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From Theme to Plot

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

  1. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I KNEW I had read that somewhere else!!!
     
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  2. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    I think at the most basic level, every story consists of a character, a goal, and an obstacle/conflict that stands in the way.

    Character I find relatively easy. I feel like taking a character you like and applying some personal touches is generally enough. I think what I am struggling the most with in practice is the goal. I am highly interested in stories that have the characters see through deceptions and misconceptions and gain agency over their own lives because of that. It's always great when the threat of the antagonist is negated because the protagonist can no longer be manipulated to aid in the plans. I love the subversion of heroism when the protagonist wins by walking away from the fight.

    Putting it like that now, I see that this is particularly challenging to turn into a goal. It basically says that the apparent goal the character pursues through most of the story is not the actual goal that is reached at the end. I think this needs some further contemplation, and I should probably try to come up with some specific works that have something like that, to take a closer look in how exactly they do it.
     
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  3. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Also, world/milieu and ideas? These are extremely important for me, and I often wonder if not enough focus is given to these whenever we discuss story creation.

    When adding those, we finally end up with Card's M.I.C.E. I include that link because it seems a very good summary of his initial ideas about M.I.C.E. But there is more depth to M.I.C.E. For instance, although a story might be primarily about one of those letters, all of those elements will exist in every story. For me, all these elements interact. If you look at your story idea, you can find ways in which each of these elements in the story may give rise to inherent conflict when paired with another of these elements in the story.

    For instance, the Milieu in your story, when paired with the Character, may suggest natural conflict, a kind of schism. Maybe your Character's essential qualities—personality, dreams, desires—are in conflict with aspects of her Milieu: between her and her society, or between her and that ever-repeating natural carnage in your world. Or both.

    Another example. Conflict can arise between Milieu and Idea. When I read your summary of the world you are using, I was curious about this:

    Wouldn't the populations in this world have tales of this, a history of it, fables about it, and the like? Are these in conflict with the realities of that world, for instance simply incorrect understandings? Also, wouldn't every new city state be populated by people who already knew the city state was doomed eventually? When a city state is destroyed and its population travels to a newer city state, wouldn't they have the understanding that this was a temporary situation—if not for them personally, then at least for their future generations? What kinds of cultural elements arise because of this constant and relatively predictable conflict between the people and the Milieu?

    Then, you mention that some people have settled on the idea of using magic to halt this process. But—when did they settle upon this solution? How long has this idea existed in this world (even if only in the minds of a relatively small cabal)? If the idea of using magic has been around for a long time, what is their thinking about the futility of such an approach, given that nothing has worked so far?

    There are other examples. What about conflict based around the interaction of Milieu, Idea, and Character! Maybe your character is quite aware of this futility of using magic, despite the faith others in her society have for this solution. She's one of those seekers/adventurers, but she's doing it for other reasons. Personal reasons. Maybe she believes there's some other type of solution—"Magic isn't the solution!"—and she's going out into the wild trying to solve what others have never been able to solve. Or maybe she starts out one way, fully having faith in magic as the solution, but her explorations slowly show her the futility in that while offering glimpses of a solution no one else has any knowledge of. —Or perhaps some others do know of this other solution, in secret, but are absolutely against it, and they are her antagonist ultimately.

    Certain Events in your story can give birth to conflict between these other elements; or, an Event might cause internal conflict for Character. For your story, as with the other interactions of M.I.C.E., this could be just about anything. Perhaps it could be an event shining a light on something, and maybe something only the Character witnesses. (No one believes her.) Or perhaps some new threat emerges from the wild to destroy her city, something never recorded in all their history/mythology of this cyclical devastation. Or perhaps the Event is simply that her lover or friend goes missing—but a mysterious message, from an unknown and perhaps non-human source, arrives telling her this.

    I hope all the above helps you find a workable goal or set of goals for your character. I think that a consideration of these potential inherent conflicts might give rise to a solid reaction from your character. A character who experiences absolutely no conflict is not a character who can have goals, heh. In other words, the inherent frictions tend to spur the impulse to protag; the natural reactions to these frictions give birth to goal. Don't they?
     
    Last edited: Oct 9, 2019
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  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    The conversation has moved on without me. It looks like Yora has offered more details about how he wants to write his story. I'll pick up on the new portions of the conversation when I get a chance later. For the moment I want to pick up where I left off.

    I mentioned earlier the two character takes on which the theme of embracing limits to reach your potential would be especially relevant, the prince and the prodigy (or "wizard"). I think the bolded sentence reveals a third take on the theme, the person who recoils against their limits because they have so many of them. For my purposes I'm going to de-age this character into the Heiress, who faces the many limits placed upon her through intense pressure from her family. I'll offer a fourth: The person who flaunts their limits because he or she is impetuous. This fourth person doesn't face their limits, instead they face consequences and punishments; I'll call this character the Crook.

    The main function for a theme-heavy story is to use all four these character archetypes - the Prince, the Wizard, the Heiress and the Crook - and to place each one in a situation where they must ultimately embrace their limits to achieve their big goal. Tackling the theme from four directions gives the author a chance to comment on the theme in a variety of perspectives, and even if the author doesn't, it helps push the reader to reflect on it.

    I'm deliberately putting all four character archetypes on par with each other, and keeping the antagonist vague and evil, because I want to keep the story simple. It's supposed to be an example, not my brand new side-tracking novel obsession.

    The Prince relies on family, wealth, opportunity, reputation and connections to create opportunity and ignore the feeling that he's limited. The first thing that has to happen? His family is murdered or imprisoned, his wealth stripped from him, and the soldiers he tries to rally question his leadership. He no longer has the resources to overcome his limits. Who is he really? What can he accomplish?

    The Wizard is extremely capable, self-made, can seemingly do anything. But he or she can't do everything, all at once. The wizard is one person, and challenges are just too big. The wizard tries to support the prince, tries to lead the armies, tries to strategize against the villain. On top of this the wizard needs a challenge that's just too big: A plague that's struck across the land, threatening to wipe out their forces, their people, and their hope, before they even have a chance. Can the wizard accomplish anything spread so thin?

    The Heiress faces intense pressure from her family to marry wealth and safeguard their well being. We're going to ramp up this pressure: Let's add a family curse, something such as werewolves, or Princess Fiona's "Ogre at Night." The medicine they take to suppress this curse has been wiping out their fortune, and if the Heiress doesn't marry wealth, their fortune will vanish, they'll degenerate into monsters, they'll do immense harm, and they'll be slaughtered. But the Heiress has plans to ignore all this, to strike out on her own, to make a name for herself on the battlefield, which she does, but struggles with, because she rebels against the wealthy noble leaders her family has repeatedly tried to pair her up with. But the medicine to suppress her curse is running out. How long can she ignore the pressure? With war raging all around her, and fortunes being destroyed, will it be too late to seek help from the people she's pushed aside? And what will be the price of that help?

    The Crook just keeps getting in trouble. Expelled by the good guys, a murky and tenuous henchman to the villain, all of his or her underhanded schemes just backfire. Mostly a way of viewing the villain's side of the conflict, the Crook struggles to keep his impulses and his attitude in check. But which is the greater limit, one's role or one's personality? Which will he or she be forced to embrace?

    Finally, I'd expect the climax to look a little like this:

    Crook: I have tried, and failed, to succeed with you. And I've tried, and failed, to succeed with the villain. I will embrace my role as a outcast to everybody. As an outcast who has been watching everybody. The villain is heading towards you. But his plague spreaders are heading to the capital. You have to stop them.
    Wizard: I have tried to battle the villain everywhere, but I can't keep up with it all. I have no choice but to choose. Let the plague spread: I will stay here and try once again to hold up our leader.
    Prince: Wizard, I can't lead them. I've tried, and failed, repeatedly. You have to stop wasting your time trying to prop me up. Go and battle the plague. Save what lives you can.
    Wizard: You, prince, are the only one who can do this. Even if you struggle, even as you've fumbled, you are the only one who can even get our soldier's attention. It is on you to lead or we all die, and I must do everything I can to make sure you are protected.
    Prince: No, you're right. I can get the soldier's attention. But that doesn't mean I need to be the one who leads. Go, I will do what you've been struggling with. I will be the one who holds up the leader, but it won't be me.
    Heiress: Stop looking at me like that. I don't want your help. *sigh* But I do ****ing need it. And I knew that all along.

    And thus we have a theme focused, plot simple story.
     
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  5. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Look at the world around us.
    I am in my 30s now and grew up during the turn of the century, and remember when society started discussing environmental changes and globalisation. (Which at that point had already been in full swing for the past hundred years.) Everything we know now, we already knew 20 years ago. It was clear to everyone that there would be big problems in the future that would have to be adressed immediately to prevent the worst of it. But the future is always in the future and not a problem now. Knowing that a way of life is completely unsustainable in the long run has never compelled any society to change it.
    For the first three or four hundred years, nobody will worry about the future collapse of their city at all. And then the next hundred years people will see the end coming, but will just assure themselves that its still many decades off before it becomes a problem. And then suddenly the city looks like Detroit and the people in charge say they had no way to prevent it. And this isn't really anything new. This is how human society has always worked. Even when people are fully aware of repeating patterns, they are always surprised when it happens to them.

    Magic being the solution didn't have any specific start, and I don't think it should. Magic is whatever technological fad is currently in fashion. Oil will safe the world! Plastic will save the world! Nuclear power will save the world! Self-driving cars will safe the world! Settlements on Mars will safe the world!
    It always was a mistake in the past. But this time will be different! Becausw this particular sorcerer is smarter than all those who came before him.

    But I feel like I am digressing from the topic by going into too much detail about specific ideas.

    Fleeing from a doomed city is certainly one possible plot. Perhaps even a story where the key turning point is the realization that the only way forward is to leave, instead of stubbornly going down with the ship.

    Dealing with a sorcerer who has another bad idea to improve and secure the wellbeing of the people would also have real potential. Especially when the sorcerer is actually nice, or nobody is able to find the innevitable flaw that surely must be somewhere.

    Or for something more focused on wilderness adventures, discovering something with major environmental impact approaching and trying to mitigate. While having to deal with people who think they can completely prevent it.

    I'm still not terribly in love with any of these, but there are certainly possibilities with interesting potential starting to take shape.
     
  6. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I was looking at the world you described, instead?

    For instance, these led me to believe the changes happened rather quickly, and that the people (or some of the people at least) were well aware of this:

    You had mentioned, "After a few centuries, environmental changes force the small city states to be abandoned and the people scattering into the wilderness or fleeing to younger cities," so that's a longer time frame, but these people will also be "taking their knowledge and skills with them," so I didn't think knowledge of what happened would disappear between disasters. Plus, a lot of your story idea revolves around the existence of copious ruins—even explorers of them!—and I would think this would keep memories of what has happened over eons in mind.

    But here, are you describing our world or their world:

    Didn't you say that some people think magic is the answer, heh? So some people, if not whole populations, are not turning a blind eye.

    I think this disjunction fits with my previous comments. The elements of your story really need to fit together in a coherent way for readers. Maybe they do, and I'm only getting a part of the summary in this thread, heh. But these elements interact; each changes the others. How they interact will affect character POV. Imagining a world like the one you've described so far, I have difficulty believing that this entirely imaginary world, with its awesome features, will feature a populace that basically has a modern Earth population's worldview and sensibility.

    Then again, our own planet (if we are using it as an example) to this day still has stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, Pompeii, and mass extinctions. Noah's Ark. Whatever. Heck, we have disaster movies—if not real-time news footage of actual disasters happening. And a lot of our mythologies or religions do in fact warn of End Times and the like, as a way to motivate people. Maybe not motivate them to change their world; or then again, maybe so, to the degree that many are clamoring for a response to climate change or ways to stop incoming giant meteors.*

    *Edit: But even some prior, pre-industrial societies, might have encouraged behaviors to "prevent" disasters? Prayers, rituals, sacrifices, or...? I wasn't around at the time, so I'd have to read up on that, heh.
     
    Last edited: Oct 9, 2019
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  7. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    The world is a Rorschach test. You see what you want to see and you get out of it what you put into it.

    Anyways, with the story you’ve been describing in this thread, all that business about unsustainable societies and nature stuff, that’s fine.
    My concern would be that your story might get kind of didactic, like preachy maybe (worst case scenario, I’m confident that you’re a better writer than that).

    The future is unpredictable: sure, societies have collapsed but many, many doomsdays have been circumvented. The Luddites concern about the Industrial Revolution would destroy craftsmenship didn’t happen. In fact, it may be easier to learn a trade or craft now than it has every been in history.
    And while many societies and great empires have collapsed under their own weight, humanity is flourishing now (relatively flourishing anyways). The world population is insanely large, literacy is technically at an all time high, people are living longer, technology is crazy advance to the point where science fiction of the past has become science fact.

    So, you know, there’s different and equally valid answers and perspectives to this theme you’re proposing. Part of developing a theme well is to approach from multiple directions. This will almost undoubtedly make the theme you got much richer once you get the plot developing.
     
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  8. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Ultimately my stance is an advocacy against greed. Making more with what is available is sustainable. Improving things by massively increasing resource consumption is not.

    While my enthusiasm for the movie has gone down over the year, I think Inception makes a really great case for how you deliver a message in a narrative. You don't tell the audience what they should think, because nobody wants to be told what to think and they will reject it just for that, without considering its value. Instead you present them with situations and events and let them draw their own conclusions. And if you set things up in the right way, there really is only one possibly conclusion they could draw.
    Is it manipulative? It totally is! But you could also say that you are presenting a fictional example that explains how you developed your opinion that you want others to consider. It doesn't have to be negative, and I think almost every artist does it all the time.
     
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  9. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Hey Yora, I can't speak for everyone, but I'm confused about what your specific issue is? You originally posted asking about how to create a plot from a theme. We had a great discussion. Then you asked if we could get more specific and you gave some background of your world, so lots of people have chimed in with support and offered suggestions of where you might find a plot... but you then argue every point made... so what, exactly, do you need help with? Because right now, it seems like you don't have a story, but when people ask questions about your world, you don't want to make up any stories about it.

    The way I'm reading is like my son saying, "mom, tell me a story," and I say, "Ok there is a land where nature takes over mortal cities every hundred years or so. The End."

    That isn't a story.

    So my 8 year old asks, "But WHY does it do that?"

    "Because it does and it always has and always will."

    "So what does humanity do?"

    "They use magic."

    "Does it help?"

    "No."

    "Who made the magic?"

    "No one knows. Oh, and the moral is don't be greedy. Now go to sleep."

    There have been so many amazing questions raised which could be amazing fodder for a story, but you seem hesitant to explore them... I'm curious about why that is?
     
  10. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    If greed is the theme, I think it should be explored a little more than just a fable about how being greedy is bad (unless a didactic fable is what you’re going for, that is).

    Here’s a little thought exercise: what if the “greedy” character is the protagonist? Maybe they’re a magic user who keep the society functioning for their own gains. How can the unsustainability of the society be used to get the hero to denounce their greedy ways? Alternatively, what if they remain greedy? If greed motivates them to keep society functioning, what’s the problem? Maybe greed can be good in some cases. If so, when does greed go to far? Maybe greed isn’t the problem but their plans for keeping society is. If so, how will they change their methods to be more sustainable.

    Ask yourself these questions: explore different variations of the theme and play devil’s advocate.

    I’ve actually ended-up forming a little plot from asking these question. I’m not going to pursue it though. That’s bad form to take ideas from this forum. Only jerks do that.
     
  11. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    I didn't ask to be more specific. I felt people wanted me to be more specific.
    I'm really just replying to other posts while I am thinking about the good pointers you've given me.
     
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  12. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Ahhhhhhh, I see :) Makes sense.
     
  13. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Having now thought about it some more, I think this approach really might be too fancy to me. It really sounds nice when you say "my story is an exploration of modern greed an egoism represented through deals with demonic powers", but at the end of the day I really want to write about weird monsters in ancient ruins in the forest. It certainly is useful to have a general idea what traits you want to portray as heroic or villainous and what kinds of flaws you want to use prominently in your characters, but probably not useful as the basis for plots when you're mostly inspired by things.

    Which does brings me back to just where I had been before, but I still feel like having learned some useful things from this.
     
  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >weird monsters in ancient ruins in the forest
    Do that! I wrote one more or less exactly on those lines, a short story. It is based on an old Breton folk story and I wrote it precisely to see if I could summon up old fears. Then pixies got involved, which skewed things a bit, but I was still satisfied. No high theme, just encountering scary-in-forest.
     
  15. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    The only big question remains how I get people into haunted ruins on a regular base in a way that feels satisfying to me. Both "gold" and "good" feel too simple to me.
    Though I really think I am making things too complicated and it's not nearly as important as I think. It can be much simpler that I want to make it.
     
  16. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I'm not sure if you are asking for suggestions, but here's one anyway. :)

    They don't know the ruins are haunted. Maybe they're being chased and this looks like a safe place (depends on how ruined are the ruins). Or it's a lark and it's all going to be fun until it isn't. Or they're scientific types and they are here to study the place. If they have to return, have them leave something (or someone) behind.

    I guess that was more than one suggestion.
     
  17. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    I am thinking of something episodic without continuous narrative, so the setting needs to have circumstances that make it a somewhat regular thing.
    I think that the setting already provides the necessary basics: There's an explanation for the abundance of ruins, there's an explanation of why they are deep in the wilderness and undisturbed, and there's an explanation for why people want knowledge about them. There is a constant demand for shaman-archeologists by people who can afford to pay well for that service.

    It's just that dangerous work for hire doesn't feel right for me. It doesn't feel emotionally true for characters I can express myself with. I'm heavily inspired by Conan, Elric, and Kane, who all go on adventures of this type all the time. But Conan does it for the challenge because he years to show the world his might. Elric does it because he needs to know if there is a purpose behind his seemingly nihilistic world and life. Kane does it because he lusts for power and to spite the god who cursed him. None of them do it out of a desire to help others or because they search for riches.

    I need to find a similar motivation that speaks to me personally. Approaching this from the direction of themes was my original idea, but for many of the arguments made here I don't think that's a practical ways. On the one hand I have ideas for a format and setting, on the other hand I have meaningful ideas, and they don't come together in easy and obvious ways.
    If my protagonist has deep doubts that the search for lost magic is a good idea and she does not care for the pay, why would she continue to try recovering artifacts or guide people to them? She needs to have a personal motivation to be in the business. The contacts with other searcher and scholars, and the resources of her employers provide sufficient reason for why she is doing work in this business. But there still needs to something she personally gains from it.
    My first idea was a mystic quest for enlightenment, but that kind of commits you to presenting some amazing revelation at the end. But But I don't have any and I actually really prefer the mystical to remain unexplainable.

    I feel like I am really close to a really good concept, but very close to the goal the pieces just don't click together.
     
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  18. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    A search for meaning. Like a doubters in religion, she keeps searching among the artifacts in the hope of finding truth. Meanwhile, she pretends to the world that it's about money or some cause or Science. Some days she even believes it.
     
  19. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Probably something like that.

    I like the idea of making it something that obviously can't be found. That could be a good character flaw. But making it clear that readers shouldn't hold their breath for an answer would be important.
     
  20. Helen

    Helen Sage

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    Write the plot first and then find the underlying theme, or shape the plot to reflect your chosen theme. Think of both as arcs.
     
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