Use Plot, Character, and Theme in Every Scene

How to Intertwine Plot, Character, and Theme in Every Scene

Use Plot, Character and Theme in Every Scene PinterestIf plot, character, and theme are the foundational underpinnings of story itself, then they must be present in every scene as well, right? But that gets tricky. How can you make sure these elements are doing their job in every scene? And if they’re not present in every scene, does that necessarily mean the scene is problematic?

That first question was put to me this week in an email from Dennis Tannenbaum. It immediately pinged my storytelling radar, because, frankly, it’s not something I’ve ever specifically considered on the scene level.

I talk all the time about how high-performing stories must be founded on the intertwined arcs of plot and character—with theme as the glue that holds them together. I also talk a lot about the balance of action and reaction on the micro level in proper scene structure. These two  subjects come together in the assumption that if we ace story structure and if we ace scene structure, everything else will come together on every other level.

Today, however, I want to dive down and take a closer look, not so much at scene structure, but at how the story should look down on the ground level, scene by scene.

1. Plot on the Scene Level

Plot is the external conflict that moves the story’s physical events. At it’s most basic, plot is what happens in the storyThe good guy fights the bad guy, gets the girl, hurrah, hurrah. That’s plot.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Cohesive plot is executed through application of story structure. There are many different perspectives and explanations of story structure, but all boil down to essentially the same thing: pursuit of a goal that arcs through the basic steps of Set-Up, Conflict, and Resolution. (I talk about this in-depth in my books Structuring Your Novel and its freebie “sequel” 5 Secrets of Story Structure).

This is the big picture of plot. But what about the little picture? What about plot on the scene level?

5 Secrets of Story StructurePlot is perhaps the easiest part of our story trifecta to double check on the scene level. Scenes are, essentially, mini stories of their own. As a result, they follow their own structural and emotional arcs. When properly constructed, they form the links that, in turn, construct the chain of the larger plot.

The best and simplest way to approach scene structure is to view every scene as requiring two halves to make a whole. You can think of these mates as any or all of the following:

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. SwainAlthough not omnipresent, my favorite remains Dwight V. Swain’s classic approach:

Part 1: Scene (Action)

a. Goal (character wants something on the scene level that will ultimately help him reach his overall plot goal—and he tries to get it)

b. Conflict (character is met with an obstacle to obtaining his goal)

c. Outcome (usually disastrous, in the sense that the character does not achieve the goal or achieves only part of it)

Part 2: Sequel (Reaction)

a. Reaction (character reacts to the outcome)

b. Dilemma (character must figure out how to overcome the new complications and still move forward toward his main plot goal)

c. Decision (character decides upon a new scene goal to cope with the new complications and move forward toward the main plot goal in a—hopefully—more effective way)

>>For an even more complete discussion of scene structure, see my series How to Structure Scenes in Your Story.

In plotting my own stories, I find this approach endlessly useful for the simple reason that it provides both consistent cause and effect and a continuous chain of scenes that all connect one to the other. The Decision at the end of one scene always leads seamlessly into the Goal in the next scene—ad infinitum.

But now we must ask the question: Does perfect scene structure automatically mean the plot is being perfectly executed on the scene level?

Yes, it’s a good rule of thumb. But, no, it’s not a guarantee. The guarantee comes into play when you can verify the following:

2. Character on the Scene Level

When we speak about “character” as part of the plot-character-theme trifecta of cohesive and resonant storytelling, we’re talking about many things.

We’re talking about presenting interesting and engaging characters who hold readers’ attention. We’re talking about developing characters into complexity that resonates within the plot and comments upon the theme. But most of all, we’re talking about character as the representative of the shadow side of the plot’s external conflict.

We’re talking about internal conflict.

Perhaps the single best way to approach and manage what we might call “the inner plot” is via the theory and structure of character arc.

Character arcs (which I talk about in my book Creating Character Arcs) come in many shapes and sizes—from classic Positive Change Arcs to tragic Negative Change Arcs to heroic Flat Arcs (in which the protagonist doesn’t personally change but rather positively changes the story world). Choosing the right arc for your story will have everything to do with plot. This is the first step to intertwining plot and character to the point that they cease being separate entities and instead become two sides of the same whole.

Once you’ve chosen an arc for your characters that integrates seamlessly with the plot, how do you make sure you’re executing it properly in every single scene?

Although this is a less logical and less straightforward process than applying scene structure to support the plot scene by scene, the answer is inherent in scene structure itself. Specifically, it is found in the emotional arc of a scene.

For plot and character to work together, the external and internal conflicts must impact and drive one another. What happens in the external plot must change the character, and what happens in the character’s internal conflict must impact the external plot. And this mutual impacting must happen in every scene.

Remember how I said the only way to make sure a scene is meaningfully incorporating the plot is to check whether that scene has changed the plot? Well, same goes for character.

Take a look at a recent scene. How has it changed your character?

Usually, the change will be subtle. If the change is too dramatic, the rapid evolution will either strain suspension of disbelief or end the conflict too quickly. Complete change—either internally or externally—signals the end of the story. Therefore, of course, it can’t happen until the end of the story.

Above, we talked about how you can view scene structure in terms of “Action>Lesson” and “Emotion>Opposite Emotion.” Both of these are keys to nailing down your character’s progression in any given scene.

Action>Lesson

It’s true that Action>Lesson can apply merely to the story’s external process: the character takes an action to implement the scene goal, runs afoul of conflict, and learns something new about how to enact the next goal with more success. However, this is also be a useful metric for gauging the character’s internal development on the scene level.

Ask yourself:

  • How have the events of this scene changed my character’s internal conflict?
  • What new information has the external conflict provided that gives the character insight into the thematic Truth and/or makes him uncomfortable with the Lie?
  • In order for the character’s actions to be more successful in the external conflict’s next scene, what internal adjustments must be made?

If the answer to any of these questions is vague, you’ve probably found a scene that hasn’t optimally integrated character development or advanced the character’s arc.

Emotion>Opposite Emotion

Occasionally, it will be appropriate to dramatize an obvious “lesson” for your character, as per the above approach. Most of the time these “lessons” need to be subtle even to the point of being subtext. Otherwise, they quickly become on-the-nose and start feeling moralistic.

So how do you change your character without being too obvious about it?

The answer is emotional arcs.

As you chart the external actions of a scene, make sure your character is internally arcing. Never end a scene on the same emotional note as the one on which is began. Use the events of the scene to change the character in an obvious emotional way. If she starts the scene happy, end sad. If she starts curious, end satisfied. If she starts depressed, end elated.

Needless to say, the emotions at either end of a scene’s spectrum must be organic to the story and must progress the plot. She can’t be depressed for no reason and end up happy in a way that doesn’t force external changes. Her depression at the beginning of Scene 2 must be the result of what happened in Scene 1, just as her happiness at the end of Scene 2 must set up consequences in Scene 3.

3. Theme on the Scene Level

Finally, we come to the ghost of our trifecta. Plot is the astronaut going to space, taking action, looking awesome, and getting things done. Character, meanwhile, is the astronomer, who both gleans understanding from the astronaut’s discoveries and uses that knowledge to help the astronaut achieve their goals.

Theme (to strain the metaphor a bit) is the secret agent. It works behind the scenes. Sometimes the powerful effect of the information it provides is clearly obvious. But sometimes it’s invisible in plain sight. To the naked eye, it seems like it’s in stealth mode most of the time.

But this simply ain’t true.

Theme is always there. Indeed, for a story to succeed in creating cohesion and resonance, theme must not only be present in every scene, it must be the guiding principle of every scene.

Ironically, theme is actually the easiest of the trifecta to implement on the scene level.

Why?

If you’ve already successfully intertwined plot and character to the point they’re crucially affecting each other in every scene—then you can be almost positive theme is already present as the glue holding them together.

Plot + Character = Theme Infographic

Put in its simplest terms, theme in a story’s unifying idea. It should be present in the premise itself and then spread out to every other aspect of the storyform. If a story has no unifying idea, then it’s in trouble on the ground level before you ever get to plot and character, much less their execution on the scene level.

Theme on the scene level is rarely as obvious as plot and character. Unlike plot which is the scene and character which provides the necessary engine that moves the scene, theme is often entirely subtext. It is present by implication.

For example, let’s say your theme is Love Conquers All. The concept of “love,” or its many variations or opposites, will probably only be mentioned in a handful of scenes—or perhaps not at all. But it should be the unifying idea that guides you in choosing each scene’s pertinent action. Specifically, theme will reveal itself in the character’s inner change and actions. Theme is whatever idea is “proven” as the Truth, via the character’s changing relationship to the Lie He Believes.

In other words, even if the character doesn’t realize it, what he’s seeking in every scene is the theme. The ways in which each scene’s plot changes the character is a direct advance toward or retreat from the story’s thematic Truth. If it is not, then you have to question whether that scene’s action and character development is actually contributing to the story’s overall cohesion and resonance.

The easiest way to double check this is to take a look at the “lesson” and “emotion” in the character section. Do they both relate in some way to the theme?

For example, if the theme is Love, the character’s “lesson” might be as ancillary as “I can’t achieve this specific goal without help,” while the “emotion” might be gratitude toward a friend who agrees to help or loneliness in the realization that he currently has no loyal friends.

Another actionable way to integrate theme onto the scene level is to look at ways to turn the character’s inner battle between Lie/Truth into an externalized moral or philosophical argument. If one of the obstacles in the external conflict is another character’s resistance to the protagonist’s belief in the way and the why of accomplishing the goal, then the plot itself becomes inherently thematic.

***

If you’ve already set up your story trifecta of plot, character, and theme on the macro level of your story, implementing it on the scene level becomes much easier. Optimally, it’s even instinctive, happening fluidly scene by scene as you pull together the pieces of the story into a seamless whole. Use this checklist to make sure every scene in your story is intertwining the most important aspects of your story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Are plot, character, and theme all present in your latest scene? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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. I cannot tell you how useful this post is! After two years of unravelling a woolly jumper (I think you would say sweater), I feel as if the jumper has been reknitted, washed and pressed. Thanks!

  2. Jason P. says:

    Katie, thank you for this post! This is a good way to help get past, for lack of better words, writer’s block, in scenes that aren’t working.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, much of what we call “writer’s block” is really just a problem that hasn’t found the right question yet.

  3. And let’s not forget, plot and character might be the same thing from the right perspective. The astronaut’s on his journey, and each scene is a change to some factor on how that mission will go… and it could be a change to that person’s attitude or knowledge, that makes him more aware of why he’s doing it or more blind to a danger ahead.

    One difference is that with character it can be enough to change a person in ways that don’t affect the mission, but do change the astronaut’s ability to follow the mission and also have a complete personality, past and future. We want to know what made him go into space, and what kind of person he’ll be if he gets home. (And sometimes that needs a scene’s sequel to move us from a change to settling on and confirming how he reacts to it.) The larger storyline isn’t the space mission, it’s “what’s it take to give an astronaut a happy ever after?” –and all of those often turn around and affect the mission too, of course.

    Then theme would be just keeping an eye on the largest picture of all. If the theme is exploration itself, the mission covers that, but only if plot and character are presented in terms of the joys and the costs of space flight. (“To boldly go” has less punch if we don’t see the inherent reasons that *not* going might be better.) But if it’s love conquers all, then the fiance back home –or family, or the fellowship of the mission crew– has to keep being the deciding factor in what gets them through the mission and what makes it worth it.

    It all centers around that mission, but it spreads out from there. And if it doesn’t change, it’s not really a scene.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, ideally, all three are intertwined so integrally they’re hard to separate.

  4. A lot here is about tying parts into the whole which, in my words, make every part make sense overall. It essentially gives each part meaning in relation to the whole not just there for the sake of it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally. That’s the secret to writing cohesion and resonance. Everything contributes to everything.

  5. Larry Keeton says:

    Terrific post. One of the best summaries and checklists for checking scenes I’ve seen on the web. And, it helped me refresh the lessons learned from reading Writing Deep Scenes: Plotting Your Story Through Action, Emotion, and Theme by Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld. Great job.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Stories are so easily derailed at the scene level. Checking ourselves there, scene by scene, is a great proactive process.

  6. Did you study under Deborah Chester?

  7. I appreciate your practical writing advice. Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge. I teach THEME in my class as the moral of the story. In Ohio, our teaching standards define it in this way, but I liked how you married plot and character to it. Writers don’t often consider the interconnection of these elements probably because for some, it occurs naturally. Based upon your thoughts/ideas, writers should be more intentional about lining them up and remaining consistent.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although theme often *is* extractable as the “moral of the story,” I prefer to look at it more organically. If that’s all theme is, then it can quickly end up becoming moralistic and on-the-nose.

  8. I didn’t realize all this was so important in every scene, but now that I’ve read the post, I see what you mean. I’ll have to remember all of this in my next novel!

  9. Billie Wade says:

    Katie, thank you for this valuable post. I’ve tended to think of theme as something I’d figure out as I went along, that it would, somehow, emerge on its own. Making it an integral part of every scene helps each scene stay on course.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yay! That makes me happy. I view theme as the central factor in any story, so it’s scary that so many writing gurus want to relegate to the back burner. 😉

  10. Katie, you’re giving us pearls here. Really helpful, particularly as I’m plotting my current book. In my outlines, I note character and theme in each scene. When I did this with my first book, I found that character often dictated the plot when I looked at it that way. If I made sure character/plot/theme were all aligned, the story almost wrote itself. The one thing I wasn’t checking for was the emotional arc by scene, which I’ll be adding into my outline. You also make a great point–in not these exact words–that if your theme isn’t congruent with your protagonist’s arc on the macro level of your story, it’ll be very hard to write a book that works. On that note, the last several books (bestsellers) I’ve read have had themes that were so obvious and timeworn. Four hundred pages of story just to make a point everyone agrees with. This drives me nuts. I know you have posts about choosing strong themes, or choosing your theme carefully, because it can so easily make or break your whole story. Give me something timely, teach me something, make me look at something a new way, make me think/decide, say something controversial, but for crying out loud don’t let the moral of your story be something everyone already knows. Even when some writers incorporate theme properly, their stories still underwhelm because their theme was weak or stale. Sorry, off-topic rant. Thanks for the post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Brilliant! Actually, I’m going to mull on this. I may have enough thoughts on this to do another post.

  11. Wow! What a handy and insightful treatment. I’ve been banging away with my hammer; you just handed me a screwdriver. I really appreciate it, even thought it means I have a lot of rewriting to do.

    On that note, how do you physically track the interplay of theme, character arc, and plot, as you’re planning and writing? Feel free to point me to a post or a book, if you’ve already answered it there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      For me, the interplay is more of an instinctual thing. I’m always aware of it, especially on the big-picture level, and it’s the first thing I look at if I sense something is off. But I don’t specifically chart it scene by scene.

  12. Thank you! This is so useful.

    I need to be reminded over and over about the scene (goal/conflict/outcome) and sequel (reaction/dilemma/decision) stuff.

    It helps so much to keep this in mind when outlining & prewriting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, this is the kind of thing I focus on heavily in scene outlining. If I do my job then, I don’t have to worry about it so specifically when drafting.

  13. David Franklin says:

    This was really helpful. Thanks, Katie. The notion of checking every scene for some evidence of the theme is an excellent actionable that I can use going forward. I think everything I’ve written on my previous novel and the WIP, a sequel, bear up. But now I can check. 🙂

  14. Very helpful. I have been trying the scene-sequel approach for plotting my current ms and you have added more insight toward this technique.
    Thank you for posting.

Trackbacks

  1. […] are the building blocks of story structure. K.M. Weiland shows how to intertwine plot, character, and theme in every scene; Rebecca Monterusso gives us what it means to write a scene that works, and Janice Hardy has tips […]

Speak Your Mind

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.