Using Theme to Plan Your Novel: Plot

So, we’ve talked about theme, main character and character arc, side characters, and setting. Now it’s time to talk about plot.

First of all, remember that before tackling your planning with theme, I expect you to already have a general idea of premise and some direction for your book. You may have written a few chapters to get a feel for your world. You may not be a big time plotter. That’s okay. I’m not going to take you through in-depth outlining.

When your using theme to plan your plot, you really use it as more of a checks and balance system. You used your theme to figure out your main character’s arc, and plot is really just how you get your MC from point A to point B in their character arc. How you decide to do that is up to you and I can’t give you a tried and true process. But after giving all your side characters different relationships to the theme, you should be able to see opportunities for obstacles and tension with your MC and their journey. Use these. Layer them in. Some you will use for plot wide conflict, like with the antagonist. Some will just add tension to specific sections and scenes. Use it. Use it. Use it.

The biggest thing you need to do when plotting your novel is keep your theme in mind. Remember your two different theme statements for your MC. You need to find a way to change them from the initial false theme statement, to the final realization/true theme statement. This means you need to make sure your plot isn’t working against you. Make sure your plot is proving your final theme statement and not your initial theme statement.

That means it should work like this. Throughout the first half of the novel, your MC makes decisions according to their false theme statement. Some of these decisions may work out at first, but by the midpoint, enough should have gone wrong to give your MC a moment of reflection. This moment is brought about by a side character at, or near, the midpoint actually stating the true theme statement. But then, something happens right around the midpoint that throws your MC even further into their false theme statement. For a moment they thought about changing, but now they absolutely can’t. They are more committed to their false statement than ever before.

As your character runs with their false theme statement, things should unravel and unravel until finally you have brought them to their lowest point. Their dark night of the soul. How they recover from this dark night, how they finally decide to fight back, must reflect your final and true theme statement. This is important! How they get out of this hell you’ve put them through, what happens at the climax must support your theme, not undermine it! This will look a little different depending on if you are writing a negative or positive character arc.

HAMILTON: Alexander Hamilton has a classic tragic character arc. From the very beginning we see him talking about how he’s not going to throw away his shot and how he wishes there was a war so he can rise up. Remember, his false theme statement is that he can create his own legacy by taking risks and working nonstop. But about 40% of the way through the musical, George Washington tells Hamilton this, “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Then the revolutionary war ends and Hamilton gets to meet his son and it seems for a moment that maybe he’ll just become a family man. Have Eliza and Phillip and “that would be enough.” But then we get the finale of the first act and Washington asks Hamilton to come and be the Secretary of the Treasury. Eliza begs him to stay and the music builds an builds until we finish the first act with Hamilton signaling that he is plowing right back into that false theme statement by saying, “I am not throwing away my shot!”

Then in the second act, things start unraveling. Hamilton has his affair with Maria Reynolds because he “can’t say no to this.” Hamilton has never made himself say no to an opportunity. He never throws away his shot. Then when his enemies find out, he can’t bear the thought of allowing other people to tarnish his legacy. He creates his legacy, remember? So, without thinking of how it will affect those who love him most, Hamilton writes and publishes everything about his affair. Because at least he took control of the information about him. He is still in control of legacy.

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There is a glimmer of redemption after his son dies in a duel. But when Alexander is challenged to a duel with Burr, he doesn’t back down. He hasn’t fully learned this lesson about his legacy.

Until…Burr takes HIS shot. Hamilton has finally (literally) thrown away his shot, but it’s too late. And in the moments before the bullet hits him, he has his realization. “What if this bullet is my legacy? Legacy, legacy, what is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Do you see how this directly leads to the true theme statement, “You have no control who live, who dies, who tells your story.”

 

ZOOTOPIA: I will not be able to get as detailed with this one because I did not watch Zootopia on repeat for three months straight. But…I’ll give it my best shot. Now Zootopia is a classic positive character arc, so it is going to be shaped a little differently than Hamilton.

Officer Hopps begins the movie by claiming that Zootopia is the place where anybody can be anything and to prove it, she’s going to go and be a police officer. This is her false theme statement. But when she goes to Zootopia, things don’t work out the way she thinks they should. In a last ditch effort to prove everyone wrong, she gets 48 hours to solve a case. To do so, she must partner up with Nick Wiles, a fox. Now at the beginning of the movie, Officer Hopps shows some of her bias against foxes when she is nervous of Nick, but then she scolds herself for her backwards thinking and goes out of her way to show just how unbiased she is against foxes.  

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But that same bias that she is fighting against in other people when it’s about her, still exists in her own heart about other animals, specifically predators and foxes. As the movie goes on, more and more of her biases seem to be proven right, when predators start attacking, and she is thrown right back into simply seeing herself as proving the biases against HER wrong, without focusing on the changes she needs to make in her own heart. I don’t know the movie well enough to tell you which side character must state the true theme statement somewhere around the midpoint, but I am sure it happens.

Finally, at her dark night of the soul, she realizes that her bias and efforts to prove everyone else wrong about her, have hurt her friend, Nick, and thrown Zootopia into utter chaos, bringing out ugliness and terrible bias. She gives up her badge and goes back to her parents’ carrot farm. But what pulls her out of this dark night? Remember, IT MUST REFLECT THE TRUE THEME STATEMENT! It’s the fox from her childhood, the one who hurt and bullied her as a child, probably helping to instill some of those biases she carried with her about predators and foxes. When she meets him as an adult and he’s gentle and sweet and apologizes for how he acted as a kid (and of course says something that helps her break the case, but that’s beside the point!) He helped heal this lingering bias in her heart, so now Officer Hopps can go back to Zootopia, solve the case, and stand up and say, “Change begins with you!”

 

I know this is a lot to process, both because there’s a lot of information and not a ton of specific instructions. But the main thing I want you to walk away from this post understanding is that your plot must support your theme. And when your MC is making choices according to their false theme statement, it must eventually lead to bad things. Once they begin acting according to their true theme statement we get resolution and healing.

Amanda Rawson Hill