A Satisfying Plot: Theme

On my first novel writing course we were asked what we liked in books. I said, ‘Where things happen and people have sex; but they don’t have to have sex as long as things happen.’ Recently, I was delighted to hear that a friend’s child had explained her love of Downton Abbey as, ‘It’s olden times, and things happen.’ Exactly!

What I disliked most was the idea of theme. It sounded so writerly and Hampstead. I was once in a bookshop where there was a reading being given by new novelists. The first stood up and said, ‘There are three themes to this novel.’ I left.

But recently I’ve been wrestling with trying to put some shape to a novel I’ve been writing on-and-off for about two years. There are lots of little mini-stories, a main character, and fairly decent set-up. But it all feels a bit amorphous. Mostly, I experience a slight sinking feeling. I could impose a three-act structure, but it still wouldn’t get to the heart of the problem.

The idea of theme has popped its head up over the horizon, and has been waving at me ever since. Damn.

But recently, I saw Frozen. I’m a sucker for a good cartoon: Kung-Fu Panda, Shrek, even Beauty and the Beast. What struck me particularly about Frozen was that from about halfway through I found myself getting really drawn into the plot. When the ending came, it was fully consistent with the rest of the story and a delightful surprise. There was no getting past it. The whole thing had been developed from a simple theme.

You could sum this up as love and fear; or frozen heart; or simply, Frozen. Everything comes out of it, from the set-up to the resolution. Right down to the jokey character, Olaf, who is completely loving and open, but is made of snow. And it works. The most successful animated film in history.

My argumentative self would say yes, but it’s a cartoon. Based on a fairy tale. Of course it has a strong theme.

Except, I was once listening to a radio discussion about Middlemarch. Pretty much my favourite book. One of the speakers kept going on about ‘the web.’ What web? I thought. Turned out, it’s the central theme of the book. The way in which people get caught up. An image that is constantly referred back to. I hadn’t noticed. All I knew was that there were several different stories being told, and a sense of intelligence in the telling.

It’s probably about time I defined what is meant by theme. Which I have nicked from a handy video clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3_Bb9wGObY): theme is an idea that the author is trying to express to the reader about life or the human condition. It is the underlying meaning behind the whole story. And perhaps it’s this didactic element which put me off i.e. stop trying to tell me things and get on with the plot. Except that it is inevitable that if you tell a strong story you will convey something of your understanding of the world (or even discover what your view might be). A couple of stories in Middlemarch for example look at the way in which great ambition is undermined by relationships – part of the web theme. George Eliot did indeed feel held back by an early relationship.

In Lajos Egri’s classic The Art of Dramatic Writing (written in 1942! Recommended by Moss Hart!) he starts by talking about the importance of what he calls premise. Here, themes are not single words such as love, betrayal, jealousy, but are phrases written to describe a journey. Eg Romeo and Juliet: Great Love Defies Even Death, King Lear: Blind Trust Leads to Destruction, Othello: Jealousy Destroys Itself and the Object of Its Love. The premise or theme is the force that underlies the action. So Frozen would be Love Overcomes Fear.

So, I took this to my novel. First off, the hero is a hypochondriac. I thought about what hypochondria means to me, and came up with self-obsession, torpor, and fear. Then, what the opposite might be: selflessness, energy, confidence. In fact, my notes looked a little like this (if you can imagine them spread out over the page):

Selflessness (altruism) + The relief of love (energising), defeat Torpor + Decay, the mundane, soulless, Decay (disguised as progress) = Despair/Hopelessness.

My first attempt to get this into a manageable premise was Selflessness and Love Defeat Torpor and Decay-Disguised-as-Progress. But there is something about energy which is important to the novel. And even love can’t stop change in the public sector (where the novel is set). Though it might be able to dispel the despair created by it. So, The Energising Effect of Love Dispels Torpor and Despair. Which, with its strange capitalisation, looks like the sub-heading to an 18th-century novel. I like it!

But it’s a bit long. Boiling them down further I had Love Dispels Despair. With the caveat that for the exploration I can open it out to its long form.

Next, for that exploration, I thought up some questions:

In the novel…

  • How does love dispel despair?
  • When did the despair start? (How far back do I need to go?)
  • When did love start? (How far back do I need to go?)
  • How does love energise?
  • Why dispel, rather than defeat, conquer, dissolve etc?
  • What was the first moment when the character began to realise or rediscover the theme?
  • What are the other key moments in that journey?
  • Does the journey inspire me? If not, what’s missing?
  • Is this exploration too simple or too dull? If so, how could I spice it up?
  • How do other characters in the story embody that theme?
  • What forces (inner and outer) oppose this journey? Are they powerful enough? What is the biggest test?
  • Is the journey from despair to love described convincingly enough?
  • Is the ending a big enough firework display to see this theme off in a fitting way?
  • Are there any interesting things I could do with it?
  • What’s the last thing I would expect with a theme like this?

The process, even without answering the questions, took about three days. In attempting it, I began to get inspired by the possibilities, and feel a greater sense of control over the material. My reaction to theme in the past might have been to roll my eyes and think, how clichéd; right now, it’s thank goodness. Here, for my disorganised novel, is a way to bind plot, structure, characters and action, and get them moving. Also, there is plenty of room for exploration and creativity: to open it out while retaining a sense of continuity. Finally, themes can be BIG. Even the smallest, most parochial story can have a big theme. Which is quite inspiring (a good British sentence). I begin to see more clearly why an epic like Titanic would have a love story at its core.

Having said all this, I suspect you still don’t have to have a theme in order to write a successful story. Many authors of popular fiction probably write to plot and character, having taken the central theme for granted (love, horror, danger) – or perhaps they use it each time to reenergise themselves. Writers of literary fiction may only identify a theme after the first or second draft. Leaving the initial writing more open to exploration and spontaneity. Also, just getting your theme, characters, and action all lined up is no guarantee of success, Shark’s Tale stunk the house out.

Egri finishes by saying:

The premise is the conception, the beginning of a play [or story]. The premise is a seed and it grows into a plant that was contained in the original seed; nothing more, nothing less. The premise should not stand out like a sore thumb, turning characters into puppets and the conflicting forces into a mechanical set-up. In a well-constructed play or story, it is impossible to denote just where premise ends and story or character begins.

I’ve reached a point where it’s become a useful tool, and I’m going to explore it more. Though believe me, if anyone asks me what my novel is about, I’ll just tell them what happens.

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6 thoughts on “A Satisfying Plot: Theme

  1. Reblogged this on Leila Rasheed and commented:
    I really like this blog post – agree with what he says about the importance of theme. I recognise the process he describes, moving from suspicion to appreciation, very well.

  2. I really liked this, Paul. Chimes with much of my recent thinking on theme. Coincidentally, Penny Rudge who is a Novel Studio graduate, now teaches a one day course for us which covers exactly this ground (Ideas, Stories, Plots…) I’d also highly recommend Steve Pressfield’s blog which often turns to the subject of theme. So important in crafting your story.

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