Monday, 28 September 2009

Plot - theme or structure?

First, yet another apology. It seems that whenever I'm presumptuous enough to post that I'm going to write about something 'tomorrow', fate intervenes, and I get buried in extra work. Yet again it's taken me three weeks to dig myself out far enough to see daylight. In future, I'm going to simply say 'next time I'm going to...'.

So, not tomorrow, but three weeks later...

There are two ways of creating a plot - with almost any sort of story.

You can focus on the structure - that is, what happens in the story?

Or you can focus on the theme - what is the story about?

As a concrete example, consider the clasic Western 'High Noon'.

Structurally it's about a man who is systematically abandoned by all those on whose loyalty he has a right to depend, prior to his impending battle with a band of vengeful killers.

Thematically it's about a man's struggle to maintain his integrity and honour when surrounded by cowardice, hypocrisy and overwhelming temptation. He is an archetypal reluctant hero.

I suppose you can say that structure focuses on the events; theme focuses on how the participants feel about those events; or perhaps the actions they choose when faced with those events.

Now, you might say that the two are very much interdependent. You'd be absolutely right. A person can't be a hero, reluctant or otherwise, unless there is an occasion where heroism is called for.

There are only a limited number of themes available - such as:

  • Vengeance - (Gladiator)
  • The reluctant hero (High Noon)
  • Overcoming inner demons (My Beautiful Mind)
  • The tragic hero (Troy)
  • The family protector (The River Wild)
  • The coward transformed (Deliverance)
  • The tortoise and the hare (Die Hard)
When designing a story thematically, I suppose you would have to start by creating a protagonist with a flaw, and an antagonist, also with a flaw.

You can already tell that this story would be about the protagonist being able to accept help and advice, overcome his weakness and so defeat the antagonist - who of course, because of hubris was not able to overcome his, and so failed.

Structurally, you would start with an exciting idea - a protagonist who has a mortal falling out with his former best friend. They fight on a high, swaying bridge above a bottomless pit.

Synthesis of the two gives you the protagonist afraid of heights, who falls in love with his beautiful psychoanalyst and rescues her from his former best friend turned nemesis. She is of course at the far end of the bridge on which the two are fighting. The nemesis was in love with her till she fell for our hero. He spurned her offer of help overcoming his fear of hamsters.

At the height of the battle, our hero presses forward despite his profound acrophobia to rescue the woman he loves. He hurls his pet hamster at his nemesis, who recoils in horror, slips and plunges to his death. Boy and girl reunite, hero risks all to rescue beloved hamster from the lip of the abyss, and hand in hand in paw they walk into the sunset as the music swells...

OK, it's a silly example, but it illustrates my point. Theme and structure are different ways of looking at the same small, isolated sequence of events that makes up a piece of fiction. Both are still, and always will be, subordinate to the story.

Avoiding hubris myself, I'm simply going to say that next time, I'm going to examine plot structure in more detail.

Till then, enjoy!


  1. You know, I rather like that example.... It made me smile.

  2. Paul, that was well done. A simple and precise explanation of a complex concept and good examples to support the lesson.

  3. Notice your thematic examples all have male protagonists.

  4. John,

    Hmmm... except The River Wild - Meryl Streep.

    But yes, I tend to identify and empathise more with male protagonists, for biological reasons. I also tend to identify more with protagonisst who have courage and principles - integrity, for want of a better word. They all resemble the Dick Francis characters you were mentioning on Goodreads.