Plot, Theme or Character? What is the Essence of the Story?
I hope so. This isn’t what I was going to write about this morning. Somehow, though, the question worked its way into the sitting room of my tiny brain and is now sitting, perched, really, on the mantle-piece. It is glaring at me and demanding an answer.
This is a tricky situation, because I do not have an answer.
So, fine. I know what plot is. I understand theme, and I love dealing with characters. What I’m not sure about, not really, is how these ingredients should be best used in the recipe for a good story.
Let’s look at the ingredients one by one.
Plot: This is likely one of the most studied components of the craft of fiction writing. It has been suggested that there is only one plot, that there are only three plots, seven plots, twenty plots or thirty-six plots. I once owned a book entitled “Plotto” that listed a great many more, but which were upon investigation, really little more than slight twists on basic plots.
Whichever number you “buy into”, it appears that there are a limited number of plots available for the story teller.
When it come to plot, it isn’t the construct that makes the story, but rather the story that makes the plot work. For example, the 1975 thriller, Jaws uses precisely the same plot as the 7th century epic poem Beowulf. As I have often claimed, it isn’t the idea that defines the story, it is what you, the author, does with the idea.
Theme: Is the basic idea of the story. Where plot is the structure, theme is the topic, the idea that the author wishes to convey. One source, Daniel Snyder suggests that there are between 3 and 40 literary themes available for authors. Two he recognizes are “The Fall From Grace”, and “The Journey”. I’ve read stories where multiple themes have been intermingled.
Character: A term that has come to the fore in recent decades is “Character-Driven Story”. A character-driven story is one where the heart and mind of the lead character define the action and the outcome of the story. When done with skill, a character-driven” story is compelling.
In these days of big-budget movie extravaganzas, however, highly-paid professional characters are used to draw in viewers. Oft times the character—actually the actor—is the single driving force of the story. Of course in these cases an additional “character”, special effects, gets a lot of credit. One can spend hours, mouth hanging open, breath abated, while watching non-stop action or impossible landscapes.
So, I direct you back to the initial question, in paraphrase: What is the heart of a story? Is it plot, theme, or character? Is it primarily one with back up by the others?
Can you think of a successful story that employs only one or two of these components? Or is it, in the end, a successful blend of all three that makes a reader sit up and take notice?
Let me know your thoughts on this.