Writers Write creates and shares resources for writers. In this post, we offer three more lessons on theme, character, and plot.
Welcome to week 46 of Anthony’s series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week’s post here.
Breaking it down
1. A last look at … theme
I’ve been pretty hung up on theme during this year of writing our manuscripts. For me, theme is so important – as it influences all the other elements in your novel. It’s the lifeblood of any story.
In James Dickey’s 1971 modern classic, Deliverance, we see theme in action. On one hand, it’s a raw, thrilling tale of survival. Four friends take a trip along the fictional Cahulawassee River before creeping urbanisation encroaches over the northern wilderness of northern Georgia.
On the other, it’s a fascinatingly bleak swan song to the 1960s – as the hippie treatise of ‘make love, not war’ of a dying era is put to the test. In contrast, these middle-aged businessmen are confronted with their inner violence to save their own lives. The right theme, at the right time.
Theme is a question. An open-ended question that is finally answered in a resonating statement. The big invisible stamp that comes down as the final indictment of your characters and your plot.
As I come to the end of my manuscript, I’ve grappled with this question, this statement. Just how committed is a relationship if both parties are willing to bring a third party into their bed? That may be the central question. And the statement: A committed relationship is less about monogamy and more about honesty.
I always thought jealousy was my stronger, more dominant, theme but it turns out that it’s more of a catalyst or a consequence for my main characters. That a fantasy – once it becomes reality – can expose the fault lines in a relationship and in each individual character: anxiety, anger, distrust, envy.
Of course, you can have more than one theme operating in your story – in fact, you should – but there should be one theme at the top that holds the whole story together.
2. A last look at … characters
‘Yes, I know you make them up,’ writes Orson Scott Card in Characters and Viewpoint. ‘But readers want your characters to seem like real people.’ This is so true.
In Truman Capote’s flamboyant 1958 classic novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, you never for a moment believe that Holly Golightly isn’t a real person. An orphan, a brittle funny party girl, a young woman reinventing her life – and identity – in New York, she is almost mythical, ephemeral… but also one of the most indelible characters you’ll find. She has just enough emotional depth, and tragic fragility, to make her seem real. She’s the ultimate romantic heroine, perfect for a romantic fantasy.
In my story, I find that my characters only developed depth – become believable to me as the writer – when they had a past. One of things I overlooked as I started to write was their histories. Hidden events made visible in the present text.
If you haven’t explored their back stories, perhaps now is the time to spend some time – and as many pages as you need – on your character biographies.
3. A last look at … plot
I’ll be honest. For me, all writing is hard, but plot is the hardest writing. Why? Because it’s not really writing – it’s not that wonderful flow of a pen across the page, the freedom of creating. It’s thinking. It’s stop-start-start again planning. And it’s sweating in jaw-clenched frustration.
Plot, at its core, is structure. It’s having a solid enough foundation to build on, making sure you have just the right amount of concrete to build a story big enough to house your characters and your theme. The blueprint of your novel.
One of my favourite comedies is the classic 2003 Coen brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty. It just has such a perfect plot. A bored divorce attorney and serial divorcee collide in a screwball love story. It’s simple, strong, surprising. You never see the twists coming but, boy, when they do come the twists are believable. Perfect timing in a perfect comedy.
In my story, this timing is sometimes lacking. And for me, that means going back to the basic principle of plot: rising tension. I need to make sure that there are peaks and troughs, low points and high points throughout.
Don’t get too rigid in your plot: you’re in control, and you can manipulate and mould your characters to fit into your story. So don’t be afraid to change things – even if it means rewriting. Now is the time to do it, before it goes to an editor or agent.
Timelock — 3 hours
Spend an hour reviewing each of these elements in your book – theme, characters, plot.
5 Quick Hacks
- Try to capture the three-to-five ‘big’ themes in your story in a word or phrase. Pin these up at your desk.
- What do you believe – as a person, as a writer – about the theme of your book? Pretend a journalist has asked this in an interview. How do you answer?
- Your character is having a sleepless night. What’s haunting their mind? What excitement is keeping them from sleep?
- Write one short paragraph that ties the theme, characters, and plot of your novel together.
- You’re setting your antagonist up on a blind date. How do you spin his bad behaviour into an attractive quality?
Pin it, quote it, believe it:
‘A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.’ — Italo Calvino
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