relating to the Nazis, give rise to so many moral and ethical conundrums for the individuals.

      • S.J. I think you may be right about potential readers turning aside from a story based upon a German army officer through two world wars. I wrote it because, having lived in Germany shortly after the war, I was introduced to the ‘other side’ – essentially ordinary German citizens – and realised that we are all the same under the skin, that honour drives all of us in different ways. When I met Frau Rommel – widow of the famous field marshal – the lesson was pounded home to me. Many years passed before I sat down to write a novel about it. It is the lesson in deep disguise: that we are all the same under the skin.
        I wish they would learn that in the Middle East today.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In regard to your original comment, Lyn: Yes, exactly. My feeling about this adaptation is that they were trying to do something *different* from the 1939 version–and it sadly back-fired. This movie had no business whatsoever being a musical, for one thing. :p

    • Maybe an interesting question is: Let’s suppose for a moment that we want to perceive honour in Nazism. Which of our basic assumptions, beliefs, premises would we have to change in order to do that? Can any movement have so many adherents and yet be entirely devoid of honour?

  2. Great example, K.M.

    I suspect it relates to sub-plots, too. I want to have a small sub-plot in which the protagonist’s brother is the main character, but I’m aware that my two plots must connect in ways that include themes, i.e., the themes must be related, right? Not necessarily identical, but related.

    In STAR WARS, Hans Solo’s plot mirrors the main plot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. The best stories–no matter how sprawling–are ultimately very tight and cohesive. Everything has to play a part and be there for a resonant reason.

  3. I understand your point, but again… we don’t want to spend an entire film watching a teacher relearn himself within a classroom or outside of it for that matter when the movie ultimately is about the classroom of life. Becoming a better person or best at something doesn’t necessarily have to be so pinpoint. The world around us, observation and integration essentially becomes the silent teacher and we are molded, changed by it. As the old saying and I’m paraphrasing here, “You’ll find love when you stop looking for it.” Just like when we are writing and get stuck. Stop forcing it. Move on to something else and by chance, by the muse, by whatever fate, what we put away somehow is created like clay in a kiln. To quote yet again… “Life finds a way.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Which is a good point. And other adaptations of this story have borne that out in a way that ties together the catalyst of Chips’s relationship with Kathie in a way that more pertinently affects his personal growth as a teacher. The Oscar-winning 1939 adaptation handles the melding of plot and theme much more fluidly.

      • But his personal life may not have that much to do with his life as a teacher. This happens in real life all the time. Yet, his personal life is part of his life and that’s what the story is about, after all.

        Just because it isn’t the way everyone would write a story doesn’t make it wrong. With this said, however, my druthers would be to sprinkle both parts of his life in an intermingled fashion. But that’s just me, not everyone.

  4. I have a problem but I’m working on it. This is my first novel and I was reading and learning about writing as I wrote. The beginning of my MC’s character arc was firmly established in the beginning of my book but then 150 pages in I learned that what I had done was 150 pages of backstory. I tossed that aside and chocked it up to learning about my MC. I carried on from the inciting event on my new page 1 and I am now 120 pages into the novel proper. I’m trying to sneak bits of history here and there that will give the two secondary characters an idea of what he has been through to establish the beginning of his arc.

    The other place I am having trouble with is the ending. How will the reader know that the MC as travelled along his arc? Do I have him say “I have learned to love myself and so now can love another. Love is worthwhile and not doomed to cause pain” OR do I just ‘show don’t tell’ and have him fall in love and drop a hint “I was afraid to love you but I am so happy we are together.” – and leave it at that. What if some readers don’t see the arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Show don’t tell is always preferable. Optimally, we need to create bookending characteristic moments: one at the beginning illustrating who the character is before changing, and a second at the end, contrasting that by showing how the protagonist has changed.

  5. Nice advice, as always! Thanks! Both indeed go hand in hand.

  6. My plot can be loosely summarized as: “MC is exposed to increasingly horrible stories until something gives.” Also, he tries to help but can’t.

    I’m not sure what the theme is:
    – “Anything you have can be lost in a moment.”
    – “Don’t worry about your sanity, it’ll drive you nuts.”
    – “The more you try to control things, the less things want to be controlled.”
    – “Foreign ways threaten Western ways.”

    • And, the MC’s arc goes from controlling to letting go.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The heart of the theme will always be found within the Lie the Character Believes. Flip the Lie on its head, and you usually have the theme in a nutshell.

      • The theme of ‘honour’ in my Schellendorf series of novels is the opposite of the “lie the character believes”. His personal and professional honour are what drives him against ironic, and often incredible, odds.
        But at the end, having been true to his own honour, he submits to the realisation that it has been in vain.
        Now. Have I just agreed to the premise that the theme is the “lie the character believes”?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I should specify here that when I talk about “the Lie the Character Believes,” I am perforce talking about *change* arcs (positive or negative). In a *flat* arc–which I would say Erich mostly follows–the character already understands and accepts the central Truth. He doesn’t need to overcome the Lie; rather he uses his Truth to transform the world around him.

  7. Surely ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ breaks all the rules, but was still published and made into a film?
    I can think of other examples too, so now I’m more confused than ever.

    • Anita, you are looking backward in your logic. The original book by James Hilton was a wonderful little novel about the life of a shy schoolmaster who, over the years, found his place in a long life of greatly influencing his students.
      You have to ask why the movie-maker of the Peter O’Toole musical would make such a horrible hash of a classic novel.
      The book has never been out of print.

    • By the way, Anita, when James Hilton was writing fiction, there WERE no rules. He was busy showing us how to do it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The book *does* break a lot of the rules. It’s almost wholly narrative for one thing, if I remember correctly. But it’s still a good story–and that’s the key–especially when you look at it within the era it was written.

  8. One thing I am actually 100% confident about in my WIP! *does a little Snoopy dance*

    Thank you for another wonderful post 🙂

  9. thomas h cullen says:

    Essentially, The Representative divides into two parts.. As a parent, Croyan’s most significant of experiences, and then his most significant of experiences as a Representative.

    Mariel’s Arbitration has “nothing to do” with trying to free a planet, but, what links the two (besides the desire to represent the best of Croyan’s life) is the demonstration of Croyan’s character:

    Whether if it’s a planet’s populace, or his own daughter, Croyan is someone who has the power to sacrifice himself “unconditionally” for others.

    For Stegna, it means the “erasure” of his life’s career record – and of his accumulated finances.. For his daughter, 15 years prior, his scheme to help her being exposed would’ve too meant the instant end of his career.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love “personal subplots.” When they’re done well they can bring a lot of depth and contrast to the main plot.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        The same applies to reality, as well.. I was in Llandudno recently (a popular seaside town in Wales), and while there repeatedly contemplated how powerful it would be, were that town to become all of reality! (Literally.. the Arcade venue, on the pier, transplanting the whole North American continent – or, the group of young people in the Pavilion bar transplanting the reality of the history of Norway.)

        Mariel’s Arbitration would always acquire more power, to any reader, once it becomes “fused” with the reality of planets – as lifeforms, our natural inclination for planets was how I knew to tell a planet story.

  10. I think my plot and theme are working together, My theme is revolved around good versus evil, friendship and learning how to deal with your challenges and learning how to overcome them. My plots are about a girl named Amelia and her adventures as the superhero StarGirl.

  11. Right before reading this blog post, I read an earlier blog of yours “Want a Powerful Theme for Your Novel? Play Devil’s Advocate!” and commented.
    However, one of my comments/questions probably more closely relates to this blog post… I mentioned that I was concerned that the plot of my current WIP didn’t illustrate my intended theme very well and wondered what I needed to do about that. Should I see what theme does emerge from my plot or just start over from the beginning and come up with a different plot that better illustrates my original theme?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The best way to make sure plot and theme are pulling together is to examine your story’s climax. Whatever Truth is being proven in the Climax is the story’s thematic premise. I wrote about this extensively in this recent post, which you might find helpful: 3 Steps to Find the Heart of Your Story.

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