This is part of our free Early Career Writers’ Resource pack on Plot. Inside the pack you’ll find more advice on designing plots from Nicola Upson, Okechukwu Nzelu and Inua Ellams – take a look! In this article, Simon K Jones examines the relationship between plot, character and theme. Simon writes fantasy and science fiction serialised fiction, co-hosts the Writing Life podcast and is Digital Marketing Manager here at NCW.
As a less experienced writer I used to obsess over plot. Plot was everything. When I used to write as a kid, my entire focus would be on trying to formulate a twisty-turny, intricate plot. This belief grew partly out of many conversations with friends and family, non-writers who would fall back on the generic criticism of a film or book that “the plot isn’t very good”, or “the plot’s a bit basic”. When people ask “what’s the book about?” they’re usually expecting a plot summary.
It’s not surprising that my early attempts to write stories ended up flat and lifeless. Those projects may have had fast-paced, surprising plots, but I became increasingly conscious that they simply weren’t engaging to readers. It took me longer than I’d lke to admit to recognise that the problem was due to my overemphasis on plot: I was writing a sequence of events, causing the story to read more like a massively expanded plot synopsis than anything else.
It was only when I shifted my attention away from plot and towards theme and character that my work started to properly resonate, both with myself as a writer and with readers. Plot is a framework, or a skeleton: a story needs something more to truly come alive.
Before we progress, as with most writing advice, the following should be thought of as suggestions rather than rigid rules to live by. Thinking of structure in this manner I’ve found very helpful, but take as much or as little as is useful for your particular writing style.
The right foundations
I was originally inspired to write this article after reading Molly Naylor’s excellent top screenwriting mistakes (and how to fix them), in which she warns to watch out for themes overpowering characters. It helped me to codify the approach that I’d slowly, painfully blundered into over the years.
Here’s how I prioritise the core elements of a story in my projects now:
The foundation of everything is character. A story is built upon the quality of the characters, as it is they who will hook readers in the first place and keep them reading; good characters stick in readers’ brains and make them fall in love with a book. If plot is a skeleton, then characters are the flesh.
Readers won’t necessarily be consciously aware of the importance of characters, as themes and plots are often easier to identify and discuss. I suspect that’s where I came unstuck when I was younger, as I shifted from being a more passive reader into being an active writer. Specific plot points and twists, or strong themes, are easier to summarise and hold in one’s head — whereas it’s considerably harder to capture the essence of a character. That way of thinking led me to mistakenly conclude that plot was the single more important element of a good story.
Why does character come first?
In a compelling story, the characters drive the plot, not the other way around. It is conflict between or within characters which makes a story compelling; their desires and motivations give people reasons to keep reading.
When a character’s actions influence the plot, it feels like a natural and exciting development. When the plot forces a character to make an odd decision it immediately feels forced and illogical: the hand of the author becomes apparent to the reader, pulling them out of the fiction. The skeleton becomes visible and the artifice of fiction is laid bare. We’ve all read books or watched movies in which characters do nonsensical things so that the plot can advance to the next scene.
This isn’t to say that characters can’t be illogical, or behave unpredictably. The key is that their behaviour remains rooted in their personalities and responses to situations, rather than being forced to execute a plot beat by an off-screen narrative whip.
What about theme?
Theme is wedged between plot and character in the triangle because it is the glue that holds everything together; or, to continue the earlier metaphor, it is the muscle that gives characters movement and purpose.
Compelling characters and a decent plot can make for an entertaining story, but without theme it can feel somewhat pointless. Why tell this story in particular? Theme gives the story a reason to exist in the first place and enables your story to resonate with readers.
Theme also functions as an anchor of sorts: it is what brings you back on target after you’ve been distracted by tangential subplots. Despite what I said above about characters driving the plot, you still need to maintain some kind of core story thread, even if characters nudge it this way and that. A strong thematic glue means that you can safely explore those additional back alleys while being able to find your way back. Knowing your central themes also serves as a check of sorts: if you are considering adjusting the plot, or sending your characters off in a new direction, you can test those new ideas against the core themes to see if they fit the overall purpose of the book. If yes, then go for it; if no, then you should probably resist the urge.
Which brings us back to plot…
Right at the top of the structural pyramid sits plot. If we think of the pyramid as an iceberg (I’m aware that I’m now thoroughly abusing my metaphors), plot is therefore the most immediately noticeable part. It’s above the water-line and everyone can see it, down to the most casual of readers.
It’s the themes and characters beneath the surface which makes the plot actually work. The plot in isolation is meaningless: like I said at the beginning, it’s just a sequence of Things That Happen. Who cares? You need the purpose of strong themes and the emotional connection of strong characters.
Porosity of the triangle
The critical thing is to not think of this structure as rigid. You’ll note that I’ve cunningly used dotted lines to delineate the three layers. No expense spared in the creation of that startling infographic.
Any story is most effective when there are tight links between plot, theme and character. Ideally, they are all constantly influencing each other. You want to stay flexible and be able to adapt to better ideas as they occur to you.
And remember: this is a guide, not a set of hard rules.