Check out this amazing article from K. M. Weiland, readers:
Once upon a time, Character fell in love with Plot. Right from the start, it was a stormy relationship. There was passion, there was romance, there were epic stakes. And conflict? Puh-lenty.
Sometimes they were pretty sure they couldn’t live with each other a moment longer. Sometimes they tried to give each other up altogether. But even the most adamant intentions couldn’t keep them apart for longer than a lukewarm novel or two. Inevitably, these two star-crossed lovers always reunited, their reincarnations seeking each other out again and again throughout the ages.
They never seemed to realize Theme watched them from afar, love largely unrequited. During all the glory days when fans fervently debated Plot vs. Character, Theme was the one who secretly made the relationship work. Toiling silently behind the scenes, Theme kept pushing Plot and Character together, even when they thought they hated each other. Theme gave meaning to their union. Theme made them a team.
And so goes the greatest epic saga in all of fiction.
Like some new chicken-and-egg debate, writers frequently weigh the respective merits of plot and character. Which came first? Which is more important? Which is the hallmark of the truly great stories?
But this debate is, in my opinion, a false paradigm.
To begin with, it’s a dilemma with no conclusive answer (character-driven fiction offers one array of fictional techniques, plot-driven fiction another—both equally valid and important). Even more importantly, this type of either/or questioning tends to ignore the fact that character and plot’s relationship is part of a larger triangle—crowned by none other than wispy, metaphysical, powerful, unavoidable theme.
Why Writers Believe They Can’t Plot Theme
Why is theme so often excluded from the grand tug of war between plot and character?
There are a couple reasons.
The most obvious is simply that writers often don’t view theme in the same category as plot and character. Plot and character are concrete pieces of story. Theme seems more like some abstract force. Plot and character are almost always discussed in terms of technique: “This is how you do it, kids…” Theme, on the other hand, is often referenced with vague hand gestures: “Oh, you know, it just sort of happens…”
In fact, some writers turn this principle of Thematic Vagueness into a kind of religion. When eager new writers look on high for answers about theme (“How do I write a story with a strong theme?), the responses are adamantly mysterious (“Thou shalt never write theme on purpose“).
The mysteriousness arises from a poor comprehension of how theme functions and interacts with other major story components. Because poorly executed themes are often those that are most obvious and on-the-nose, writers sometimes scare themselves off the subject altogether. We evolve from a healthy fear of preachy themes to an irrational avoidance of theme altogether.
It’s true that powerful, cohesive themes sometimesemerge naturally from a writer’s subconscious. But what’s even truer is that these seemingly subconscious themes inevitably emerge thanks to the author’s intentional understanding and use of those other storytelling Titans: plot and character.
Right there lies the secret. If you can execute your plot and character with understanding and intention, then you’re this close to a conscious execution of theme itself. No more hoping and and praying your subconscious talks to you in a way you understand well enough to transcribe. No more confusion about why your excellent plot and awesome characters sometimes refuse to play nice and combine into an equally amazing story. No more worrying readers will find your story soulless or—just as bad—a self-righteous sermon.
Instead, you can bring theme out of the mists and let it work in the daylight, allowing it to guide your every story decision.