As a less experienced writer I used to obsess over plot. Plot was everything. This seems to be the case for a lot of people who aren’t writers, too — a common criticism of a film or book will be that “the plot isn’t very good”, or “the plot’s a bit basic”. When I used to write as a kid, my entire focus would be on trying to formulate a twisty-turny, intricate plot.
Image by Alain Pham.
It’s not surprising that my early attempts to write stories ended up feeling flat and lifeless. Sure, they may have had fast-paced plots containing some fun ideas but they never seemed particularly interesting. Ultimately, I was writing about a series of events, more like an expanded plot synopsis than a proper story.
It took me longer than I’d like to admit to recognise that the problem was specifically due to my undue focus on plot above all else. It was only when I shifted that attention over to theme and character that my work started to properly resonate, both with myself as the writer and with actual readers. None of what I’m putting in this article is new or revolutionary, but I’m sharing it in the hope that other new writers won’t have to take quite as long as me to figure it out.
The right foundations
I was prompted to write this article after reading Molly Naylor’s top screenwriting mistakes (and how to fix them) over on the National Centre for Writing’s website, in which she warns to watch out for themes overpowering characters. It suggested that the approach I’d blundered into over the years was probably heading in the right direction.
Here’s how I approach writing:
The foundation of everything is character. The entire story is built upon the strength of the characters, as it is they who will hook readers in the first place and keep them reading; characters will stick in readers’ brains and make them fall in love with a book.
Readers won’t always be able to vocalise this, as it can often be theme and plot which are easier to identify, share and discuss. I suspect that’s where I can unstuck when I was younger, as I shifted from being a reader into being a writer. Specific plot points and twists, or strong themes, are easier to summarise and hold in one’s head — it’s considerably harder to capture the essence of a character — and that had led me to mistakenly think that plotwas the key element of a good story.
Why does character come first?
In a compelling story, the characters drive the plot, not the other way around. Characters bring the story into being; it is conflict between or within character which makes a story compelling; it is their desires and motivations which give people a reason 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 take an action it can feel forced and illogical, and the hand of the author becomes apparent to the reader, pulling them out of the fiction.
What about theme?
Theme is wedged between plot and character because it is the glue that holds everything together. Compelling characters and a decent plot can make for an engaging story, but without theme it can still fall a little flat. Theme gives the story a reason to exist in the first place. Why are you telling this particular story with these particular characters? Theme provides the answer.
Also, I’ll note for the record that when you write the word ‘theme’ too many times in a single paragraph is rapidly starts to look very peculiar.
Theme also functions as an anchor of sorts: it is what can bring you back on target after being pulled away by tangential subplots. Despite what I said above about characters driving the plot, it’s not as if you can simply let them do anything they want — there’s usually going to be a core story you’re trying to tell, even if characters nudge it this way and that. A strong thematic glue means that you can safely explore those additional routes while still being able to find your way back. Knowing your central theme also serves as a check of sorts: if you are thinking about adjusting the plot, or sending your characters off in a new direction, you can check it against the theme to see if it resonates with the overall point 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 the pyramid were an iceberg (to thoroughly mix up this metaphor), plot therefore becomes the most immediately noticeable element of the story. Everyone can see it, down to the most casual of readers.
It’s the theme and character work beneath which makes plot work, though. The plot in isolation is meaningless: like I said at the beginning, it’s just a sequence of Things That Happen. Who cares?
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 this article, I promise.
While a story primarily operates from bottom to top — with character providing the firm foundation, theme providing meaning and narrative glue, and plot providing the beat-to-beat sequential moments — it’s always most effective when the divides between the three layers are porous. Ideally, they are all constantly influencing each other, in both directions.
Come up with a better plot direction? Allow it to subtly influence the characters, while using theme to stay true to the original point of the story.
Thought of a better way for the characters to reflect the themes inherent in the book? Allow it! As long as it’s subtly it’ll be worth it.
Want your characters to do something which will require reworking the plot? Go for it — it’ll be better.
It’s a guide, not a rule
As with most writing advice, this is just a useful guide and shouldn’t be taken as gospel or as a rigid rule to live by. I’ve found it very helpful to approach my work from a structural perspective in this manner, but it’s important to keep it as something which helps rather than restricts.
Mike Miller · August 3, 2019 at 10:35 am
Always a good thing to remember.
As you know, I write up the “narratives” of our Crimson Cutlass RPG Campaign. RPGs really are plot-based, not character based, and this holds true for tabletop and PC (if you wish to debate the assertion, I’m down), but, as I write out the narratives I’m always looking for places to touch on larger themes (our “France” is swinging between Monarchism and Republicanism, following the death of the “King,” so there’s some meaty themes available) and character bits.
In this case, our most recent session didn’t have too much interesting. Basically a smash and grab (of a person), and the odd night where trying to sneak past a guard takes 45 minutes of game time and you kill the main baddy in 1/2 of a combat turn around the entire group.
But, I found a character bit, tucked nicely in a long, boring exposition sequence bridging the end of Mission 32 and start of Mission 33.
The following, which I indulge myself in posting, is out of context, but the final six paragraphs very subtly break the narrator’s heart. It’s all in the honorifics. You should immediately see it with that big hint.
We had confirmed the man we had come to assess was truly an idiot. However, we wished to confirm the man’s identity. Was this truly Prince Henry, or some poor innocent being used to discredit the true Prince? He had the look of the Capetian. Yet so did half of the upper ranks of the Nobility. Therefore, it seemed most expeditious to report directly to you, no matter the truth of his identity, rather than travel to Genoa, Seville, or Turin to find Prince Phillip William, Ambassador Dackombe, or Lady Antionette Phillippe to verify the identity of the man we brought to you as “Prince Henri.”
I see, Your Eminence… I know not whether to be relieved or disappointed that this “Prince Henri” was an impostor. For, idiot or not, this means the true Prince remains free in Europe, out of our safe hands, and vulnerable to the schemes and depredations of those who work against the restoration of the Throne.
Ah! Monseigneur, that is, indeed fortunate news – for if Robespierre himself was deceived there is hope the true Prince is in hands friendly to his health and our own plans.
Might I ask, my Friend, if Alexander Pope remains in residence here? In our previous encounter I found myself utterly charmed by his wit, wisdom and ribaldry. I would be obliged if I given opportunity to speak again with the man before I return to Caterina and the children?
Yes, Of course, of course, I agree, My Lord! Turin seems a most safe haven for the false Henri and for Pope.
Yes, Monseigneur, I agree, if you will be joining them, it would be wise for to travel with you. I shall be honored to lead your escort!
I see… Yes, Your Eminence, I shall be happy to accompany your guards while under the command of Stanton. I bow your wisdom and remain your most humble servant.
~Lord Bailey Baylee Baileigh