Story vs. Plot vs. Theme
Before we proceed, let’s clarify some matters regarding story, plot, and theme.
Story is a series of events in chronological order.
Story is relatively easy to define, but many folks tend to confuse plot and theme, even to the point of thinking they’re interchangeable terms. Yet they’re quite different.
Plot (according to Janet Burroway) is a series of events arranged to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. Thus, plot is a story’s events from Point A to Point Z.
Theme, on the other hand, is what a story is about. It’s a story’s moral or message, something “between the lines” it’s trying to convey, which the author may or may not deliberately be doing.
But while theme is important, stories should actually be based on ideas.
Themes can come as a result of ideas but stories based entirely on themes run the risk of becoming lectures or sermons. One case in point for me is the Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. Pullman definitely takes issue with the Catholic church (as well as certain points of Christian doctrine) and doesn’t mask his displeasure in the trilogy’s novels. But it comes across so heavy-handed at times that it actually distracts from the story. And that’s never a good thing. As John Grisham once said, One thing you really have to watch as a writer is getting on a soapbox or pulpit about anything.
So don’t feel compelled to focus a story on communicating a certain theme; themes will come of their own accord. Instead, present a good idea, make it interesting, and the themes will come in time.
Threefold Function of Stories
So while you’re letting your story idea marinate in your brain, it’s helpful to be reminded of why we write in the first place. I call this the Threefold Function of Stories:
Upfront, a story should be entertaining. Not only is it fun for you to write, it should be fun for you and others to read. Granted, what one person considers entertaining won’t be what everyone deems as interesting. As a writer, the entertainment value of your work can be a difficult aspect to gauge since it’s chiefly subjective. But the scale I use is that if I enjoy what I’m writing (and reading during the editing process) then, chances are, readers will enjoy it, too.
A story should also be engaging. You can immerse yourself in the story without mentally forcing yourself and you’re committed to seeing it through to the end. This differs from being entertained in that the story asks readers to invest their time. Reading a story, especially a novel, is a time-consuming process, and if readers aren’t connecting to the characters or plot, it can result in them sitting the book down and never picking it up again. Granted, this can also be difficult to judge from a writer’s perspective but, once again, if you feel committed to finishing the story, making it all it can be, then readers usually can pick up on that and appreciate the effort as well as the journey.
Lastly, your story should have a message to share that readers can genuinely learn from. Not all stories have deep, dissection-worthy meanings. But I feel some of the best stories do. C.S. Lewis once said that you’ll often find common thematic threads running between the stories you enjoy and I think that’s certainly true.
But be careful not to turn your story into a soapbox. Personally, I don’t think any of my favorite novels are soapbox pieces, from Tolkien’s epic The Lords of the Rings, to even more socially and politically conscious works like Eric Garcia’s Repo Men and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. Do they have messages the authors tried to convey? Absolutely. Was the author conscious of what he or she was doing? To a degree, I believe. But these novels are more than expanded public service announcements or lectures on the state of human affairs. They’re stories with compelling characters that entertain and engage first and edify second. So remember, stories are meant to entertain, engage, and edify but they are stories at their core – not sermons.
To wrap this up, know that every story begins with an idea. This idea gets broken down into a plot that, in turn, will possess themes you may or may not be aware are present. But the trick is to tell a good story first, then readers will heed the lessons you inadvertently teach.
So while you’re writing, consider:
Is my story entertaining? Is it fun to compose as well as read?
Is my story engaging? Does it hold my interest or do I find my attention wavering?
Is it edifying? Does it present at least one good message readers can learn that doesn’t make them feel like they’ve been spoon-fed the whole way through?
If you can answer these questions honestly while you’re writing, then you’re on your way to creating a masterpiece!