Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Which came first, the theme or the plot?

Happy Day After the 4th of July!

I trust we are all well-rested and appropriately grumbled on our way into work this morning? No, just me? I had a wonderful weekend and returned home yesterday afternoon drunk on sunshine and lake water, my sunburn just starting to slightly itch and turn tan. Well, as tan as this Irish lass can get, but I'll take any color over pasty Minnesota white.

After I unpacked and got organized, I sat down and finally began transplanting the seeds of a new story from my head, planting them down on paper. At this point, there are a helluva lot more questions than answers, but at least my ideas aren't stuck in my unreliable head any longer. It was that mad rush of brainstorming where your hand can't keep up with the ideas flowing from your mind. Where you start a new paragraph of ideas before you could finish the last one and you draw arrows connecting the plot points as they develop across the pages.

It was awesome and it's the part of writing I love the most.

However... as my pages grew, I noticed a problem. I had a plot line, but there was no theme. No real point to the story. Ack! I spent another full page trying to come up with my theme. It was so hard. It felt forced, like I was trying to come up with the recipe for a best seller when all I really wanted to do was tell my story that had been brewing in my mind.

I felt like I was doing it wrong. Clearly, the "good" writers sit down gracefully at their computer with a mug of steaming tea by their side and classical music gently dancing through the air. They sit, close their eyes for a moment while they grasp the ideas in their heads, and get it all down on paper. First the over-arching theme, then the plot, and then these "good" writers flush out their characters. Once it's all done, they open a new word doc and bang out a 75K book and call it a night.

I, on the other hand, gnash my teeth, pull out my hair, become OCD about my music choices, need a tray table for all my beverages (tea, water, coffee, beer? WHAT TO DRINK?), and stare at my paper, praying the ever-elusive "point" comes to me.

Because really, if you can't find the point to your story, why write it, right?

Wrong. I have to write this story just like I've had to write the others. I realize it's a learning process and already my craft has improved greatly over my first story. But the crushing need for a theme, for a point to it all, the pressure of knowing my story is missing its purpose is driving me nuts.

So, I will continue to brainstorm but I am very eager to know how you all do it. Do you sit down like the "good" writer and make it look so lovely and easy? Does your theme come, then your plot, then your characters? Or do you just throw your words up and see what sticks, hoping a theme emerges?


  1. Sometimes these things need to emerge in the process.

    Though if your instincts are telling you something is off, there may be issues that need addressing before you can move forward.

    Not the most decisive answer, I know. But few things start out "so lovely and easy." :)

  2. Lol. You sound like me with the drinks. I'll have tea, water, coffee (sometimes with a shot of whiskey)--which I think is a fabulous drink to help unleash your creativity. Maybe next time your gnashing your teeth over your theme, drink some coffee and whiskey, and see where it goes.

    My sci-fi is kinda in that state right now. I can't think of the theme. Or the ending either for that matter.

    And Happy Day After the 4th to you too!

  3. I think story comes first. Theme, for me, is something that emerges after I've got the bones of the story laid out. It's a little like a Rorschach test in some ways, because I don't always know what I'm writing "about" until I see it on the page.

    Drinks are most important, though. Coffee with cream in a steel mug. :)

  4. plot always comes first for me. If i'm lucky Theme follows close behind, but once it didn't show until after the first draft was done. It popped out on the very last line

  5. Plot definitely comes first for me too. Get the story down first and then fine tune the details later. :)

  6. For me, it's plot. I don't even think about the themes until later, and then I generally find out that I've woven a few things in there that I can draw out some more.

  7. The "good" writers sit down gracefully at their computer with a mug of steaming tea by their side and classical music gently dancing through the air. - This made me laugh out loud!

    I'm much more like you, caught up in the mad rush of the muse. I'm a character gal myself, so for me it's usually: character, plot, theme. Sometimes the theme doesn't reveal itself until well into the book.

  8. Theme should come last. It comes from the story and how the story unfolds, not from you.

  9. I'll just echo what's already been said. Plot comes first for me. I have a story I want to tell, and only as I start working through that story do I figure out the theme. Not that it just magically presents itself to me one day, but that it takes shape gradually. And once I realize what it is, I can go back and make changes as necessary to tailor the plot to the theme.

  10. Not a writer at all...so I'll just say that I loved reading your description of what a "perfect writer" must do...Awesome! (and probably couldn't be further from the truth...I would bet that most are exactly like you are!)


I love getting comments. They're as much fun as getting real snail mail. So please, chime in and tell me what you think!

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