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Plotting with themes

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Yora, Mar 21, 2018.

  1. Yora

    Yora Sage

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    This is mostly a matter of curiosity. How much do you take themes into consideration before starting writing of a story and do you plan your plots to communicate some kind of message you have decited on in advance?

    It's something that I consider very important, but it does get in the way of simply writing something by leading to constant questioning whether the basic idea is actually meaningful and communicates themes in an interesting way.
     
  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I've had one story where I did this. I did not quite start with the theme, but nearly so. I had a thought about half-elves. It was sort of a joke. I'm a half-elf. Oh, yeah? What's the other half?

    For some reason my brain did a quantum jump to: what if she was neither elf nor human? That started me down the plot road, but I quickly realized this would be a story about identity. How do we know who we are? I recognized identity would be a theme that could resonate with some readers and decided not to blink. I'd take that head-on.

    That book, A Child of Great Promise, is off to the editor right now, so I guess I'll find out if I succeeded. I address your concern, Yora, I did not let the theme determine every choice. Some choices were for adventure, some were for character development (secondary characters as well), and a few were dictated by the world itself. So I never felt that the theme was shouldering anything else aside. It was more the case that I checked in with myself, as it were, to make sure I was speaking to the theme, not neglecting it. That's something I had not done in any of the other stories I've written so far.

    My next novel won't have a big theme, but the one after, The Falconer, will very much be theme heavy, so I am interested in this topic.
     
  3. Orc Knight

    Orc Knight Archmage

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    I usually end up finding themes as I'm writing. And sometimes do write with some in mind. Like most things I do, it's hit and miss and if there isn't themes, someone can find them. I can certainly argue that Eld's (my current and main writing world) overarching themes deal with change. Be it personal, social or just because of the world changing and having to deal with it. Hit upon other themes in it too.

    Also, I saw The Falconer and immediately thought of the band Falconer.
     
  4. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    Very interesting and timely post.

    *tangles her fingers together*

    I do so love discussing theme. In fact, I'm currently in the process of figuring out how to tie two themes into my WIP: desire to escape + pride & downfall + reverse kidnapper trope (the heroine is the kidnapper). My goal is to deliver a story about a prideful woman who has been able to become the leader of an outlaw gang by using manipulation and violence (which is, of course, rather toned down given the audience the story is being written for). Anyway, the best way to cement these themes is by placing them in the characters. The male hero represents a desire to escape because he's physically trapped and being held for ransom. He is also prideful and it's his downfall at the beginning of the story. The heroine represents these themes in different ways...but basically they represent these themes in their desires, goals and motivations in every scene. Since I don't outline it's something that I have in the back of my head throughout the drafting process. Theme can be woven into: dialogue, scenery, character introspection, plot events.

    You shouldn't have to question or force it. Really think hard about your theme and what you are trying to say BEFORE writing the story (easiest way). If theme develops as you're writing then it's still the same concept of weaving it into what I described above. If you're thinking too hard then it's going to come across as preachy to the reader.
     
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  5. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Sometimes one comes to me as I'm planning out the story. Other times not so much, but one always comes along.

    But I don't sweat it.
     
  6. Yora

    Yora Sage

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    The themes I am fiddling with are questioning your priorities and reexaminating what you really want for your self. Which is contrasted by characters destroying themselves because they are inflexible in their expectations and keep trying to do the same thing even as circumstances are changing and it becomes clear that they are sacrificing all they have for something that is beyond their means to attain. It's about the virtues of humility and finding happiness in less.
    In a way, a quite basic examination of existentialist philosophy in the style of Camus.
     
  7. Yora

    Yora Sage

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    I've been spending some more thoughts on this, and I've started to believe that when you want to write about some kind of virtue, the story probably has to be about characters lacking that virtue or are trying to gain it.

    A story about a brave hero isn't much of a story about courage. A story about the virtue of courage would show a scenario that happens because of the lack of it, or how things are improving because the protagonist becomes brave.
     
  8. Helen

    Helen Sage

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    I think theme is critical. Sometimes I have it at the start, other times it comes to me later. If it comes to me later, I have to "re-orientate" to make the story thematically consistent, so it's a later draft issue. The important thing is knowing how to execute theme.
     
  9. L. Blades

    L. Blades Dreamer

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    Firstly; very interesting topic for discussion! The 'theme' for me can mean a few things, as it can be broken down. Besides the overall theme (that is to me, the style/mood of the book), as Chessie2 put it, the theme can be woven into "dialogue, scenery, character introspection, plot events".

    For my book, even before I wrote the first word, it was clear to me it would be a 'parody-themed' fantasy. So this means that although there may be some serious, gritty parts, the overall characteristic will be that of being somewhat on the verge of ridiculous, accompanied with much dark humour. But for me the best part of writing the story, the motivating factor is the hidden challenges that I set: frequently there will be more than one theme at any given moment, and that's what makes it interesting; I try to have multiple hidden themes going at once. This could be hidden humour/jokes, with a related theme for example. Besides the overall theme, there are additional, specific themes. These additional themes can vary greatly in length; it May only be one scene, it May be the theme of a chapter, it May be a hidden theme that spans multiple chapters, and May even encompass multiple books. A theme for a chapter could be a bar fight. A theme for a specific character could be one of their personal flaws; such as an addiction.

    For me if it isn't a hidden joke, then the theme may indeed be a message or lesson to convey to the reader, such as the hypocrisy in today's society being reflected ultimately in key developments of the plot. So I think if you want your story to have a message, or even multiple messages, you can then start thinking of what kind of story, events, or scenes would best epitomise that. Despite writing a parody, I like to include serious lessons that make the reader think; I feel it adds value to any story.
     
  10. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Sage

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    I do try to avoid writing from themes or 'ideas' when I plot a story (or a poem or song for that matter). They will reveal themselves in the words. Attempting to force those words to fit some concept seems counterproductive.

    As Nabokov put it, "Mediocrity thrives on ‘ideas.’'
     
  11. ApaCisare

    ApaCisare Scribe

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    I find that a story's theme will probably just come with the writing. Sometimes the theme is especially apparent to you--it may be the first thing that comes to mind, or you may never consciously notice it.
    For example, in the first case, I had a story idea that combined my ideas for the characters and plot with the theme straight away.
    I had this idea of a woman running from her past in a war-torn world devoid of peace. While the story itself came to mind first, the theme of peace (or the lack of it) and inner peace were immediately apparent to me.
    On the other hand, I have a short story that I've almost completed that I'm not sure really has a theme. I'm sure someone could find one, but nothing jumped out at me when the idea came to my mind, nor can I think of any theme for it now.
    Normally I lean towards stories that always have a strong theme attached to the initial ideas, and, to an extent, I think every story has a theme whether it is apparent to us or not.
    A theme doesn't have to be anything ground-breaking or earth-shattering either.
    And a theme is separate from a moral (at least in my opinion). I think that a moral is a conscious decision by a writer to impart a...well...moral into a story--don't steal, tell lies, etc. I think that a theme can flow from a writer's worldview, and often reflects issues that he/she is dealing with or thinking through at the time of writing. As a result, a theme may have a moralistic element, but I think that in the case of a theme, morals flow from something deeper than simple preachiness. Like in the above example, the woman may flee her war-torn home but she can't flee from her inner turmoil and must struggle to overcome it.
    Well, that's just my rambling thoughts.
    I'd suggest as far as your writing goes, Yora, simply write and let the theme flow through your writing. Change what needs to be changed when you get to the all-important second, third, or more drafts.
    And who knows, maybe you'll find that your theme has changed.
    I don't think that's such a bad thing--writing can be a therapeutic process.
     
    Last edited: Mar 30, 2018
  12. Yora

    Yora Sage

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    This makes me assume that you also don't have any fixed plans on how the story is going to end when you start writing, right?
     
  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >force those words to fit some concept

    I agree, but there's more room here that this statement implies. In my latest book, I knew the story would be about identity. It was in the very premise of the book--a girl who grows up half-elf, half human, discovers she is neither. The implication is: ok, so what is she? And what does she do as a consequence? That's a concept, but I certainly did not have to force the words to fit it. I suppose I could have written a story about how she discovers this then becomes a secret agent and creates her own colony of super-beings. I could claim the words led me there. But I would be doing a disservice to both reader and story.
     
  14. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Sage

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    Actually, I do have a pretty good idea of my plot when I begin. I do outline (roughly), and build from there (and not in a particularly linear fashion). If my story 'says' something, that arises from the characters and the events, not vice-versa.
     
  15. Yora

    Yora Sage

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    As a genuine question out of curiosity. With this approach, how do you approach your outlining process? On what do you base your decision what the conflicts, turning points, and resolutions will be?

    For me, the entire process starts with generally aiming for some kind of internal conflict for the protagonist. Something nonphysical the character would like to have and some kind of emotional state that is the reason why it stays out of reach as of yet. For example, the protagonist wishes to become an expert of protecting people against supernatural threats, but falsely believes that this is done through badass heroics. The theme here is that being observant and using care does much more good than seeking fame and glory. Or now that I think of it, "war does not make one great", as someone once put it.

    This gives me a start point and an end point for the whole story. My outlining begins with thinking about situations in which reckless heroism leads to failure and situations in which observant investigation leads to conflict, and scenes in which the later comes to the rescue after the former led to disaster. I try to think of friendly characters who end up doomed because they followed the wrong path, or antagonists who cause damage because of it. And when I think I have the emotional narrative of the story pretty clear in my mind, I start to think of plot and secondary characters.
    Though admitedly I have not got very far with it yet. I keep drifting off fiddling with the ideas for setting that I have.
     
    Helen Bennet-Kröger likes this.
  16. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

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    So I’m a guy that can only write something with a lot lf thematic value (which sounds like I’m being pretentious but it really sucks becuase I can’t get passionate about a lot ideas I have and trust me I’ve tried). The stories I want to tell are pretty scrambled riddles that look like a story, and within that is a different story being told, and then under that is the themes I’m trying to convey.

    It never starts off with a theme. I’ve never heard of anyone do this unless you count art made for specific agendas, and usually those are informational or stories based on real events. Otherwise it’s always at some point a visual or concept that are of surface level.

    At what point the theme pops into the creators head varies, if at all. For me it’s pretty early on, when I start thinking about the main character in relation to the wacky imagery. Why is the main character experiencing these things? Thats where the themes come from, it all comes down to what the characters are feeling, the story being the something surface level that I then adapted to fix the themes.
     
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  17. Tom

    Tom Istar

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    I don't start with themes in mind. I let them develop organically as I write, and when I notice them I start to work them through the plot. I'm a visual-oriented person, so I focus mainly on interpreting the shape of the story as I see it into a written medium, and I tend to overlook more subtle aspects on the first round that someone more language-oriented might notice immediately.
     
  18. I love writing from theme! It's crucial for me to be motivated to write in general. I usually try to pinpoint my theme down before I really get into the gut of the story. Doesn't always happen though, sometimes it works the other way around and the theme comes through eventually.
    But I have to say, the more I know my theme, the more connected I feel. For me it's essential to know why I'm writing a story. And the why is connected to an emotional center - and theme plays on that emotional center!

    Though I think we have to differentiate in definitions of theme. Some people seem to view it as a message or wisdom about the world that needs to be shared. I've heard other people describe it as always being opposing forces. So man vs god or man vs nature.
    For me personally, I keep the theme broad. Similar to what skip.knoxskip.knox is describing with identity. That's how I'd approach it as well. Have one theme like identity or hierarchy and then play all different characters and their relationships on that theme. Opposing forces might come to play but I don't focus on them solely.
     
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  19. L. Blades

    L. Blades Dreamer

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    Also, the theme may refer to the overall theme, the underlying theme of the book. That is, it could be a somewhat dark, sad, gloomy fantasy, or a parody fantasy. The dark fantasy themed book may still have themes of happiness in some scenes or even a chapter, and likewise a parody may have an overall comical theme, but still have various dark themes encompassing different scenes, chapter(s), or even a specific character. The underlying theme of the book pretty much defines what category the book is, but if you want to convey a story or message or lesson within your story that to me would be a secondary theme.
     
  20. Yora

    Yora Sage

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    I'd regard that as the primary theme. Whether it's funny or dark is a matter of tone. Darkness is not a theme. Dealing with being alone in the dark is a theme.
     
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