plot and theme header

What Is the Relationship Between Plot and Theme?

plot and themeSometimes 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.

Pride and Prejudice 2005 Elizabeth and Darcy Pemberley

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.

Once an Eagle by Anton MyrerFor 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.

Wuthering Heights BBC Tom Hardy Charlotte Riley Heathcliff Cathy Linton

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.

***

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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. For me theme and plot working symbiotically has been hit or miss. And when it was a miss, I didn’t know how to fix the relationship. Because I didn’t know what the relationship was supposed to look like. Not really.

    Now I feel like I have a clear picture and that is super empowering. Thank you, thank you!

  2. Lila Diller says:

    I’m not sure why, but plot has always been the hardest part of these 3. I usually prefer character-driven stories that revolve around a theme. But I often struggle with showing cause and effect within every scene.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I find it valuable to avoid thinking about stories as either “plot-driven” OR “character-driven.” Both elements are always present, since plot is created by a character’s actions. The biggest difference is simply that so-called “character” stories spend more time within a character’s interiority, which often means weighting scene structure toward the reaction “sequel” half over the action “scene” half.

  3. Thank you for this valuable information. Will be using it often in my future writing. (wish I could go back and re-vamp some prior books!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You know what they say–a book is never finished until it’s published. And even that is negotiable these days!

  4. Usvaldo de Leon says:

    Question 3 is great and on point. This question has been nagging me throughout my WIP: why is the MC winking in and out of existence NOW? As opposed to 10 years ago or 5 years from now? Obviously it reflects an internal dissatisfaction with their situation I have not fully plumbed yet. So excuse me while I go plumbing.

  5. Thank you for making this much clearer. I’m nearing the end of my rewries of my latest wip, but I suspect I’ll now reread and rewrite it again in view of this, and evaluate it scene by scene.

  6. Interesting 🙂
    “When a Theme meets a Plot” there definitely will start a “love” Story as the one of a woman aspiring for true love and a man of upright actions.
    But if the undesirable outcomes you mentioned are a high risk and between theme and plot can emerge a distance big enough as between a poor woman and a rich man, in what ways you writers manage to avoid discrepancies? Isn’t it possible to avoid them only by challenging plot with/through theme and vice versa?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Plot provides us an arena to experiment with and dramatize all of the potential outcomes of different approaches people may take to the thematic question.

  7. Hello K.M.,

    I’ve been thoroughly enjoying your series on the marriage of character/plot/theme. It made me feel like I am on the right track. But my question goes to: how does one do it so seems natural and not overt? I’ve been writing more screenplays than novels lately, so I’m looking for ways to “show” and not “tell” the reader/viewer that “this is the plot and it has a direct relationship to the theme of this story, which affects the character arc in this way…”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s a skill that requires a lot of experience. :p I haven’t yet mastered it myself. But what it comes down to is the art of showing instead of telling. Readers won’t need theme spelled out for them if the actions of the story carry it powerfully.

  8. “The result is an erratic story that, at best, presents two different themes.” So, I’ve been thinking lately, can a story have several themes? One major theme and a couple of subthemes? In one of the previous posts you compared fiction writing with music. Musical pieces often do have more than one theme.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In music, I believe this is what is called a “variation on the theme.” In other words, what may seem like multiple varied themes come together seamlessly in support of a unified whole. Arguably, it’s impossible to deeply explore any theme without touching upon many truths. As long as they all align in support of the story’s Climactic Moment, that’s all to the good.

      • Thanks, that makes sense! In my WIP, I have defined the thematic premise (is it the correct term?) as “being true to your nature leads to happiness.” If some-one asks what the book is about I would also add freedom, responsibility, love, morality, living in a bubble vs living in the real world. All very broad concepts that hopefully come together in the climatic moment.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Truth is all-encompassing, so it makes sense that any “small” truth presented in any thematic premise will necessarily touch on many other facets of the larger Truth. Have fun!

  9. Jack Bannon says:

    Does the inner lie the character believes have to be enunciated prior to his coming to grips with it? In my recently completed manuscript (may I not edit it forever), my main character uses hate and anger to find his courage, a problem that worries him and one he discusses with his mentor. I didn’t put it into the manuscript prior to his confrontation with them because I feel that hate and anger are so universally despised that people tend to forget why they were created in the first place, and never think that there is a proper place for them in life. Thank you and I’ve been enjoying your series on plot, theme, character and story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Do they need to be explicitly referenced? No. But their presence in and effect upon the character’s life should be dramatized.

  10. I’ll be using this for moral support.

    My wip is theme-driven and my primary critique partner is plot-focused. It works well except for all the times he tells me to build on a potential source of conflict that has nothing to do with the theme. In these situations I’ve usually doubled-down on my plot-line to show (not tell) my readers why my characters are choosing one conflict over another. The problem is that the process inevitably knocks my confidence in my story even if it eventually makes it the story stronger.

    I also provide critiques for my critique partner. So far I’ve never been able to persuade him that his plot is too chaotic to create a strong theme and that he needs to consider structure and theme at some point in the writing process. (It feels like he influences my writing far more than I influence his. At this stage he is still rejecting the notion that he needs to learn about story structure and themes even if he decides not to follow the guidelines.)

    I suspect he thinks I lack imagination. I think his writing lacks structure and focus. Both of us dig in and I suspect both of us sometimes feel overwhelmed by the implied negativity of the feedback.

    Sorry to whinge. It does make me feel better to have your blogs so I can better understand myself and the conflicts I have with my critique partners even if it doesn’t resolve the essential conflict. Thanks, Katie.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If the two of you can learn to see the diamonds in your differences, you will each be a great blessing to each other. I tremendously value critique partners who are able to recognize and emphasize aspects of story that do not come naturally to me. But it is important that the one doing the critiquing understand the writer’s vision for the story.

    • I find my test readers can generally point out my problem areas even if they rarely suggest the right solutions. However, even if they propose an incorrect solution, I frequently find the answer I need through determining _why_ their solution is incorrect. Usually it’s a matter of clarifying theme (often through clarifying character motivation)

      Having a reader with such a mismatch in approach to story may be frustrating, but by working through this process I bet you’re going to get really good at crafting your stories.

      As far as structure vs creativity. I think of structure as a series of questions to ask about your story–sort of story therapy. By considering those questions, I believe it _improves_ the story’s creativity and reduces the chance of simply falling back on cliche’s and common tropes.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        This is very true. Even if someone’s suggested solution is off-base, the very fact that they’re suggested one usually means *something.* It’s up to the writer to figure out what.

      • Jenny North says:

        This reminds me of the Neil Gaiman quote: “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

  11. Gloria Milyard says:

    How wonderful as a new writer, your questions are answered so simply! Thank you!

  12. Plot and theme can get so darn confusing! You made it super easy to understand and I really appreciate it.

  13. Maria Vesterli says:

    This little series about theme has me really wanting to see the disney movie Moana again. (I am, admittedly, a little disappointed that it isn’t in the story structure database.) It is a story about finding oneself, and every part speaks to that theme. Character, plot, structural beats… admittedly to varying degrees, but (nearly) always speaking to the theme on some level. Now that I know more about the topic, I really want to look at it again to see what I can learn from it.

    I also REALLY want to see it in the database because I adore this movie, but I would understand it not being your priority

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I have to admit I haven’t seen Moana. I’ve heard some pretty good things about it, but most of the animated films these days just don’t attract me. If I ever do see it, I’ll be sure to add it!

  14. I have some questions about theme over a series of books.

    Does the series itself have a theme that is then reflected in each book or can each book have its own separate theme?

    And then if each book can have a separate theme, how does this tie in with the series theme?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A series that is telling an overarching story should have a united thematic premise, although each of the individual books can be used to explore nuanced aspects. Even in a series in which the books are standalone episodes, there should be at least a coherent thematic tone. If the series starts out exploring dark stuff, you’re probably not going to want to switch to a theme of joy and generosity halfway through.

  15. Joan Kessler says:

    Point 2 is just what I needed to read today. I’ve been stuck in one corner of the triangle, but looking to the other two corners has opened up a solution. Thank you!

  16. I liked your comments on Pride and Prejudice, theme, followed by falling in love, plot. It made the difference between theme and plot so clear to me.

  17. Jenny North says:

    Star Trek II was on cable the other day and it hit me that by objective standards it really shouldn’t have been a very good movie. Khan is hardly the most complex of villains, it’s basically a linear revenge plot, and the stakes by Star Trek standards are actually kind of low…it’s not like the fate of Earth is on the line.

    However, it really redeems itself by knocking it out of the park on its theme of aging and sacrifice, and worrying about being too old to make a difference. Almost every choice in every scene reinforces the theme. Kirk frets over his birthday, and Spock’s present symbolizes noble sacrifice, where the glasses McCoy gives him symbolizes aging. Kirk learns he has a son and fumbles with what that means to him. The McGuffin of Genesis is literally about sacrificing a world to see it reborn. Khan is willing to sacrifice himself and everyone he loves in the pursuit of hollow vengeance; Spock sacrifices himself to save the ones he loves.

    The theme in the movie was like a magnet that drew everything towards it. I feel like the theme really saved the day!

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  1. […] Hanna suggests letting your antagonist drive the plot in the saggy middle, K.M. Weiland untangles the relationship between plot and theme, and Janice Hardy explains why the word “conflict” frustrates so many […]

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