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From Theme to Plot

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Yora, Oct 5, 2019.

  1. Yora

    Yora Sage

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    When I am thinking about stories that I really enjoyed or found to be impactful, I am primarily thinking about the themes they revolve around.
    And when I am pondering my own idea about what kinds of stories I would find worth writing, I don't have any interesting villains that need to be stopped, or original disasters that have to be prevented. Instead, my ideas are about themes and situations that are still interesting to explore.

    But a theme is not a story. A plot makes a story. Things are happening, people are doing things. And I always found it very hard to come up with plots that reflect the themes that I find interesting. People often say that everyone has stories to tell, but I can never think of any.

    Do you have any way by which you go from an idea for something to write about to having the basics of a story?
     
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  2. You've probably read that theme is often something that's revealed to writers from within the story as it's being written.

    I find this to be very true.

    I don't think I've ever created a story around a theme. Instead, I find a story idea that interests me, or a character, or an idea for a situation and I write it. Often, but not always, a theme will become evident as I go along. I think it is possible to do it the other way around, to have a theme you want to set a story up to explore, but I think it lends itself to the risk of being too transparent in a lot of attempts and takes an expert wordsmith to craft a story that isn't screaming at the reader. "HERE'S MY AWESOME THEME!!".

    Plots, the day to day unfolding of the events of the story, don't necessarily need to reflect your themes at the onset. A story about a character working in a mining colony on a distant asteroid and struggling to make ends meet can be a canvas for any number of larger themes once the story gets going. Are they a single parent trying to do right by a developmentally challenged kid? Were they rejected by their family for some societal reason that spurred them to volunteer for the work? Is it a penal colony and they are paying a debt for past transgressions? Or are they more like Allie Sheedy in The Breakfast Club who went to detention because she didn't have anything better to do and doesn't fit in?

    So my advice, because I believe stories should be told, is to just write them and let them tell YOU what the theme is. At the very least, they'll help you make your way towards the theme you want to write about but don't let the lack of a full fledged story idea, or connected-to-theme plot at the start, keep you from getting going! All throughout you'll find ways to refer back to the theme in the edits and rewrites. Don't worry so much about that up front.

    I've never come to a great idea while waiting for a great idea to arise. I've only gotten there by jumping in and letting the current lead me where I needed to go. Only when I am actively willing to meet it halfway does it appear. In other words. Write!

    And then, don't be attached to what you're writing. I've set aside stories halfway through because I suddenly had a better idea come along or I've changed the entire internal workings of a story at some point to direct it somewhere else, a direction that only became apparent once I had begun the writing.

    All stories are worth telling. All stories are malleable and they whisper of things not told the page. All stories have the potential for multiple themes and, even if you nail it, you can bet that half your readers won't get the thing from it you thought or hoped they would. But they might end up showing you a side to it you never saw. :)

    Best of luck Yora!
     
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  3. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Anything can work as a starting point, but I think it's hard to answer this without knowing more about what you see as a theme that you have as a starting point. Can you tell us more about the sense of theme you've got in mind?
     
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I'll echo Devor. Insufficient data for meaningful answer. It may be that you're speaking more of an idea than a theme, but see previous sentence.
     
  5. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Hmmmmmmm, this is the way I think about it:

    Usually my plot is based off of a character arc, which IS the theme. I can't have one without the other. So when I think of a story idea it comes to me as an "aha" moment for a character:

    A mom realizes her son is growing up and she can't hold on to him anymore. She has to let him go.

    A boy realizes there is nothing left for him in his childhood home. It is time to move on and grow up.

    An old women with dementia remembers how to play the piano, and this is how she learns to communicate with her autistic granddaughter.

    A girl who thought she hated her dad realizes she would do anything to rescue him from an evil foe.


    Once I have my character arc (my point of change, or point of realization) then I have my basic plot outline, but also my theme.

    It can be something HUGE:

    A Hobbit goes on an adventure to save his Shire, only to realize after the adventure he no longer belongs in that quiet life.

    Or something tiny:

    A little girl learns not to go into stranger's houses when she accidentally takes advantage of three hungry bears.


    This means playing around with loglines (like the ones above) until I have both at the same time (a plot that feeds the theme, and a theme that reflects the plot).
     
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2019
  6. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Yes, this is part of how I see the theme as well. At the very least a consistent personality and character arc will create a theme on its own. And the next step would be to put other characters in similar situations to explore different approaches and outcomes on the same theme. But there are other ways to develop a theme - or to go beyond theme, depending on how you want to define the words - as well as shift the focus towards having a larger effect on the readers' attitudes towards the themes, going full "literary" with it, so to speak.
     
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I see theme less as a logline and more as a concept or a ... well, a theme -- power, friendship, courage, love. Those are themes. Each would be more detailed for a particular novel. For example, what happens when love and friendship are in conflict? Where is the line between courage and recklessness? Power can be used for good yet cause evil; power can be used for evil yet good results. Blue skies are blue skies and white mountains are white mountains. No, wait, that's a koan.

    FTR, I think it's remarkable you can start a project with a logline. For me, the logline comes only after many hours of working not on the logline but on the story itself. Haystacks and needles provide an apt metaphor here, if you add in a blind man wearing gloves searching in the rain.
     
  8. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Yes. This is something to be aware of, for sure. A novel that is purely a theme.... THIS IS THE THEME is an essay, not a novel. The great literary novels purposely don't have a thesis that starts at A and ends at a logical conclusion of Z. They SHOW various character's struggling with different aspects of a similar theme and coming to different conclusions, or lessons. This is why side characters are so important.

    Setting can also be used to illustrate theme, even being used as "character" itself. If the setting changes by the end of the story... either physically (the characters make it better, or worse, or prettier, or uglier, or they move away all together), or psychologically (the character now sees the setting in a new way, like Frodo) then it could reiterate the theme.
     
  9. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    It's not so much that I start with a logline... but I do start with an emotion. I might be driving in my car with my daughter in the backseat and pull over to get gas. Then, I might think, "What if someone took my car right now, with my daughter in the back?"

    Then, I might get an image of a woman, a criminal, maybe a murder (who did she kill, her husband? her boyfriend?) trying to escape the scene of a crime, and she finds a vehicle open at a gas station with the keys inside, and she takes it as her getaway, planning to drive to Mexico. Frazzled. Afraid. And ten minutes later hears sounds in the backseat. There is a baby back there. What does she do? Choices race through her mind. Does she dump it on the side of the road? Does she turn it in somewhere and risk being caught? She decides to sleep on it. Make a choice in the morning. She risks being seen at a gas station to buy formula. She ends up spending time with it. Looking after it... it changes her. She reflects on her own childhood. Her own mother... how she wishes things could have been different....

    There. I have my emotional moment.

    A criminal is forced to spend time with an infant, and reflect on her own childhood, deciding to change the path she has chosen for herself.

    Now I can start my story. I don't have a concrete theme, but I have a "feeling" to explore. Who else can I have consider the same sorts of things? Well, I could show scenes of the desperate mother, who lost her baby and conducts a search to get it back... what would she learn, through this process? What feelings would she have, about her own childhood, her parents? How would her views on parenting change with her older kids, knowing, now, that her youngest might never be found? Who else would be affected? A police officer, perhaps? What about his relationship with his family? What would that look like as he conducted this investigation?

    *Edit: I don't write all these stories I think up.I need a strong character voice in my head before I can start anything. But these epiphanies of emotional moments happen to me a good twenty times a day. I write them down incase they ever turn into anything, but I only use the ones that give me a strong POV. Sometimes I get other ideas, like "What if we used radioactive desert glass as an energy source?" But those ideas have no emotional moment, so they don't start stories for me, either.
     
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2019
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  10. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I read an article on this a long while ago that described literary works as using "postcards" instead of "scenes." That postcard word is a little clunky for me, but the point was that, in a commercial work, bad things happen to motivate the character to overcome them, leading to a satisfying conclusion. In a literary work, under this postcard lens, bad things happen, and the character ultimately can only accept them, with the purpose of leaving that unsatisfied motivation in the reader.

    It's a little unwieldy as sort of a fault line distinction, but for discussion purposes, I think it's something to consider at times if you're shooting for more of a high-theme angle in a story.
     
  11. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Also, when I was in college, we took a course called writing the essay, about writing essays that develop an idea. The basic premise was, you start your essay with a simple idea statement. "Life is hard," or whatever. And throughout the essay, as you bring in new pieces of evidence (or, in a story, as new events occur throughout), your idea statement changes ever so slightly, until by the end it's a more complex thought. "Life is hard, but if you endure it past the breaking point, perhaps you'll find those moments of peace and joy are more powerful than the hardship." If you view a story this way, you can develop a more deliberate message behind your character arc.
     
  12. Yora

    Yora Sage

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    You mean starting with a statement and then trying to come up with an example that might support it, and then successively elaborating on it and fleshing it out? That certainly sounds like an interesting approach. I will think about that.

    When I think about what things I would love to see in stories and that I should have great potential for interesting tales, those that come to my mind are things like "realizing your own limitations lets you reach your full potential", "good intentions with unrestrained ambition are the source of great horrors", or "accept your losses instead of sacrificing what you have left in vain".
    I think these ideas can be quite well described as themes of Pride, Greed and Humility or The Irrelevance of People in the Big Picture of Existence. I know that these are things that fascinate and interest me, and that always make me happy when I spot aspects of them in other works. But I also know that those aren't stories. Plots are stories.
    Once I have a basic outline for a plot, I can develop it further under the perspective of whether the various plot points would support these themes or contradict them. But you still need to start with a plot. And I am always drawing blanks. "Hero goes to defeat a villain." Well, that already seems to be more contradicting than supporting. "Demons invade to kill everything." That doesn't sound like something where the answer is to stand back and try for deescalation. And that's about my whole catalog of generic fantasy plots. There is no level more abstract below that.
     
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  13. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Hmmmmmmm,,,,, Okay, well what if you said, "One thing I know to be absolutely true is the one should accept your losses instead of sacrificing what you have left in vain".

    And I said, "I don't agree. I think that one should be willing to sacrifice anything in order to achieve a goal. In the words of William Blake, those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained."

    And you say, "I don't think people who know when to quit are weak. I think it takes great strength to know when to stop. I stand by my philosophy."

    and I say, "Give me an example of when that philosophy would work. Can you give me a concrete example?"

    What would you say?

    "Sure... lets pretend there is this guy who........ " What?
     
  14. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Or.... if you wanted to go much deeper, instead of proving your philosophy, you could simply "explore" the choice. All in? OR know when to quit?

    You could brainstorm some characters who might find themselves in that sort of situation, and show the conflicting emotions around the choice.

    An army general, faced with an unbeatable foe, must make a choice to either send in his last troop, or disobey orders and retreat.

    So much to

    A man addicted to illegal drag rag racing's wife tells him if he does one last race (the most important in his career), she will leave him. Does he do it? Or does he quit in order to save his marriage?

    A painter wants to see his art in the most famous gallery in France. Will he sell his soul to the Devil to make that happen? Or can he settle for always being second best?

    Etc, etc... the list is endless. Brainstorm scenarios until you settle on one that "speaks to you." Then, you could start adding in sub-characters who feed that theme.
     
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2019
  15. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I'm probably going to echo what others have said here already but it really depends on what kind of theme your using. I find overarching themes are most useful to a writer when they are used as questions that the writer must then try to find an answer to than a point that the writer is trying to convey to a reader. I find general one-word themes like "friendship" or "faith" not to be a whole lot of help when trying to get a plot going. Like, ask yourself: what about "friendship" is interesting or unknown to you? What aspect of that concept do you want to explore?

    From there, as Heliotrope elaborated earlier, I tend to get into character arcs. In the story I'm working on now (which is the first time I've been working with specific themes to any great extent in a long-form story), I started each with the general theme of moving past bad habits and maturing into a better person after being involved in some bad stuff you shouldn't be involved in. I actually started this story as a way to preoccupy myself after I quit smoking so the idea of leaving bad habits was very fresh in my mind. It's a theme that I'm genuinely passionate about whether than something I find mildly interesting or dramatic or that I think will make for a "cool" story.

    So, my main character is a hedonistic, drug addicted former criminal. So there's the starting point. How does he move pass that? I came-up with the idea that something valuable is stolen from him and he wants to get it back. That's the catalyst for his arc. The "valuable thing" is his soul which ties into the idea that the bad things that he was involved with had some kind of effect on him; physically, emotional, mentally and spiritual. So, the quest to regain his soul and the ultimate reasoning of why he wants it back became the primary means by which the central theme is illustrated.

    From there, I explored different ways that theme can be illustrated, sort of like counter-arguments and each of those became its own arc and characters. Like, what if a bad guy lost their soul and didn't want it returned? What are the ramification or implications of that? If the villain who stole the soul did not originally have a soul, how does having an used soul effect them?

    I think that once you get some different permutations of a theme hammered down and you have some ideas of how to use characters as living parables for the theme, a plot will likely develop naturally once these characters are (so to speak) put in the same room together.
     
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  16. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    No. The way you're describing it makes it sound like a thesis statement. In a thesis statement, you say something, and then you provide evidence to prove it. In an idea statement as I was describing, you say something, and then you change it.

    Guy walks along the sidewalk. A car drives by, splashes water on him. He exclaims, "I have the worst luck." This is now the idea statement.

    Later in the day, he offers to help a young woman carry a baby stroller up the stairs. At the very top, he slips and let's go, but the mother catches it. "I'm so sorry, I have the worst luck!" he says. She answers, "You say that, but nothing really happened, and you helped me a lot." The idea statement has changed.

    It's not supported, or elaborated, or proven. It's just, now, different. The two incidents, the changes in the idea, now evoke questions, or thoughts, about the idea of these little bad luck moments, if you want to go there. But even if you don't, the idea has faced conflict, and it's the idea that changed because of it.
     
  17. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I think is a VERY valuable point to bring up. It seems that my stories almost always features themes of parenting, motherhood, and family... because I struggled with my own and my place in it, as well as my role as a mother to a child with special needs. I think, often times, authors play with the same theme over and over in many ways because it is what matters to them. Kurt Vonnegut's books are almost all about freewill vs. "the universe" (Or God, or what have you.) Dickens wrote about the conflict between lower and upper classes in France and England.

    *But I am wary of the advice "write what you know". I don't think you have to always do that. I think "write what you are interested in" is more important.
     
    Last edited: Oct 5, 2019
  18. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Thanks for the clear reply, YoraYora. I would agree those are examples of themes. Your question was, how do I get from there to a plot? It's worth considering; I sure as heck haven't. ... OK, now I have. <g>

    One thing I see right off is that there are no people in those statements. They're principles, generalizations, philosophical statements. You might even call them themes. <g> One direction you might consider is to think about a theme--just pick one--in terms of specific individuals. Could be someone you know or someone you invent, but make it some one. How does that one person deal with the proposition?

    One way to elaborate on the theme would be to contradict it or twist it somehow. Here's the theme, but what if it were blocked? What if something happened that made your Some One think the thing they thought was true wasn't? In short, personalize the theme (which makes it sound like customizing an app, but I will not be held responsible for what others do with our language).

    In addition, people don't exist in empty space, so don't just pick some one person, put them somewhere. A theme of love conquers all is going to play out very differently if the person is in London versus somewhere in north Greenland. It will play differently if they're a child or an adult, if they are in a large family or have no kin, are famous or infamous, and so on.

    Finally, think about character arc. This one is fiendishly simple: figure out what your character wants then don't let them have it. The fiend lives in the details--you might have heard. But if you can, think about how what the character wants ties in with the theme's assertion. Then you can start throwing obstacles and setbacks.

    This is all really general and, I must confess it, almost entirely off the cuff, but it feels more or less right. I'm curious to know if any of it resonates (resonation not required).
     
  19. Yora

    Yora Sage

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    In light of my nebulous ideas that main characters should by motivated by searching for answers to myystic questions, that reminded me instantly of the last scene in The Last Crusade. Where the holy grail is sitting on the crumbling edge of a chasm as the cave collapses. I've been thinking for a long time that the Indiana Jones movies are three of the best adventure tales that there are. I like the first one even more, which ends the main characters arc with the lines "Fools. They don't know what they got there!" "Well, I know what I got here."
    With the themes that I outlined, turning "aks why they can't have it" into "tell why they shouldn't have it" seems like an obvious direction to explore.

    I've also been thinking today about perhaps making a short list of great scenes or situations from other works that made me think "they easily could have done that much better".
     
  20. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >searching for answers to myystic questions,
    This is a great theme! Can answers be found at all? If we find answers, how do we know we've got it right? Are the answers the same from one person to another? What if that other person's an elf or dwarf? Are even the questions different?

    One of my favorite authors, Hermann Hesse, takes up this very question in Siddhartha and also in Narcissus and Goldman and again in one of his strangest works, The Glass Bead Game. It's not done much in fantasy, but I think there's plenty of potential for it. I also agree that there's room for philosophical exploration in the context of an adventure story like Indiana Jones. One of my favorite scenes in the first Conan movie is when he is sitting with the thief in the middle of nowhere talking about the gods. Another perhaps unexpected place where big (if not quite mystical) questions get contemplated is in Westerns, particularly questions of justice and good.
     
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