Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Hi, everyone, and welcome to my blog post series…
Plotting Your Story: How to Craft a Complex, Compelling Story Plot!
For more about this blog series as a whole, please read the Intro Post. Be sure to also check out the previous posts in the series, Plotting Your Story, Step #1: Premise, Plotting Your Story, Step #2: Internal Story (Characters), and Plotting Your Story, Step #3: External Story (Plot) !
Today’s post is the next in the series:
Plotting Your Story, Step #4: Thematic Threads!
This step is going to be somewhat short and sweet…. but it’s also really important.
One of the primary elements of stories that really resonate with readers and leave a lasting impact is unity of theme. The events and characters’ struggles in the story shouldn’t feel random or like a mishmash; they should feel as though they are all moving parts of a large, well-oiled, strategically-built machine plowing inevitably toward the end of your story. Or something like that… use a different metaphor if that one doesn’t work for you, but here’s the point: stories demonstrate something through the growth and journey of their characters.
What exactly is it that your character learned (or failed to learn) as they faced their lie? What is the truth that your character is striving toward, and what does the story as a whole show or reveal about that truth? The answer to these questions — the message your story is sending, whether you intended it to or not — is your story’s theme.
The thematic threads in your story are the little details of plot and character that send this message to the reader and tell them what your story is about… what its theme is.
So how do you use the theme to strengthen your story and give it resonance, rather than feeling arbitrary, preachy, or otherwise distracting? By weaving in Thematic Threads throughout your story.
Thematic Threads are essentially commonalities running through your story that tie everything back to a unified theme. These can include imagery, symbolism, and subtle nuances of tone, as well as more overt things like character dialogue, introspection and — on a larger scale — the characters’ external struggles and internal beliefs. This is why the Lie and Truth-goal that you created in Step #2 are so important.
Once you know your character’s Lie and Truth-goal (and the Lie and Truth-goal for any other characters who will be majorly impacting the story), you’re ready to start identifying your story’s theme… and then working Thematic Threads into your story’s plan. This is sort of a back-and-forth process: you need to already know the Lie and Truth-goal to identify your theme, but the theme is not the same as your Lie or Truth-goal, and so once you know your theme, you may then tweak the Lie or Truth-goal, or other characters’ Lies/Truth-goals, to ensure that your theme is coming through clearly. Often our minds build in themes subconsciously, based on our own beliefs, worldviews, struggles, etc. This is fantastic! Our brains have done the work for us. 🙂 Now it’s our job to uncover what’s there, polish it, and hone it into something that really shines and that will leave readers impacted for a long time to come.
Sometimes this happens in revision, but ideally it happens in planning, so that you save yourself a LOT of rewriting!
Confused yet? Let me explain it a different way:
Whatever your story’s theme is, your internal and external plot arcs should draw out and illustrate this theme over the course of the story.
For example, let’s say that once you examine your characters and the elements you have so far, you notice that your main character really struggles with fear, and you discover your story’s theme is Overcoming Fear, or more specifically — “You have to face your fears to overcome them.”
In that case, it would make the most sense to have your main character’s Lie be something that opposes that thematic message — such as “I’m not strong enough to overcome things; it’s better to run.” Then, their Truth-goal would be something like “You can’t run from your fears; the only way to escape them is to face them.” Great! You have a theme! Now you just go back through your plot from Step 3 and all your character info/backstory in Step 2 to be sure that the story’s external conflict (the plot) is working at maximum effect to draw out and illustrate that internal struggle happening within your character, so that your reader gets a clear, unmuddled emotional impact from your story and its theme.
Then, if you want to enhance things further, you double-check your side plots, minor characters, etc., and see if there are ways you can demonstrate the theme through them as well, but from other angles. If your main character is being pushed toward realizing that he has to face his fears, for example, then the antagonist may be trying to convince him to give up and run away, preying on the character’s lack of confidence; side characters may either motivate your character toward the truth-goal of facing his fears, or tempt him away from it by spewing contradictory beliefs (like “our family aren’t quitters” or “be smart and know when to run away”). These may not be stated overtly, but the side characters’ actions and influences will communicate these subtly, further complicating the main character’s struggle. These are thematic threads…. the many strings that weave together to produce your story’s unified thematic impact.
If you have woven the threads correctly, your theme will come through in a bunch of small ways, so that your reader gets the message — and more importantly, the emotional impact of the character’s struggle between Lie and Truth — even if it’s never overtly stated. This leaves the reader with a feeling of deep satisfaction when your story ends, because the story’s emotional, mental, and spiritual elements are all in alignment in the story’s arc and resolution.
Have you ever read a story that felt shallow emotionally? There’s a good chance it didn’t have a clear, powerful theme running through it. This is the magic of the Thematic Threads.
That’s it; it’s that simple! But it can also make a huge difference in the emotional impact of your story.
Themes do not have to be obvious, preachy, or pound readers in the head. In fact, the best stories often don’t immediately scream a theme — but if you look deeply, you can find one. That’s because stories are about characters being faced with problems, and the way they face problems and what results from their efforts or failures communicates something about life — at least as the character experiences it — to your reader. Even if you didn’t mean to have a theme, there is one. Go find it, and make sure it’s been told honestly and powerfully. Your readers will thank you.
There is also a really great book by Monica Leonelle called Nail Your Story. This book goes really deep (like, bring-your-scuba-gear-deep) into all the layers that comprise a powerful story. She covers a lot about themes and the importance of having a unified theme that runs throughout your story. I recommend her book if you’re wanting to go deeper on this topic!
(because I’m not actually your teacher and I can’t make you, but seriously, do it because it will help!)
Identify your story’s theme and write a one-sentence statement explaining it.
I’ve actually created a section in my Forum where you can post your Theme and ideas for Thematic Threads! If you want feedback, feel free to post your assignment there and I’ll leave you some comments!
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