Theme, Structure, Plot: How Veteran Writers Begin Their Book
NaNoWriMo Getting Ready Series 4
Outside of time and space is the start of any story. It doesn’t exist in this universe but is timeless.
Veteran writers know this, or strongly suspect it.
There is the idea that stories are the personification of the muse who brought the inkling of an idea to you.
Christopher Vogler in his “Writer’s Journey” says that stories are alive. Stephen King, in his “On Writing” says they write themselves.
The old phrase, “That which starts well tends to go well” applies to writing.
You have to move outside of time and any action in space before you can begin your story in earnest. Not many authors do this.
The bulk of the authors either laboriously outline their story and then work that outline, or simply “write into the dark” as Dean Wesley Smith proves and advocates.
I prefer to interview the muse before I select a story. Sure, write down the inspired glimpse you receive. Make sure you put it down somewhere so you can come back to it again. Every story deserves its day.
The muse interview usually goes something like this:
(Opening scene: A bright flash of inspiration illuminates the stage. A writer is interrupted in his mundane duties, whipping out a notebook to quickly scratch the story out. Losing it would be a crime…)
Writer: “Well, thanks for that, and giving me the time to write it down. Looks promising.”
Muse: “Promising?!? It’s probably the greatest short story or novella you will ever write, or has ever been written!”
Writer: “And I am honored you brought it to me. (Some flattery never hurts, this complement is true, as you do have to recognize the gift honestly.) I do have a question before we continue…”
Muse: “Such as?”
Writer: “Could you tell me in a simple sentence what the theme is?”
At this point, you may or may not get the answer, because it depends if you are ready to hear it. Also, if your muse understands the question.
Most authors have their theme, plot, and structure confused. And what follows will probably rattle some cages. Regardless, this is the research I’ve just wrapped up and it seems pretty conclusive at this point.
You have to look at William Wallace Cook’s “Plotto” to get the best definition for theme:
Every story, long or short, grave or gay, mystery story, detective story, love story, or what-not has one basic element in common; and that basic element is the Theme. A Theme is a general proposition defining the story’s type. “A man’s revenge for the treachery of a false friend,” is vaguely descriptive of a certain type of story. “Love in conflict with duty,” would be another Theme. Fannie Hurst’s powerful story, “She Walks in Beauty,” might have for its Theme, “The secret of a mother’s tragic weakness kept inviolate through the devotion and sacrifice of a daughter.” Frank Luther Mott’s strong story, “The Man with a Good Face,” might exemplify the Theme, “How the search for good uplifts and ennobles the Seeker.”
Themes are so general in their definition that any number of distinctly different stories may be written to conform to each one. “The Scarlet Letter,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and “The Silence of Dean Maitland,” by Maxwell Gray (Mrs. Craigie) are vastly different as finished stories, although they embody a common Theme.
In the study of plotting, it led me to Cook and also Wycliffe A. Hill with his “Plot Genie” series.
In the middle of his immense output, Cook studied the interrelationships of various plot clauses to the theme, or masterplot. Cook formed a nearly algebraic relation between the prior and following clauses of the plots, with the myriad plot choices an author can make. 1439 clauses, with each having some five or six related clauses attached. A near-infinity of possible choices.
Hill performed a Gordian Knot solution, of cutting through the initial decision process with a random number generator “genie” to select from several story element lists which mostly had 180 possible items on them. The author was expected to adjust them as needed, and not just write slavishly to that result. (Which his ever-vocal critics never understood.) This enabled the writer to get new combinations and to reach outside the trite, overworked, and hackneyed plots that consistently show up in Hollywood and in Amazon ebooks.
But Hill was dealing with plot mechanics. His idea was that all dramatic stories had an underlying formula. He separated his plot formulas into various indexes, such as Action-Adventure, Romance, Mystery-Detective, Short-short stories, and so on.
Cook started off with the theme of the story, which he called the masterplot.
- A Person Influenced by an Obligation, Engaging in an mysterious enterprise and becoming involved with the occult and the fantastic, Emerges happily from a serious entanglement.
- An Erring Person, Seeking by unusual methods to conquer personal limitations, Foils a guilty plotter and defeats a subtle plot.
- A Person in Love, Meeting with misfortune and being cast away in a primitive, isolated and savage environment, Discovers the folly of trying to appear otherwise than as one is in reality.
These can’t be considered a full plot, as we are missing specifics. They aren’t even a good hook to start a story.
These are themes.
Many writers, even at the end of their first draft, have to re-study their own works to figure out the theme they were writing toward. Other writers will change the theme through their work, and have to edit that draft thoroughly in order to make it cohesive and easily understandable by the reader.
Those who “write into the dark” trust the muse to tell them a story that holds together with a constant theme throughout.
Right now, I consider a half-plotter, half-pantser approach. (Until I can fully complete my evolution from plotter to pantser.)
This is where the Interview with the Muse comes in.
Outside of having a story already talking to me, I would seek a theme through Cook’s masterplots, and then build characters through Hill’s Trait/Flaws lists to call a muse who has a story along those lines. Then I interview the muse to get the theme, hook, character arcs, structure, and premise before beginning any outline or synopsis.
Oh, there’s that word “structure.”
Here’s the result of my research and you should test this for yourself: Structure is the physical format of the plot. There are three physical structures in Western writing (not to be confused with writing Westerns.)
These are often mixed up with genres. Genres are the trappings of the story, what is included as features, conventions, and so on. They require certain elements to work, but where you put your book as a genre (young adult, fantasy, science fiction, weird fiction, etc.) will require they have other conventions and obligatory scenes, all in addition to the structure requirements.
The rough priorities and sequence of outlining (pre-writing) should be:
Themes can exist in any structure or genre. They only say the type of person who performs an action that resolves a conflict of some sort. How you write the plot (how your muse dictates it to you) makes it take off from there.
Key here is how Cook defines conflict (which is commonly a misleading term, especially in our modern “news” stories.) Conflict results when a goal is opposed. That is the simplicity. All plots resolve conflict, according to their theme.
How they go about it depends on their structure.
Cook held that there were two main classes of conflict clauses: Romance and Enterprise. Romance has the single structure, and may also include all the married conflicts of two lovers. Enterprise has two structures: Adventure and Mystery. The first has rising complication to prevent an impending disaster, the second has the crime occurring at the outset, with the criminal and motive unknown. There are then rising complications as the mystery is solved, the villain revealed, the motive unmasked, and often revolving around apprehending the criminal before they can strike again.
Your plot and genre depend on theme and structure. Plot and genre interact with each other to forecast your story.
Most of our modern fiction tend to be combinations of these three structures. The greatest stories I’ve studied usually have all three present.
Watching some recent James Bond movies (played by Daniel Craig) showed that for all the action and thrills that take place, it was still a mystery at its core. Romance is present in all the Bond movies, regardless of whether it satisfactorily completes as a sub-plot.
Sure, people watch the movie for the action, but it’s usually a sub-plot to the actual story. The “Freefall” movie actually had the mystery structure complete and then morphed into an adventure structure in the 3rd act. In “Casino Royale”, the mystery resolved with 24 minutes of film left, which then became mostly romance, until an action sequence which killed off Bond’s lover. He then tracked down and captured the real villain (which action became the stepping off point for the next film.)
Spielberg’s “Raiders” series of movies are true adventure, with mystery sub-plots. And romance is always present.
“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is obviously comic, but that’s a sub-genre along with zombies. It’s overall a romance, with adventure ongoing, and a mystery subplot.
But do your own studies. Very early in the first act, you’ll be able to see what structure the writer is using.
Star Trek original series was great at mixing up the plot structures in all those episodes. Each structure would play center stage, with the others entering and exiting the main story. But it was one structure in each episode that executed that episode’s theme.
Plots are more detailed and follow the necessary requirements of plot turns, pinches, twists, etc. All in alignment with the Hero’s Journey and the specific genre or merged genres that the author is targeting. These get more specific into locations, times, and permissible actions.
Another Daniel Craig movie, “Cowboys and Aliens” was a great mixed-genre movie. Straight adventure, with a nice tragic romance sub-plot. Stuck mainly in the Western genre, but with techno-mysteries for the Sci-Fi crowd. You knew the villain from the outset. So that made it adventure.
Once you have the differences between theme, structure, plot, and genre then you can proceed with your muse-interview. As you train your muses to have their answers ready, then you can proceed to discover what the characters are all about. You have the opening scene with it’s “what if” hook, and then you can either flesh out the outline, or simply get started writing in the dark.
All this will then speed up your writing considerably.
All from some books written in the 20’s and 30’s. Who knew?
[Update] The Fourth Structure
Had this all ready to go, and then I found the fourth structure – How-To
This is the content structure for most non-fiction.
And of course, the great non-fiction books mix other structures in them. This is where the Big Idea and even memoir come in.
Big Idea books sell well where they engage the reader on a personal level. They usually sell a mystery with inductive reasoning. This is the basic structure to Malcolm Gladwell’s books. They are collected articles around a how-to theme, something he’s trying to figure out. All started out as essays, and then were edited into a book. The articles and book followed his research.
Simple how-to books take the view of an authority, where “this is how you do it.” Big Idea books have the narrator sitting back and telling you stories that fit into a theme. Mysteries work well, as you have a person trying to achieve their own happiness (the underlying purpose to all plots, per Cook) and they find themselves opposed in some fashion. Figuring out a solution to that problem is the plot, the structure is mystery. The reader follows along with the detective, trying to sort it all out.
Of course, this also works with other subplots. As mentioned, if a person’s memoir revolves around their love affairs, then the structure will be romance. And if you get too much fiction in it, the story will become something like “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Patton.” Those were both adventure structures. Yet they were “based” on “true-life events.” (Like all political memoirs…)
Where memoirs are failures (regardless of how well they sell on a short-term basis) it’s because they have no real theme or coherent structure. No one would seriously want to re-read them for an escape or diversion. Second-hand shelf-stuffers, and land-fill. Like mass-market paperbacks.
You’ll still be able to look up any non-fiction book theme in the Plotto Masterplot lists, such as:
A Person Subjected to Adverse Conditions, Engaging in a difficult enterprise when promised a reward for high achievement, Emerges from a trying ordeal with sorely garnered wisdom.
And the rest of the book follows that theme. The book is only engaging as it is well written and involves the reader with useful data, in a rational format, with emotional involvement. (Logos, Ethos, Pathos.)
Most academic and how-to books are not memorable. You won’t come back and re-read them. They are dry and dull. Inspirational books, like “Think and Grow Rich” are really Big Idea books, filled with stories that illustrate the points. “Think and Grow Rich” actually has an adventure structure sub-plot. Pick up your copy and read through it again, see if this doesn’t make more sense.
Telling stories is the most effective way to keep readers interested. Weaving fiction structures into non-fiction as sub-plots can make a Big Idea book, or turn a biography into a memoir, or a “based on true facts” story.
So there you have it.
Suggested Books of Interest
Also published on Medium.