Outlining your novel is one thing. But then, whether you prefer to outline with minimalism, maximalism, or hindsight (aka, in revisions), a surprisingly easy stumbling block can be that of figuring out how to use your outline in the first draft.
I’ve read several of your writing books, as well as too many blog posts to count, and I don’t think I’ve seen this addressed. Forgive me if I missed it.
I have an extensive outline that I’m quite pleased with, and I’m about 40,000+ words into my first draft, but here’s the thing: I’m struggling with the actual writing and I can’t seem to get into the flow because I keep going back and forth between the draft and the outline. I have so much in my outline that I want to be sure to include, that I find I can only get a few sentences in before I’m pulled back to referencing the outline.
It’s like I have one eye on each, and it equals a slog of an experience!
I see tons of advice on how to create an outline, but very little on the practicality of actually using it. So I guess my question is, how do you utilize your outline when writing that first draft? How often are you referencing your outline as you write?
For a long time, the writing world differentiated between writers who were “plotters” (those who planned/plotted a story before writing it) and writers who were “pantsers” (those who “write by the seat of their pants” with no upfront planning). However, over my years of outlining many books, writing many words about outlines, and learning about how other writers work, I’ve come to believe these distinctions are far too narrow.
At some point in the process, almost all writers end up outlining/plotting/planning. And at other points, we all end up pantsing/winging it/being spontaneously creative. In a craft as complex as that of novel-writing, both are equally important. How much outlining an author does upfront versus how much revision that same author does on the back end will vary greatly depending on each author’s personal mental wiring and creative preferences.
That said, let me now express a little of my personal passion for maximalist outlining. I write extensive outlines, which start out with largely incoherent stream-of-conscious ramblings and questioning, before eventually solidifying into detailed scene outlines that contain just about everything a first draft should except for narrative prose.
For example, here’s a snippet of the scene outline from my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer (from the scene in which he “contracts” his super-speed):
Will flees for home. The trip is a blur. He’s nauseated, vomiting, and horribly dizzy, heart beating out of control, short of breath. I think that the powers should manifest just a little bit: his hands moving quicker than he’s used to, so he has trouble with the door latch. But he chalks it up to his illness.
And here’s approximately the same snippet from the corresponding scene in the first draft:
Through the weed-eaten garden, Will ran. Up and over first one stile, across the road, then the other stile. The night air cut through the sweat on his face. Even as he ran, his teeth rattled cruelly.
For the first time since he was a lad running this field at night, he caught his toe and fell on his face. Before he hit the soft soil, his stomach erupted. He vomited, and then he vomited again. The stars in the sky spun and spun, in every direction, up and down, in front and behind.
On hands and knees, he dragged himself forward, barely gaining his feet.
This time, there was no running; indeed, he could scarcely walk. He splashed into the knee-high stream before its gentle splashing even registered in his ears. He crossed without looking for the bridge. He would have been unable to see it in any case.
He staggered up to the house. His vision had gone completely dark, so maybe there was no light in the window.
My goal in writing any outline is to, first, pour out all of my “dreams” about a given story. I want to number all the shiny pieces my subconscious creativity has given me.
Then, by the time I’m done with the outline, I want to have moved as thoroughly as possible through the first analytical pass. I use my scene outlines to work through a story’s logical progression. I want to figure out as many of the details as possible, everything from what props are available in a particular scene’s setting, to the specific action/reaction sequence of each scene’s structure, to the motivations of all on-stage minor characters.
In other words, I try to use my outline to answer every single question I can think of before I start writing the first draft. I do this for two intertwined reasons.
2. When writing my first draft, I want to turn away from my logical brain and immerse myself utterly in the imaginative dreamzone space of my story.
I can’t do the latter if my logical brain is always turning into Hermione-raising-her-hand-every-five-minutes. And I certainly can’t do both simultaneously if I haven’t already checked off the bulk of any story’s necessary causal analysis and troubleshooting.
This is why I outline. But how do I then take all these tens of thousands of words from my outline and seamlessly integrate them into the creative zone of my first draft?
5 Tips for How to Use Your Outline
How you choose to reference your outlining notes during the first draft will depend largely on the format of the notes themselves.
Writers who prefer the minimalist approach may create outlines that feature only a single phrase for each suggested scene, or even just a phrase for each important structural beat. In this case, referencing the outline is a comparatively simple and intuitive activity, since you’ll probably only need to check your notes at the beginning of each writing session. (In fact, some of these writers end up filling in their outlines simultaneously with their first drafts, as a way of keeping track of what they’re writing, for easy continuity checks.)
But what if, like me, you end up with enough outline notes to form a respectable pile of notebooks?
In the case of maximalist outliners, it becomes essential to create a system for accessing all those juicy notes you’ve labored over, without constantly pulling yourself out of first-draft flow.
(Needless to say, writers who prefer to wait until after the first draft is altogether finished to do their logical thinking will have few, if any, notes to start with. Depending on the extent of required revisions, these authors may end up, to all essential purposes, following either the minimalist or maximalist crowd.)
Here are my top tips for organizing and using your outline notes, however few or many they may be.
Here’s the thing about piles upon pile of rambling notes that circle around randomly: they get to be a mess quick. This is especially true if you outline longhand like I do (if you’re interested in following my outlining process in a tidy digital approach, check out my Outlining Your Novel Workbook software).
The trick is to organize your outline notes as you’re writing them. Use color-coded highlighting systems to file your ideas for easy reference later. If you’re writing longhand, transcribe regularly (especially if, like moi, you can’t read your own writing after too much time passes). This will save you a ton of work in the interim between outline and first draft. You can thank me later.
2. Buy Scrivener
You can, of course, write and use even the most complex of outlines without Scrivener. But this powerhouse word processor for writers just makes everything so much easier. With its opportunities for folders and files and sub-files, among many other organizational gadgets, its a huge step up from juggling your story’s outline and first draft between separate Word files.
By the time I’m ready to write my first draft, I will have used Scrivener to organize my outline notes scene by scene, along with many sub-folders for reference material that includes everything from research notes to costume pictures to character interviews to the random bits of story info I call “orange notes” (because of the highlighter I use to color-code them).
This way, if I find myself needing to break concentration to check something, I don’t have to go far. With everything at my fingertips, I can quickly check myself, then jump back into writing.
3. Block Out a Beat-by-Beat “Storyboard” for Each Scene, But…
Now that we have our outline notes set up and optimally organized within Scrivener, what’s the best approach to referencing the notes without bumping out of the writing zone every five minutes?
Each time I begin writing a new scene, I review my notes and create a sequential list of everything that needs to happen in the scene. The list I used for the scene from Wayfarer, in the original section of this post, started out something like this:
Will is dizzy as he runs home across the field.
He trips and vomits.
He tries to get into the house, but his reflexes are too fast.
In essence, I’m creating a non-visual storyboard, with each beat blocked out.
4. …Don’t Do It Until the Last Minute
You’ll note I do this storyboarding whenever I’m ready to start writing a new scene. Feasibly, you could go ahead and write up the complete beat list for every scene before you start the first draft. This is an approach I consider with every book I write—and one I always reject.
Because my memory is faulty. I write best when I know what I’m writing. If I have to take a little time at the beginning of every scene to think my way through my scene outline, then I know my head will be in the right place. If I merely scanned a beat list I might have written months ago, I would inevitably miss some important moment on the list and end up constructing the scene inappropriately.
Writing up each scene’s beat-by-beat sequence refreshes my memory and lets me take full advantage of all the notes and ideas I labored over when in the outlining phase.
5. Paste Your Beat List Directly Into Your Scene Doc
Once I’ve knocked out my beat list, I put it in the main body of my scene’s Scrivener file. I position it on the screen so the first item of the list is just above the bottom of the screen, directly in my line of sight. This way, I can easily glance down and reference the beat I’m working on.
As soon as I finish the beat, I’ll delete it, which raises the subsequent beat into view. Sometimes, of course, I won’t need to reference every beat. I may write several beats before needing to look down and check my progress.
This approach allows me to focus on bringing to life the first draft’s causes and effects without having to constantly click out of full-screen mode to make sure I’m adhering to the logical progression I already worked out.
Is this the most elegant approach to dealing with maximalist outline notes? Maybe not. It does require a little extra work before each scene. But over my years of outlining and writing almost a dozen novels, this is the method I’ve found most useful. It helps me make full use of my outlines and, as a result, allows me to write relatively clean first drafts from a place of uninterrupted creativity. As far as I’m concerned, that’s win-win!
How you outline, how much you outline, and how you use your outline when writing your first draft are all deeply personal parts of the writing process. Only you can figure out the nuances that will position you to write your best novel. But these tips may help you decide your own personalized tricks.
Sometimes plot and theme are confused as being basically the same thing. Other times, they’re viewed as so distinct they don’t even belong in the same discussion.
So which is it?
First questions first: is plot basically the same thing as theme? To some degree, the answer is yes. Or, at least, intuitive phrasing often links them.
Let’s consider, for example, Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. One way of summing up this novel is as follows:
A poor woman and a rich man improbably fall in love.
Plot or theme?
If you’ve been following our informal series of posts exploring the various aspects of theme, then you probably already know the answer. What this premise reveals about Pride & Prejudice is plot. How do we know? Because what’s described is all external action; it tells what happens in the characters’ world. Even in a romance or social novel, in which much of the “action” is confined primarily to verbal exchanges or even to just the characters’ thoughts and emotions, we know we’re dealing with plot when we’re dealing with anything that references a linear progression of events or realizations.
The theme of Pride & Prejudice, of course, is obvious, since Austen spelled it out in the title.
Now consider another proposed premise for Pride & Prejudice, and tell me if this one is about plot or theme:
A poor woman and a rich man are able fall in love only after overcoming their mutual prides and prejudices.
It’s both, right?
And this is where we find that inherent link between plot and theme.
Plot and theme are not the same thing. As already discussed, theme is an abstract argument (moral or existential) that proposes a truth about reality. But without plot, theme is nothing but an idea. It’s a theory to perhaps be discussed over coffee with friends or colleagues. But it’s a not a story.
A story is what you get when a theme meets a plot. In our second premise, we see how vital one is to the other. The plot (“falling in love”) provides the exterior action that proves (or disproves) the theme’s proposed argument (“pride and prejudice are both roadblocks to meaningful romantic relationships”). In turn, the theme provides a why to the plot’s how.
Plot and theme are neither identical, nor segregated. Rather, plot joins theme and character as the third and most visible of any of storyform’s Big Three. Plot is the load-bearer of the partnership. Not only must it produce a story experience that is both convincing and entertaining, it must also take on the substantial weight of providing the characters with the external conflict that will force them to engage with theme.
Plot Should Always Be About Theme
What’s a story about? That’s an extremely broad question. As we talked about last week, the answer any given person provides might be variously plot-, character-, or theme-centric. But as we’ve also talked about before, the true answer is always theme. What this means for writers at its most practical level is that what your plot is about is theme.
Plot and theme must be linked at such a granular level that it becomes difficult to describe the specifics of one without at least hinting at the specifics of the other.
Or put another way: plot and theme will be linked, whether you plan it or not.
The decisions your characters make and the actions they perform will always comment on reality in some way. When a character gets away with murder—or falls in love at first sight—or becomes a conscientious objector—or succumbs to alcoholism—all of their stories will inevitably say something about how reality is or at least how the author thinks it should be.
Your story will say these things whether you plan it or not, whether you even recognize it or not. Sometimes these oblivious breathings of our subconscious minds provide the most seamless and powerful themes of all. But even more often, an author’s lack of awareness about his plot’s message will lead him to one or both of two undesirable outcomes:
1. The plot ends up “proving” something the writer never intended.
2. The writer unintentionally proves one thing via the plot, while consciously trying to prove another thing through a pasted-on theme that isn’t actually borne out by the story’s events.
The former can arise from the author’s over-reliance on plot conventions. Instead of searching out honest answers from within herself, the author just reaches for the same old familiar stand-by she’s seen in a hundred other shoot-em-ups or romances. As readers or viewers, we’ve all experienced these stories—the ones that expect us to believe the good guys did the right thing just because they’re the good guys or that the romantic leads fell deeply and lastingly in love just because they’re young and hot and had a meet-cute.
In contrast, the latter arises from the author’s good intentions but poor understanding of what his story was really about. He intended one theme, but failed to realize the events created in the plot were actually speaking to another thematic argument altogether. The result is an erratic story that, at best, presents two different themes. At worst, it fails in its presentation of both.
5 Questions to Align Plot and Theme
Creating a fully-formed story with a mutual plot and theme is one of the highest aspirations of any writer. Doing so requires skill, and that skill requires awareness. Following are five crucial questions you can use to gut-check yourself about whether or not you’ve married your theme to the right plot—and vice versa.
1. Why This Plot? Why This Theme?
Two questions for the price of one—because, seriously, this is probably the most important query you can make in examining your story’s effectiveness. Why must your character endure this particular plot in order to learn this particular theme? If there is no obvious connection, then either the plot or the theme is the wrong choice.
2. Does This Plot Facilitate a Character Arc That Proves Your Theme?
Your story inspiration may originate with any of the Big Three, but assuming for the moment that it originated with theme, you need to bring your investigation full circle. The theme must be proven within the character arc (via the Lie/Truth debate at the heart of the character’s inner conflict), and that character arc must alternatively cause or be caused by the plot. For the storyform to work, all three must be linked.
You can, of course, proceed with this same investigation no matter which of the Big Three is your entry point. If you’re starting with a plot idea (or if you’ve already finished your first draft), ask yourself just what the events of this plot—and your character’s journey through it—is saying about reality.
Very often, when you are struck with an idea for one of the Big Three, you’ll get simultaneous ideas for one or both of the remaining two. Just make sure you’re not taking any one of them for granted.
3. Can Your Plot’s External Conflict Be a Metaphor for the Character’s Internal Conflict?
We already know theme and character arc are inherently linked. From there, one of the single best ways to get your head around the further symbiosis of plot and character is to think of the story’s external conflict as a metaphor for the inner conflict.
For instance, if the character is working through beliefs about pacifism, the appropriate external and visual metaphor for this conflict will very likely be a theater of war (or a century of wars, as in Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle).
4. How Do the External Changes of Your Plot Catalyze Your Character’s Inner Changes?
For a storyform to work properly, the outer and inner conflicts must mirror one another. More than that, they must act upon one another. Every beat of the external plot must create enough inner turmoil that the character’s arc inevitably advances. And for every beat in the internal arc, the character’s changing mindset and motivation must be turned outward to actively affect the exterior events of the plot. Only through this interweaving of outer and inner causes and effects can a consistent theme be fully realized.
Proper scene structure can be a great aid in harmonizing the inner and outer conflicts. Although the entire structural sequence can apply fully to either the outer conflict or the inner conflict, usually it’s helpful to view the first half the structure (Scene: Goal > Conflict > Disaster) as active in the external conflict, and the second half (Sequel: Reaction > Dilemma > Decision) as the internal reaction that will, in turn, roll back around to impact the external conflict in the next Scene.
5. Have You Vetted the Thematic Pertinence of Every Scene?
A story is the sum of its scenes. Remember our example, above, of the author who wanted to write one theme but ended up with a plot that proved a different theme altogether? Very likely, the problem lay less in the overall plot than in a few individual scenes that got away from the author.
Consider every scene in your story. Just as each and every scene should sequentially advance plot via its external conflict, each and every scene should also be active in its service to the theme. It’s not enough to ask yourself, at the end of the book: What is this story saying? You must ask that question of every scene: What is this scene saying?
If the scene is saying something tangential to the thematic premise or, worse, at odds with it, you must reevaluate the scene’s effectiveness at every level. Like a mosaic, all your many different scenes must eventually combine to produce a meaningful big picture.
This is what I call “thematic economy.” If the scene in question doesn’t tell something crucial about the theme(s) and the character’s relation to said theme(s), then it either needs to be reworked or expunged in service of the tale’s potency.
A story that is about theme is a story that has found its theme deep within its characters and used that theme to, in turn, create its plot. When an author can pull this off, story’s Big Three become integral to each other in a way that presents a powerful and compelling visual metaphor for even the most deeply personal and relatable moral quandaries.
What’s the easiest way to find your story’s theme—and make it stick? Although any discussion of theme is multi-faceted, one of the best ways to approach this complex topic is through the realization that you can use theme to create character arc—and vice versa.
When asked to explain what a particular story is about, some people may respond with a plot answer: “It’s about the end of the world.”
Others may even respond with a theme answer: “It’s about whether it’s morally acceptable to save a few at the cost of the many.”
But implicit within either answer is character.
Indeed, the third possible answer is, of course, straight-up about the characters: “It’s about astronauts.”
The end of the world and its incumbent moral quandaries are hardly interesting unless people are involved. (Or at least anthropomorphic entities. Watership Down, after all, is an extremely engaging apocalypse.)
Identifying Your Story’s Text, Context, and Subtext
If theme is a story’s soul and plot is its mind, then character is its heart. Character is always and ever the life force of story. But what is life without meaning? Even in stories that wish to posit the meaning of life is there is no meaning, that’s still a meaning. That’s still a theme.
The bottom line is you can’t have a proper story without people (characters) doing stuff (plot)—the very highlighting of which inevitably comments upon reality (theme).
Together, this trinity of storytelling mutually generates the text, context, and subtext.
The outer conflict, represented by plot, exists on the story’s exterior and most visual level. This is the text.
The inner conflict, represented by character arc, exists on the story’s interior level. This is the context. It provides the first layer of commentary on the plot’s events. When viewed through the differing context of different characters’ inner struggles, a plot’s text can take on many different meanings.
Finally, the story’s theme nestles in the center of the Venn. It may never be seen; it may never be explicitly spoken of or referenced. But even silent, it creates the subtext. Depending on how the other two elements are presented, this subtext may either cohesively support or ironically juxtapose the story’s text and context.
In short, it would seem the character’s personal relationship with the plot events is what creates the thematic subtext. This is 100% true. But if viewed from another vantage, it becomes clear that an aware author can also shape the story in the opposite direction by consciously using theme to create character arc.
Effective character arcs are inherently related to thematic presentation. This means all discussions of character arc are really discussions of theme. Character arc is, in itself, a deep and complex subject, which I’ve explored in many other posts and, of course, my book Creating Character Arcs (and its companion workbook). For the sake of expediency, today’s post assumes a basic understanding of character-arc principles, but if you want more info, check out the preceding links.
Today, I want to talk specifically about how theme creates character arc and/or character arc creates theme (depending which end the author tugs first). I’m necessarily talking about each of these aspects in partial isolation. Two weeks ago, we talked about how to identify your thematic premise; next week, we’ll talk about manifesting theme in the outer conflict of your story’s plot. But don’t forget that each is part of the larger symbiosis.
None of these three elements—theme, character, and plot—are created in isolation. Instead, the author must employ what I call the “bob and weave.” If you have a notion about what you want your theme to be, you might start by investigating how that could play out in the plot, which might prompt you to start developing suitable characters, which might bring you back to questions of plot—and on and on, back and forth, back and forth. For every little bit you develop theme, you must develop character and plot apace.
So how can you use theme to create character arc? And how can you use your character’s arc to help you identify and solidify your theme? Following is a five-part checklist that will help you identify the thematic pieces already at play and then use them to generate further ideas that will harmonize your story into a single unified idea.
1. The Thematic Premise’s Explicit Argument
As we talked about in this post, the essence of your theme will be summed up in its thematic premise. There are many ways, this premise might be expressed—everything from a single word to a fully-realized sentence. When using the thematic premise to develop character arc, the central tenet you’re most interested in is its argument.
Implicit within even the most amoral thematic premise will be a central question. That question is going to produce the heart of your protagonist’s character arc. This is the question that will drive his quest throughout the story. The answer may end up being explicit (as with Dorothy Gale’s “there’s no place like home”), or it may be deeply implicit (as we talked about previously with The Great Escape‘s “the human spirit is indomitable”). Either way, the search for this answer will define your protagonist’s inner conflict.
In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the thematic premise’s argument might be turned into the question: “What determines the worth of a life?”
In Charles Portis’s True Grit, the thematic premise’s argument might be turned into the question: “Is justice a personal responsibility?”
In Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, the thematic premise’s argument might be turned into the question: “Does defense of one’s family justify all means?”
2. Inner Conflict, Pt. 1: Lie vs. Truth
A story’s theme is a posited Truth about life. This Truth may be inherently moral (“what does it mean to be a good person?”), or it may be existential (“what is life all about?”). Either way, the story will indicate that a certain Truth is, indeed, true.
Necessarily, where there is a proposed Truth, there must also be opposing un-truths—or Lies. And how does a story explore these Truths and Lies? Not, your readers sincerely hope, through lengthy, sermon-y exposition, in which they are told what’s what and what’s not. Rather, readers want to be shown. They want to see your proposed Truth acted out in a realistic simulation. Whether the proposed Truth can hold up under stressful reality will be “proven” (or disproven) by how well that Truth and its opposing Lies serve your character over the course of the story.
No matter what type of arc you’re using (Positive Change, Flat, or Negative Change), the story’s central Truth will be the crucial piece needed for the characters to achieve positive ends within their quests. If they resolve their inner conflicts by embracing the Truth, the outer conflict will follow suit. If they cling to the Lie and prove unable to embrace the Truth, their external pursuits will end in, at best, hollow victories.
In A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge overcomes his Lie that “the worth of a life is measured in money” and embraces the Truth that “the worth of a life is measured in charity and goodwill.”
In True Grit, Mattie Ross’s steadfast Truth that “a careless attitude about justice will create social anarchy” creates measurable change in the world and characters around her.
In The Godfather, Michael Corleone ends by embracing the Lie that “corruption and violence are a justified means to an end.”
3. Inner Conflict, Pt. 2: Want vs. Need
If we climb up another rung on the story ladder from Abstract Theme toward Concrete Plot, we find the next level in your character arc’s development. The story’s central inner conflict between Lie/Truth will translate directly into the character’s Want/Need.
The Lie is rooted in or is the catalyst for one of the character’s central Wants. In Change Arcs, this Lie-driven Want will probably directly influence the character’s plot goal. In a Flat Arc, the protagonist will already believe in the story’s Truth, but will have to contend with the Wants of other characters whose adherence to the central Lie will create external obstacles.
At its broadest, the Need is always the Truth. What any Lie-believing character Needs is the Truth. But, like the Want, the Need will often translate into a literal object, person, or state within the external plot.
In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge Wants to “make as much money as possible.” What he Needs is the love of his fellow human beings.
In True Grit, Mattie’s Want of “bringing her father’s killer to justice” is in alignment with the Need of the world around her, but is obstructed by the moral apathy of the lawmen she hires to help her.
In The Godfather, Michael Wants to protect his criminal family. What he Needs is to leave the life of crime behind him.
4. Inner Conflict Becoming Outer Conflict
Your character’s inner conflict cannot exist in a vacuum. The inner conflict must be caused by and, in turn, must cause the outer conflict. This is a direct development of the Want/Need. In order to bring all of the Big Three—theme, character, and plot—into alignment, the Lie/Truth must be expressed as the Want/Need.
Depending on the nature of your story and the type of arc you’ve chosen for your characters, they will likely be forced to choose between what they Want and what they Need. This will be the externalized metaphor that proves the corresponding choice between the theme’s Lie and Truth. Readers will never need to be hit over the head with a “moral of the story” when they can be shown a character’s wrenching choice between two concrete objects, people, or states of being.
This decision should never come easily. If the posited “right” choice is obviously better than the “wrong” choice, the thematic argument will lack teeth. If the right choice is easy, why should the character need to experience any inner conflict at all? This is why the argument between Lie and Truth must truly be an argument. If a Truth that posits “murderers are evil” is opposed by the simplistic Lie that “murderers are good”—there is no argument. But if the Lie is complex enough to allow the author to explore why, for instance, a defense lawyer might truly believe her psychopathic client deserves not to be punished—then suddenly, you have an interesting premise that can be played out in the external conflict with extremely high stakes.
In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge must choose between facing the monumental weight of his wasted life or going to his grave unperturbed.
In True Grit, Mattie must choose between pursuing her father’s killer and her own safety.
In The Godfather, Michael must choose between living a righteous life or protecting his family by any means.
5. Change Within the Character, Change Within the Plot
The surest way to check whether your theme is in harmony with your characters (and, therefore, your plot) is to hone in on what changes within your story. How are the characters—particularly the protagonist—different at the end of the story from how they were at the beginning? If there are no changes, then the storyform will be fundamentally problematic.
Another problem may arise when the character changes, but not in alignment with the thematic premise. This is a sign of a disconnect at some point in the story. Even if you’ve attempted to paste a different theme over the top, what your story is really about is always rooted in the change that occurs in your characters and their world.
When we see theme fully integrated with other story elements, that theme will always be an active force, either working change upon the protagonist or worked by him upon other characters.
In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge changes from a miser in the story’s beginning to a repentant, joyous, and charitable man in the end.
In True Grit, Mattie has wrought change upon the world around her, bringing an end to her father’s murderer and the outlaw gang he ran with, as well as inspiring actions in the complacent and self-serving lives of the lawmen she encountered on her journey.
In The Godfather, Michael changes from an clean-cut young war hero with a legitimate career to a ruthless mafia don.
When theme is a message imposed upon a story, the result often feels disconnected or even heavy-handed. But when the author works with the theme via the characters, the story’s Truth will arise beautifully and powerfully as part of an organic whole. Try it out!
Part 21 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
Stories live or die on their pacing. Great characters and concepts are the heartbeat of good fiction, but even the greatest can struggle to keep readers’ attention if the pacing is off.
Pacing is a lot like tone. It varies depending on the type of story you’re telling, and it’s instrumental in informing readers what to expect from this story—both in terms of content and the speed at which it unspools. Stories with purposely leisurely pacing instruct readers to settle in. Writers like Lois McMaster Bujold and Susanna Kearsley draw patient readers in with a slow burn of detail and foreshadowing. Others like Brent Weeks and Steven Gould race readers through fast-paced action-oriented stories. These approaches create completely different reading experiences (even within the same same genre), but all signal competent authors who know how to use pacing to serve story.
I have to admit I wasn’t just dying to see Captain Marvel. The trailers didn’t wow me; Carol Danvers seemed to come across somewhere between boring and annoying. Plus, I just haven’t been in the mood for a theater movie lately. However, mostly because some of you guys were already asking me about this post, I made it happen.
All of this is to say I went into the theater in a slightly grumpy “make me like you” kind of mood. And… two hours later, I left with a big smile on my face. (I love it so much when that happens that it almost tempts me to get grumpy before every movie.) Captain Marvel was one of the best Marvel experiences I’ve had since probably Ragnarok. Like Ragnarok, it felt less workmanlike than the other (mostly) solid entries we’ve been seeing lately. It wasn’t wildly original by any means, but it felt different enough from the series’ other origin stories to keep my attention.
A lot of that had to do with the story’s solid pacing. Unlike, say, Ant-Man and the Wasp (in which I have to confess I was pretty bored), Captain Marvel used several important pacing tricks to gel the story and keep the plot tight and progressive. We’re going to look at four of those tricks in a second, but first let’s talk about all the other goodies.
Gorgeous visuals. I loved the look of this thing. The visualization of Carol’s suit (yay for not putting her in heels!), her powers (I’m calling it “rainbow disco”), and her comet-tail mohawk when in the helmet (not to mention zero helmet hair) were all fun to watch.
Gorgeous score. Loved the ’90s playlist, but especially the unobtrusive uniqueness of the instrumental score. This is probably my favorite Marvel score since Tyler Bates’s beautiful take on Guardians, Vol. 2.
Goose.I’ve been seriously contemplating getting a new dog. Goose is starting to sway me toward considering a flerkin instead.
The girl herself. As mentioned, I really didn’t think I was going to like Carol. But I did. What seemed like bland smugness in the trailers worked as wry humor in actual context.
Ben Mendelsohn. I was psyched to see him end up as a sympathetic character. It was a great bait and switch that had me rooting for the character long before the truth about him was made known.
Fury (and Coulson). I’m a sucker for ’90s nostalgia right now, so throwing all that in there from the younger perspective of some of our favorite characters was a joy.
The wooden dish brush. Yeah, I know, while everyone else was impressed with Sam Jackson’s singing chops, my sustainable-living obsession had me mostly geeking out about the fact that Carol’s friend Maria had a wooden dish brush (and dish drainer). Go girl.
There wasn’t a whole lot I outright disliked about the movie. Jude Law’s turn as the inevitable traitor was a little yawnable (as someone said to me, “Of course, he betrayed her. He had his bad-guy face on for the whole movie!”). When I see it again, I’ll probably be more nitpicky, but for now I’m just enjoying the afterglow of the first good popcorn flick of the year (and I’m now officially dying for Endgame).
4 Pacing Tricks That Are Easy to Miss
Most advice about pacing has to do with adjusting the “speed” of the story. The most common techniques have to do with either using short sentences, paragraphs, and scenes to speed things up—or lengthening everything to slow things down. Today, however, I want to use Captain Marvel to point out four pacing tricks that aren’t always obvious as pacing tricks. When used appropriately, they go a long way toward grabbing an audience’s attention and keeping it.
Solid structural timing won’t guarantee your story will keep reader attention (just hark back to the structural problems in Iron Man 3—which had nothing to do with timing or pacing). However, solid structural timing that features a coherent spine of truly plot-changing beats—that is a structure with the ability to shuttle readers from one plot event to the next without ever losing their attention.
How Captain Marvel Hits Her Beats
With a few exceptions, most of the Marvel movies do pretty good in the structural department. As a comparatively short medium, movies in general must adhere to accurate timing, and Marvel is no exception. In a two-hour movie, such as Captain Marvel, viewers should experience a big event about every fifteen minutes (which translates to every eighth of the story).
It’s important to note that not just any “big” event will cut it. Randomly deciding to blow something up around the next eighth mark in your story won’t be enough to keep your audience happy. Fireworks aren’t nearly as important as change. With every major structural moment in your story, something should change. The character must be captured and mind-probed by the enemy. Or get marooned on a technologically-challenged planet. Or team up with a new partner. Or learn she’s from said technologically-challenged planet.
With every structural beat, the character must be faced with decisions. What will she do next that will lead her to the next plot beat?
Pacing Trick #2: Start In Medias Res
Although the technique of in medias res (or starting your story “in the middle of things”) has enjoyed a certain misty popularity for quite a while, in some circles it is also frequently met with increasing resistance. Mostly, this is because when executed poorly or without proper understanding of the First Act’s structural requirements, in medias res is just an annoying mess.
When done well, however, in medias res can kickstart your pacing right off the starting line. In a nutshell, a proper use of in medias res should fulfill Elmer Leonard’s famous writing resolution of leaving out “the part readers tend to skip.” In short, get to the point.
Again, this is not necessarily a flashing sign that says “Fireworks Here.” Opening with a big battle won’t hook readers unless they are first given enough context to care about what happens in that battle. An incredible prose writer might be able to make readers read on simply by virtue of the extraordinary verisimilitude of his descriptions. But most of us need to focus on creating openings that present readers with the following:
1. A character.
2. A reason to be intrigued by this character.
3. A problem in progress.
The “problem in progress” part is where in medias res becomes handy. Instead of beginning the story when everything is hunky-dory, choose an opening that places your character already in the middle of an ongoing problem. Usually, this will allow you to cut the throat-clearing and start right off with the bits readers are eager for.
How Captain Marvel Got Right to the Point
Captain Marvel opens with the protagonist as a Kree warrior in the middle of a campaign. That in itself isn’t necessarily enough to make viewers care about her or invest their interest in her plot goals. But throw in the strange dreams that have clearly been haunting her for a while, and suddenly we have a mystery. She’s not just a soldier in a war; she’s a person with personal problems, who also happens to be fighting a war. Much more interesting.
This movie could conceivably have begun all the way back when Carol was still in the Air Force. For that matter, it could have opened with scenes from her childhood when she looked up at the sky and dreamed of being a pilot. But both of these choices (particularly the latter, which smells of an unnecessary prologue if I ever I smelled one) would have failed to properly telegraph to viewers the point of the story. The story would have had to roll through a ton of scenes before it could get down to the actual point of Carol’s journey.
Instead, the film did an admirable job of identifying that oft-mythologized “last possible moment” at which the story could start and still make sense to the audience.
Pacing Trick #3: Use Flashbacks With Panache
Flashbacks are all about pacing. This is so for two important reasons—one with the opportunity to enhance solid pacing and one with the potential to interrupt otherwise solid pacing:
1. Flashbacks Allow for a Shorter Timeline
Why use a flashback at all? Simple—because you don’t want to take the time to tell the entire story chronologically. Maybe that event from your protagonist’s childhood is really important. But everything else that happens in between her thirteenth birthday and the retirement party that starts the main story? Not so much. Instead of creating a bunch of useless filler, you choose instead to open your story at that “last possible minute” and insert the important backstory info as a flashback at the appropriate time.
2. Flashbacks Interrupt the Story Flow
As useful as a flashback may be for shortening the timeline, it is always an interruption to the main story. This means flashbacks should be kept in the box marked “Emergency Only.” This does not mean you should never use flashbacks. Most stories will require a flashback here and there. But it does mean you should think twice—and maybe a third time—before quick-drawing your flashback. If the flashback isn’t crucial to the progression of the plot (i.e., it moves the plot), and if the flashback isn’t every bit as entertaining as the main plot—then leave it lay.
How Captain Marvel Used But Didn’t Abuse Her Flashbacks
Because Captain Marvel began so late in its protagonist’s personal story, it required a relatively hefty use of flashbacks. Often, this is annoying even when necessary, but most of the flashbacks in this film worked well.
Particularly admirable is the Inciting Event scene in which Carol is captured by the Skrull and mind-probed. The scene could have just info-dumped the necessary information in one of those overly-familiar “dreamlike haze” scenes as Carol emerged from unconsciousness. Instead, it created a clever and amusing sequence in which the Skrull commander Talos repeatedly “rewound” her memories, forcing her to visualize details she had previously forgotten. Both the audience and Carol received important information that turned (and, indeed, launched) the plot, but in a way we enjoyed.
Because Captain Marvel is really a mystery story about solving the protagonist’s amnesia, the flashbacks are given a solid reason to be present. They don’t exist merely for self-indulgent or convenient reasons; rather, they are the entire point of the story, which leads us to….
Pacing Trick #4: Replace Info Dumps With Revelations
Perhaps the single greatest pacing trick any writer can master is that of luring readers ever deeper into the story, via a breadcrumb trail of revelations. The careful dance between foreshadowing and revealing a plot turn is the secret power of master writers.
Of course, the first step in creating this fascinating chain of cause and effect is ensuring your story has something worth revealing. Make a list of the most interesting things your characters will learn over the course of the story.
The second step is to resist, at every turn, the impulse to simply dump this information at your readers’ feet. They don’t want that. They want to be made to sweat and suffer. They want to earn the reveal.
What that means, of course, is that the third step is all about setting up those revelations. Foreshadow them. Make your characters ask questions. Make those questions deep and burning and primal. Only provide the answers at the moment when the information is so crucial it will impact the plot with all the power of a photon blast.
How Captain Marvel Kept Reaching for Revelations
Stories are, with few exceptions, mysteries. The most obvious approach to this is, of course, the whodunit. But even quiet internal stories of character growth are ultimately a search for something the character starts out not knowing. An artful writer understands this and starts scattering clues right from Page One.
If we look beyond the rubber-suited trappings of the superhero genre, what we find in Captain Marvel is a buddy-cop movie in which the amusing interaction between mismatched detective partners entertains us as they travel around in search of a resolution to a central mystery. As such, this story is an obvious example of how a solid string of revelations can be used to keep the audience’s attention.
Almost all of the information Carol learns in this movie could have been info-dumped. Instead, both she and viewers (and poor “not Nick” Fury) have to earn those revelations. This means that when she recognizes herself in a picture of a dead pilot, the moment is more than just information. It’s a Moment of Truth that turns both the plot and the her arc.
If pacing is about keeping readers entertained, then entertainment is about good pacing. Figure out ways to apply all four of these pacing tricks to your story, and you will be that much closer to creating the kind of adventure that will leave readers smiling big.
Stay Tuned: In June (personal reasons will keep me from being able to post until then), we’ll conclude our series with an examination of the long-awaited Avengers: Endgame.
There are words I think of as “infinite words.” These are words that express more, in their essence, than we can ever quite seem to explain. They’re the words of poetry. Indeed, many are complete poems all in a single word.
For me, one of those words is “theme.”
Theme is one of those endlessly fascinating subjects you can study all your life and never quite nail down. You circle it many times and think you’ve got it captured in some neat little formula, only to discover you’ve seen just one of its faces, one of its many ambiguous and numinous aspects.
That’s fun. It’s also frustrating.
For a writer—or, indeed, any artist—who is trying to consistently create stories that are thematically strong and solid, our finite relationship to the infinitude of theme can often feel akin to facing down the night sky in an attempt to understand the universe. As with so much of writing, we either go mad, or realize “the struggle is the glory.”
Last week, I offered a bird’s eye view of how I see theme. That post was the first of quite a few discussions on theme, which I hope to posit this year. Today, I want to investigate the thematic principle.
What Is Theme?
One of the reasons theme is a tricky topic to master is that it is also often a tricky topic to talk about. Because it is such a vast (and abstract) subject, every writer seems to have a slightly different definition. I learned this first-hand via the many Writing Questions of the Day (#WQOTD) I’ve conducted on Twitter and Facebook over the years. One of the questions I occasionally ask is the simple “What’s your story’s theme?”
The responses span the gamut from writers who rattle off single-word summations (such as “responsibility”) to writers who fret because they can’t confine their theme to a single word. My personal preference for summing up theme is to look for the “Truth” at the heart of any prominent character change within the plot. But other authors will, with equal validity, choose instead to identify underlying topics or recurring motifs, many of which are never made explicit within the narrative.
This myriad of subtly different approaches can create confusion about what theme actually is. After all, every single one of these approaches seems legit. And they are legit—because every single one of them, although not necessarily definitive in itself, helps us gain a bigger-picture view of story. Just as importantly, each of these views provides metrics by which we can consciously analyze and perfect what we are doing.
In future posts, we’re going to look at theme through the lenses of plot and character, which will help us see its more specific and explicit manifestations. But first we need to enter the subject through the doorway of theme itself.
And “theme itself” is perhaps best summed up by its simplest definition:
Theme is a unifying idea or subject, explored via recurring patterns and expanded through comparisons and contrasts.
Because theme often gets boxed into the narrow view of its being nothing more than “the moral of the story,” it’s helpful to also observe theme at work in different mediums.
Take music, for example. I’ve always considered music the “purest” form of storytelling. Music is sheer emotion, manifesting in what is sometimes not just a mental or imaginative experience, but also a physical experience. Music tells stories and conveys truths without even needing words.
French composer Pierre Schaeffer said:
The moment at which music reveals its true nature is contained in the ancient exercise of the theme with variations. The complete mystery of music is explained right there.
The same could be said for story. Although we parade it through various costumes of intellect, action, and sentiment, story—like all art—is ultimately an expression of theme. The plot and the characters are just window dressing, providing visual metaphors for the author’s underlying (sometimes subconscious) ideas. If those ideas ring with universal truth, it is ultimately the theme, more than the plot or the characters, that connects with readers.
Thematic Principle: What Is It?
The simplest way of expressing theme is via the thematic principle. The thematic principle may be a word, or it may be a sentence. Either way, your thematic principle is the “single, unifying idea” we talked about. It your story’s representation and exploration of a universal Truth.
This Truth can take many forms:
It may prove a commonly held Truth (“wars are evil”), or it may be an attempt to disprove a Truth (“wars are a necessary evil”).
It may tackle the deepest questions of human existence (“why are we here?”), or explore our most deeply held values (“love is the most important thing”).
It may offer answers, either implicitly or explicitly (“love conquers all”), or it may choose only to raise questions (“does love conquer all?”).
It may focus on moral dilemmas (“is it okay to protect your own life at the expense of someone else’s?”), or it may simply highlight certain patterns (“life in the inner city”).
It may choose to comment (“Nazi Germany was immoral”), or it may attempt only to observe (“events of the Holocaust”).
It may choose a Truth that is high-minded (“life has meaning”), or it may be mundane (“high school is hard”).
It may be optimistic (“life is wonderful”), or it may be pessimistic (“humans are selfish”).
The one thing the thematic principle can’t be is vague. At first glance, this may seem an easily disprovable suggestion, since you can probably name great stories that seem pretty foggy in the thematic area. This is because excellent themes are rarely blatant or “on the nose.” But if a story works, you can bet that however subtle its themes may be, they are neither vague nor accidental.
There is a huge difference between a vague theme, told by an author who was never quite sure what the theme was, versus a subtle theme that permeates every part of a story so completely it becomes almost invisible via its very prominence.
When I first investigated one of my favorite movies, John Sturges’s classic The Great Escape, I initially found it difficult to sum up a unifying thematic principle in any explicit statement. My go-to metric for finding a story’s theme starts with identifying the Truth at the heart of the protagonist’s arc, then looking for mirroring statements in every aspect of the story. But in some stories, like The Great Escape, the themes aren’t so easily discovered (more on that in a minute).
How Your Thematic Principle Affects Every Part of Your Story
Although condensing a story into a pithy “thematic principle” can sometimes seem overly simplistic, this is exactly what makes it a valuable tool. Your story’s essence, boiled down to its most concise statement, can become the guiding principle for your entire project.
Once you have discovered what your story is about on a thematic level, you will be able to gut check every single scene, every character encounter, every bit of incidental symbolism. The more cohesive every single piece of your story becomes, the more powerful your theme becomes—and the more you can rely on overwhelming subtlety, via your plot and character arcs, rather than falling into heavy-handed moralizing.
As we’ve discussed previously, theme is rarely born in solitude. Theme ideas grow apace with plot ideas and character ideas. This means you do not have to identify your thematic principle in isolation. Identifying the point of your plot and the change in your characters will provide big flashing arrows pointing straight at your thematic principle. (We’ll be talking about both of these in future posts.)
For today, however, I do want to talk about the thematic principle in isolation, specifically ways you can identify theme in stories where the plot and character arcs don’t immediately seem to point to a unifying idea or Truth.
Let’s look back at the movie I mentioned earlier.
The Great Escape is a true story, chronicling the tremendous effort of Allied prisoners to escape a German POW camp. Despite its huge cast, it is less a character story than an event story. So what’s the thematic principle? What Truth is this story sharing beyond that of a remarkable (if largely failed) historical gambit?
How to Identify a Story’s Thematic Principle
On its surface, The Great Escape may seem to reflect the reason writers often feel theme should not be approached consciously. This is because when theme is done exceptionally well, it is often difficult for the audience to verbally identify it. (Can you verbally express, off the top of your head, the theme of great musical compositions such as Aaron Copland’s Rodeo or Gustave Holst’s The Planets?) However, it’s important to note this difficulty for us as readers arises from the seamlessness of the story’s themes. It rarely, if ever, arises from the author’s ignorance of those themes.
Regardless whether you are trying to identify theme as the reader/viewer of someone else’s stories or as the author of your own story, one of the first places you should look is the ending. The ending always tells you what a story is trying to be about. (Some stories get there organically and successfully; others try to present thematic arguments in their closing scenes that, in fact, are only weakly supported by the preceding story.) However subtle or blatant, the Climactic Moment is the thematic point of the story, with the Resolution scene(s) usually offering some sort of explanatory context.
Once you’ve nailed down a concrete idea from a story’s closing scenes, take a look back through the preceding story. Is that same idea mirrored throughout? If not, it could be the story fails to work thematically. Or it could be you simply failed to choose the correct concrete definition for the story’s abstract theme. In that case, try again.
I have come to define the theme of The Great Escape as “the indomitable human spirit.” The story ends with most of the escaped POWs either dead or returned to captivity. On the surface, that doesn’t seem very indomitable. But two particular scenes prove what the story is about.
One is the response of the senior British officer to James Garner’s query about the worth of their gambit:
That depends on your point of view, Hendley.
This suggestion is immediately reinforced by the return of Steve McQueen’s character. After facing down the dejected camp commander (who is on his way to a court-martial), McQueen ends the movie with a cocky grin. His defiant strut back to solitary confinement is played against the jaunty but poignant closing score. The scene emphatically underlines the idea that this ending is not to be seen as a defeat.
When this theorized thematic principle is then played back against everything that happens previously in the plot and in the character development, we can then see how it resonates in every scene—but in such a subtle way that the power is magnified. The theme is shown instead of told.
One final thing to note is that (as previously mentioned) theme is a slippery thing. A story’s thematic premise can often be summed up in more than one way. Some people will look at The Great Escape and phrase its thematic premise differently. Usually, however, this variety just offers differing viewpoints of the same principle. For example, one person’s “indomitable human spirit” might be another person’s “virtuous patriotism.”
Thematic principle is the essence of theme. As the central idea which all other interpretations of a story’s theme either refer to or evolve from, it is a powerful place from which to begin planning and/or identifying your story’s theme.
Once upon a time, Character fell in love with Plot. Right from the start, it was a stormy relationship. There was passion, there was romance, there were epic stakes. And conflict? Puh-lenty.
Sometimes they were pretty sure they couldn’t live with each other a moment longer. Sometimes they tried to give each other up altogether. But even the most adamant intentions couldn’t keep them apart for longer than a lukewarm novel or two. Inevitably, these two star-crossed lovers always reunited, their reincarnations seeking each other out again and again throughout the ages.
They never seemed to realize Theme watched them from afar, love largely unrequited. During all the glory days when fans fervently debated Plot vs. Character, Theme was the one who secretly made the relationship work. Toiling silently behind the scenes, Theme kept pushing Plot and Character together, even when they thought they hated each other. Theme gave meaning to their union. Theme made them a team.
And so goes the greatest epic saga in all of fiction.
Like some new chicken-and-egg debate, writers frequently weigh the respective merits of plot and character. Which came first? Which is more important? Which is the hallmark of the truly great stories?
But this debate is, in my opinion, a false paradigm.
To begin with, it’s a dilemma with no conclusive answer (character-driven fiction offers one array of fictional techniques, plot-driven fiction another—both equally valid and important). Even more importantly, this type of either/or questioning tends to ignore the fact that character and plot’s relationship is part of a larger triangle—crowned by none other than wispy, metaphysical, powerful, unavoidable theme.
Why Writers Believe They Can’t Plot Theme
Why is theme so often excluded from the grand tug of war between plot and character?
There are a couple reasons.
The most obvious is simply that writers often don’t view theme in the same category as plot and character. Plot and character are concrete pieces of story. Theme seems more like some abstract force. Plot and character are almost always discussed in terms of technique: “This is how you do it, kids…” Theme, on the other hand, is often referenced with vague hand gestures: “Oh, you know, it just sort of happens…”
In fact, some writers turn this principle of Thematic Vagueness into a kind of religion. When eager new writers look on high for answers about theme (“How do I write a story with a strong theme?), the responses are adamantly mysterious (“Thou shalt never write theme on purpose“).
The mysteriousness arises from a poor comprehension of how theme functions and interacts with other major story components. Because poorly executed themes are often those that are most obvious and on-the-nose, writers sometimes scare themselves off the subject altogether. We evolve from a healthy fear of preachy themes to an irrational avoidance of theme altogether.
It’s true that powerful, cohesive themes sometimes emerge naturally from a writer’s subconscious. But what’s even truer is that these seemingly subconscious themes inevitably emerge thanks to the author’s intentional understanding and use of those other storytelling Titans: plot and character.
Right there lies the secret. If you can execute your plot and character with understanding and intention, then you’re this close to a conscious execution of theme itself. No more hoping and and praying your subconscious talks to you in a way you understand well enough to transcribe. No more confusion about why your excellent plot and awesome characters sometimes refuse to play nice and combine into an equally amazing story. No more worrying readers will find your story soulless or—just as bad—a self-righteous sermon.
Instead, you can bring theme out of the mists and let it work in the daylight, allowing it to guide your every story decision.
Theme creates Character creates Plot creates Theme
In my opening allegory, I cast plot, character, and theme as a triangle. But perhaps an even more helpful geometric figure is that of a circle—representing the unending, regenerative relationship of fiction’s Big Three.
Plot, character, and theme are not individual, isolated aspects of story. As such, they cannot be developed in isolation. Rather, they are each part of a larger symbiosis.
Theme isn’t just a nice greeting-card sentiment randomly mouthed by the protagonist at some point. Rather, theme creates character, which in turn creates plot, which brings the circle all the way around and, in turn, generates theme, which creates character which creates plot which creates… ad infinitum.
Honestly, I geek out just thinking about it. Theme inherently signifies the unifying patterns found within a larger whole, so even on a meta level, it makes total sense that theme is both generative and receptive in its relationship to plot and character.
Theme, it should be noticed, is not imposed on the story but evoked from within it—initially an intuitive but finally an intellectual act on the part of the writer.
What this means is that you, the writer, have the ability to start with any one of the Big Three and use it to create cohesive manifestations in the other two. If you begin with a plot idea, character and theme will already be inherent seeds within that kernel. If you begin with character? Same deal. And if you begin with theme? Ah, no more worries about preachiness. You now have the ability to craft powerful messages that are shown via your plot and character, rather than told to readers.
At some point, once you become accustomed to looking at plot, character, and theme as three faces of a greater whole, it becomes difficult to extricate one from the other enough to even identify which occurred to you first.
Identifying Your Story’s Thematic Layers
As a storyteller, your end goal should be a seamless big picture for readers. One of the most useful processes for reaching that goal is, in fact, mentally breaking down the larger picture and keeping its specific parts separate within your own mind. This alone will dispel the haze of ambiguity surrounding theme. Once you can see what each major piece of the story is and is not, you will have a better understanding of how they relate to and impact one another.
Naturally, this is a deep and nuanced subject, one that encompasses all of plot structure and character arc for starters. (I plan to dig further into the nuances of theme in future posts throughout the course of this year.) But for now, consider the three (and a half) mirroring layers that can be found in almost every part of every story.
This is usually represented in reactive/active behaviors from the protagonist (and other characters). This is what is happening in a story. It’s the action your characters experience and your readers visualize.
Inman is journeying home in Cold Mountain.
Juliet is talking to the islanders about their experiences during World War II in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Sydney Carton is rescuing Charles Darnay in A Tale of Two Cities.
Kaladin is fighting as a slave in the never-ending war on the Shattered Plains in The Way of Kings.
1b. Main Conflict
Usually, the main conflict is part and parcel of the exterior plot action; however, because it often manifests differently, it’s worth considering it as a layer of its own. Whereas the exterior plot action is usually physical in some sense, the main conflict is often represented on a mental level. Effectively, it is a puzzle for the protagonist to solve. It may be either an outright mystery. Or it may simply be a series of goals/conflicts/outcomes, which progressively teach the protagonist how to reach the ultimate plot goal.
Inman figures out how to get home, both by learning to navigate the mountains and by deducing how to get past the obstacles presented by each person he meets on his way.
Juliet figures out, on a general level, how to convince the islanders to talk to her, while in pursuit of the more specific mystery of what happened to the missing Elizabeth McKenna.
Sydney comes up with a plan to journey to France and rescue Charles.
Kaladin figures out how to survive as first a slave, then a soldier.
The character arc (usually, although not necessarily exclusively, the protagonist’s) represents the inner conflict, which will, in turn, catalyze and/or be catalyzed by the outer conflict, presented in the plot’s external action.
Note that we started our list with the top layer—the most obvious layer—of plot. But as we dig deeper into successive layers, we get closer to the heart of the story. If you think of a story’s plot action as an externalized metaphor for the character’s inner conflict and growth, you will have discovered one of the key ways in which the abstraction of theme is made concrete within the actual story.
Inman battles his own doubt and suffering in his overwhelming desire to escape the Civil War and get home to his sweetheart Ada.
Juliet begins falling in love with Guernsey in general and the kind but taciturn Dawsey in particular.
Sydney struggles with saving Darnay for Lucie, when it means cutting off any hope of his being with the woman he loves.
Kaladin’s bitterness over his lot and his hatred for those who enslaved him war with his inherent nobility and his natural leadership skills.
And now we hit bedrock. As the least visible but most important of a story’s layers, theme is the realization of all that has gone before. It is the symbolic argument between a posited Truth and Lie, which is played out in the protagonist’s personal arc and throughout the external plot (which, in its turn, has forced the character’s growth).
Out of Inman’s and Ada’s separate struggles and ultimately futile attempt to be together arises an introspective theme about the search for meaning in the face of suffering.
In falling in love with the simple valor and loyalty found in Guernsey, both during the war and after, Juliet finally discovers purpose and meaning in her own life.
In ultimately sacrificing himself in Darnay’s stead, Sydney surrenders his dissipated life in exchange for “a far, far better rest … than I have ever known.”
Kaladin’s struggle to overcome his bitterness and hatred—mirrored, contrasted, and finally aided by the many characters around him—culminates in a growing commitment to selfless leadership.
Again, note that these elements are most visible in the stated order (plot > character > theme); however, their importance in defining the story is actually the reverse.
No matter what type of story you write, its success will arise from the balance of its three most important pieces: plot, character, and theme. When you work on any one of these, you are necessarily working on all three. If you can raise them all into purposeful synchronicity as you write, you will not only bring theme out of the shadows, you will also be able to craft a story of deep meaning and purpose every single time.
Award-winning author and writing coach C. S. Lakin later warned me of the failure to explicitly convey emotion:
You don’t want your protagonist to seem like an unfeeling robot. Readers will hate him if you do.
To avoid this, she suggested I buy a paperback thriller and highlight every explicit emotional sentence until I learned how emotion occupies nearly every page. I decided to make a bigger project out of it.
The Emotional Deep Dive: A By-the-Numbers Experiment
On the 477 pages of my favorite thriller, Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, I highlighted all 1,988 (by my count) sentences with explicit emotional content. That’s an average of over four per page! For each, I populated three spreadsheet columns:
1. The page number.
2. The emotion (from the seventy-five listed in The Emotion Thesaurus).
3. The sentence itself.
As much as I learned from doing this, the real lessons took place when I began sorting the entries in different ways.
Discovering the Emotional Story
Leaving the spreadsheet sorted by page number, I found I could follow the story by emotional content alone.
Plotting the number of emotional sentences per page showed the nice emotional pacing you’d expect from a bestselling author, with peaks near the plot points and pinch points.
After dealing with the physical consequences of an instance of conflict, your character should address—or possibly repress—the emotional ramifications of the conflict, which can range from joy at a victory to intense grief, fear, or anxiety surrounding a loss.
And what was seen near the ninety-five percent mark around page 452? You guessed it—the maximum emotional sentences per page density of the novel’s climax.
Identifying the Emotion “Buckets”
Sorting the 1,988 rows by emotion (as listed in The Emotion Thesaurus) produced tightly grouped examples of how a master writer portrays each emotion.
Since the emotional labels themselves are subjective—the dividing lines between anger and rage or surprise and astonishment will differ for each reader–your and my emotional labels won’t always match.
Some unique scenes can evoke opposite reactions from different readers. After a short story reading during one of my writer’s group meetings, a Stephen King-inspired author had each of us feeling vastly differing emotions:
1. Amazement, at how such a scene could unfold.
2. Disgust, for the setting described.
3. Happiness, for the darkly humorous sequence of events.
Thoughts can lie. Dialogue can lie, too. However, emotions are universal, relatable and humanizing. Emotions always tell the truth.
Sorting the entries by sentence provided perhaps the most interesting learning experience. It showed how much repetitive emotional content is directly told instead of shown (e.g., “Langdon was amazed” on pages 21 and 22).
It also works with repetitive actions (e.g., “The camerlengo smiled” on pages 304 and 305), what Maass calls the “outer mode, the showing of emotions.”
So why don’t these repetitions immediately distract readers from the story, as repetitive setting descriptions surely would? I believe that, similarly to why dialogue tags being more perceived than read, emotional content is more felt than read.
Sorting the emotional content this way also displayed identical snippets of dialogue that evoked drastically different emotions, due to their context. Two such sentences seem to convey annoyance and pride, respectively:
1. “Correct,” Kohler said, his voice edgy. (Page 59)
2. “Correct,” Langdon said, allowing himself a rare moment of pride in his work. (Page 165)
As just one example, Elizabeth Sims, in her 2013 guide You’ve Got a Book in You, demonstrates how the word “Oh” is endlessly flexible:
1. “Oh,” he grunted.
2. “Oh!” Cassie couldn’t believe her luck. “Oh!”
3. All at once he understood. “Ohh.”
Despite the time this experiment took to complete, I recommend writers repeat this project with a copy of their own favorite novel. You may never see written emotional content the same way again!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! On what novel would you like to try this experiment? Do you think it would help you learn how to write emotion? Tell me in the comments!
Some writers might look at that title and respond incredulously: “When isn’t writing hard?” But as I’m sure all writers everywhere can attest, there are times when writing is hard in the normal sense and times when it’s hard hard.
Often, the difficulty lies simply in the unwieldy story—and the need for an ever-evolving understanding and ability in order to manage it. According to my estimate, as much as 75% of what is referenced as “writer’s block” is really just “plot block.” Something in the storyform is out of balance and/or the story’s problem is temporarily outpacing the author’s skill level. With enough persistence, these plot blocks give way sooner than later—and usually with the reward of either a better story or, at least, a greater awareness in the writer.
But then there are the difficulties that fall under the heading of that other 25%. This is when the writing is hard in ways that aren’t so easy to bull our way through.
These are often deeper issues, arising from our life beyond the page. They might include illness (our own or someone else’s), exhaustion, stress, fear or other unresolved emotions, burnout, or any other number of things. Sometimes the cause seems to be something as simple (and vague) as a mood.
And it’s infuriating. Unlike with plot blocks, solving the problem isn’t always as simple as finding the right mental thread to pull. Sometimes, it’s a matter of putting things other than writing first for a while (and coming to peace with that). Other times, it’s a matter of using the writing difficulties to help us work through what’s really causing the block.
Until recently, I’d never experienced that second type of writer’s block. Plot block, sure. But I’ve spent my creative life building a skill set that helps me efficiently and effectively deal with that. (Indeed, it’s not really an exaggeration to say “avoiding plot block” is the entire reason I write this blog!)
But real live life-induced writer’s block? Not so much.
However, as I mentioned in the podcast intro a couple weeks ago, I now find myself somewhat bemused to be experiencing a definite (if not quite definitive) case of writer’s block. I am objectively aware it’s not the end of the world. There’s a part of me that is genuinely rolling my eyes at and passing the coffee to the other part of me that is getting really grumpy. And as I say, it’s not definitive; I’m still writing; there are still words.
It’s just that the writing is hard right now. Harder than I ever remember it being. It’s hard in a different way.
Part of this surprises me, since I’ve been incredibly eager to start the outline for the third book in my Dreamlander trilogy. But on the other hand, it makes sense. I moved last year, so I’m in a new place, figuring out a new routine. There’s also some heavy family stuff that knocked me for a loop when it first arose a few weeks ago. Also thrown in there were several layers of personal growth that decided to peak all at the same time.
And… then there’s the story itself. This is my first attempt at a series, so even though this book will be my eleventh rodeo, it’s still brand new ground. This is the first time I’ve ever had to tie off a multi-book story arc in a single volume. I started Book 3’s outline with the realization that I’d generously bequeathed myself dozens of little plot blocks—ideas I’d set up in Book 2 with vague ideas of their payoff in Book 3, but not enough info (yet) about how to get there.
Anyway, altogether it’s made for a potent mix that is allowing me the opportunity to learn new things about myself as a writer and a person. Some of those lessons are the tactics that have inspired this post—tactics that have already helped me move forward positively both in working on my story and working past the difficulties.
7 Things You Can Try When Writing Is Hard
For me, realizing I am most definitely not the first author to experience the whole “writing is hard” thing has helped me draw on the compassionate (and incredibly tough) wisdom of the many authors whose legacies permeate my life.
Today, I want to, in turn, reach out to those of you who may currently be finding that your writing is hard (whether normal hard or hard hard). Here are a few practicable steps I hope will give you comfort and/or help you start moving toward a solution for your own unique writing challenges.
1. Just Admit the Writing Is Hard
In my experience as a writing mentor, I find writers tend to have two different kinds of relationships with writer’s block. The first kind uses writing difficulties as a comfy excuse to embrace the drama:
“Woe is me! I simply can’t write! I have WRITER’S BLOCK!!!”
The second approach, however, denies there’s any problem at all:
“I can’t have writer’s block! I never get writer’s block!! I don’t believe in writer’s block!!!”
That was me for a while there. And then it was like:
“Wow, I have writer’s block…”
My first step was accepting that the difficulties I was facing on the page weren’t just plot blocks, but something bigger. That knowledge then provided me what is always the foundational key to problem-solving: correctly identifying the problem.
How did I know I was facing down something bigger than just your normal, ordinary, everyday, garden-variety plot block? Because the normal solutions to plot block (asking plot questions and looking for the right “thread” to pull) weren’t getting me anywhere. I was scribbling furiously; I just wasn’t advancing.
2. Identify the Cause
I suppose it’s possible serious writer’s block could be caused by a single issue (e.g., the death of a loved one). But for most of us, it’s a condition arising out of a unique cocktail of convergences. For me, the catalyst was a shaken-not-stirred mix of diverse ingredients that included everything from January ennui to unprecedented storytelling challenges to exhaustion/recovery from a big move last year to stressful current events—and more.
Most of these things, I had no control over and little to no recourse for “fixing.” Winter’s gonna end when winter’s gonna end. My emotional processing of life events is gonna take as long as it’s gonna take. Other people are gonna do what other people are gonna do.
After accepting that, I dialed in on the causes I could do something about. First, I figured out what I believed were my main problems:
a) Having a hard time sticking with a daily writing routine.
b) Struggling with ideas that just weren’t flowing.
From there, I started implementing strategies to see if I could unblock the dam.
3. Take Care of Yourself Before You Take Care of Your Writing
A truth that has become increasingly clear to me is that art and life are synergistic. If I’m not taking care of myself on basic personal levels—physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually—then my creative pursuits will necessarily suffer. In the artistic life, discipline extends far beyond the desk.
Since I knew many of the reasons for my writer’s block had nothing to do with the actual writing, my initial strategies also had little to do with writing. For starters, I completely restructured my daily schedule in recognition of the fact that I’m slowest in the mornings, with my motivation consistently climbing throughout the day.
Another thing I did was set my phone to “Do Not Disturb.” This allowed me to check it in between projects, rather than taking the risk that my focus and energy would be disrupted in the middle of flow.
4. Trust the Process
So there I was, sitting with pen in hand, scribbling along, face scrunched in determination—and it’s just not working. No matter what question I asked myself, I couldn’t find the right answer. No matter what idea I tried to chase, it never seemed to be the one that set my imagination on fire.
While this was happening, the one thought that kept me grounded was: Trust the process.
I would take a deep breath and return to the basics that, by now, are second nature. On my iPad, I would open up Helping Writers Become Authors and review my own posts—every one of them inspired by some challenge I had faced on a previous story. I would remember the specific steps I needed to take:
None of these things “cured” my writer’s block. But like familiar road signs popping into view on a snowy night, they kept me grounded, reminding me I knew where I was going because I’d been here before.
The process never fails me. If I stick with it, it will see me through.
And that, I realized, was one of the reasons I just couldn’t move forward with this outline. I didn’t have enough “As” and “Bs” yet. I knew the bare bones of what needed to happen. But I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t feel it.
So I went back to basics. For me, the hotline to my imagination is what I call “dreamzoning” (a term I got from Robert Olen Butler’s excellent From Where You Dream). Basically, this is just intensified daydreaming. I’ll put on an appropriate playlist in the background, use something mindless but moving as a visual focal point (firelight is perfect, though a lava lamp isn’t bad either), and then just sit back and watch the show. I realized the other night that, really, it’s an almost meditative exercise. I’m trying to zone out of my surroundings and go deep into my head, dreaming vivid visual dreams fraught with emotional consequence.
All I get are snippets, flashes, photographs, and sometimes slow-mo movies. But these are the seedlings of my stories. If I gather enough, the story will write itself. Buh-bye, writer’s block. And in the meantime, spending my writing sessions chilling with a candle and some tunes is both productive and seriously low-stress.
6. Find the Right (Guilt-Free) Routine
Ironically, writer’s block often seems to come with a fair-sized dose of guilt. We can’t write, and yet we self-flagellate because we should be writing.
Depending on the root cause making our writing so hard for the moment, the best choice might be giving ourselves permission to not write for a while (as I am—more or less—by allowing myself to focus solely on “dreamzoning” for a while). Other times, just tweaking a writing routine or schedule can do wonders.
Once I realized that outside drama and other factors were wreaking havoc with my ability to stay focused during a morning or afternoon writing session, I switched things around. I moved my writing session to the evening, when my energy is always most reliable. This gave me the ability to once again consistently show up for writing time—which removed the useless poison of guilt from my already complicated cocktail of problematic catalysts.
7. Inhale Information and Inspiration
Often, writer’s block is simply the result of an empty well. As I discovered in #5, above, if I have no inspiration, how can I honestly expect myself to have anything to write about?
This goes for more than just imaginative bursts. It also goes for information—of all sorts. Any story is ultimately a reconstruction of things the writer has either experienced or learned. If you find yourself with nothing to write about, it could be as simple as that: you have nothing to write about.
Start filling your well. If you haven’t been reading faithfully, start a daily routine. If you’ve been reading the same type of thing for years, try something new. Get out. Do new things. Watch new movies. Listen to new songs. Go to a museum. Fill your inner eye with wonders.
And read about writing. My success last year with a host of amazing writing-related books has prompted me to make sure I read something powerful and inspiring about writing, or art in general, every single day.
Writing is hard for everyone. Some days are harder for some of us than for others. But the wheel keeps on rolling, and we all get our turn sooner than later. I feel certain that when it is time for me to return to the page, after a couple weeks of dreamzoning, I will find most of my challenges fulfilled. If not, I know further solutions will await me as long as I seek them with patience and discipline. In the meantime, I offer my encouragement to those of you who might be experiencing a similar trial, and I am thankful we get to walk together on this road—in all its many terrains and weathers!
Being able to write realistic, consistent, multi-dimensional characters is vital to gaining reader interest. Doing so first requires we know a lot about who our characters are—you know, the obvious stuff: positive and negative traits, behavioral habits, desires, goals, and the like. But it’s not always the obvious parts of characterization that create the most intrigue. What about the things your character is hiding?
Everyone hides. We hide the goals we know are wrong for us, opinions that may turn others against us, or feelings and desires that make us feel vulnerable—basically anything with the potential for rejection or shame.
The same should be true for our characters. When characters are cagey out of a need to protect themselves from emotional harm, readers understand that. It makes the characters more authentic and can pique your readers’ interest as they try to figure out the secret or worry over what will happen when it comes to light.
7 Different Things Your Character Is Hiding
To add this layer of depth to your characters, you first need to know what’s taboo in their minds—not only what they’re hiding, but why. Here are some common things your character may feel compelled to conceal from others.
Maybe she’s secretly pining for her sister’s ex, or she longs for a career forbidden by her parents, or she wants to fight her boss’s unethical behavior but is afraid of losing her job.
Forbidden or dangerous desires can add an element of risk, upping the stakes for the character and making things more interesting for readers.
Everyone has fears. Many of those fears are perfectly acceptable, which makes it safe for us to share them. It’s the ones that make us feel weak or lessen us in the eyes of others that we keep in the dark.
Think about uncommon fears, such as being afraid of a certain people group, physical intimacy, or of leaving one’s house.
Unusual fears like these should always come from somewhere—maybe from a wounding event or negative past influencers. Make sure there’s a good reason for whatever your character is afraid of.
3. Negative Past Events
Speaking of wounding events, we each have defining moments from the past that we’re reluctant to share with others or even acknowledge ourselves.
What’s something that could have happened to your characters that they’ll go to great lengths to keep hidden? What failures or humiliating moments might they alter in their own memories to keep from facing them?
Being flawed is part of the human experience. There are things about ourselves we don’t want to examine too closely and which we definitely don’t want others to know about.
For characters, these flaws often manifest as insecurities or negative traits (such as being weak-willed, unintelligent, or vain). Whether these weaknesses are real or only perceived, characters will try to downplay them.
But part of their journey to fulfillment includes facing the truth and acknowledging the part their flaws play in holding them back. To write their complete journeys, your need to know what weaknesses they’re keeping under wraps.
5. Unhealthy Behaviors
Sometimes characters exhibit behaviors or habits they know aren’t good for them. Maybe these behaviors stem from a wounding event or an unhealthy desire. Maybe they really want to change, but they don’t know how.
Whether it’s a promiscuous lifestyle, a gambling addiction, or a compulsion to self-harm, they’ll expend a lot of energy to keep these behaviors hidden.
While it’s healthy to embrace and express a range of emotions, characters are not always comfortable with all the feelings. This may occur with emotions that are tied to a negative event from the past. It may be an emotion that makes the character feel vulnerable or is culturally unacceptable.
The character will want to mask any uncomfortable emotions, often disguising them as something else: embarrassment is replaced with self-deprecation, or fear manifests as anger. This duality of emotion is important because it humanizes characters for readers and adds a layer of authenticity that might otherwise be missing.
7. Opinions and Ideas
Everyone wants to be liked. To gain the respect of others, we often go so far as to sacrifice honesty.
If an opinion isn’t popular, your characters may keep it to themselves. If they have good ideas others won’t appreciate, they won’t share them—or they’ll get the ideas out there in a way that allows them to avoid taking ownership.
Peer acceptance is important to everyone; that need, and the secrets that accompany it, is something that every reader will be able to relate to.
Deception—whether deliberate or subconscious—is part of the human experience. When your characters hide things from others, they become deeper and more layered and avoid turning into clichés. They’ll come across as more authentic to readers, who will be able to relate to them. It also can build empathy as readers see the character headed the wrong direction. A lot of good can result from taking the time to discover what your characters are hiding. So put on your Nosy Pants and get to work!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Can you think of some things your character is hiding? Tell me in the comments!
Paragraph breaks are something akin to a writer’s turn signals. They silently—sometimes almost subliminally—tell readers what’s about to happen and how they should react.
As you may remember (or not) from school, a paragraph break in technical writing is meant to indicate a new thought. (I have clear memories of being required to find and underline the “topic sentence” that was the organizing thought of each new paragraph; it was a boring exercise, but looking back, I realize how well it’s served me.)
In fiction, we use the paragraph break a little differently (<—topic sentence!!!). Not only do our paragraph breaks signal a new thought, they can also be used to orient readers within the overall action: Who is acting? Who is speaking?
In ye olden days, what constituted a cohesive paragraph, even in fiction, was considerably more permissive. If you read the classics, you know it’s not uncommon to encounter paragraphs that last pages. These days, readers prefer to see more white space on the page. They want to read quickly, an ability aided by an author’s skillful use of “turn signals.”
Use paragraph breaks almost like punctuation, so you can guide your readers’ experience of your story’s action and pacing.
Learning From Each Other: New WIP Excerpt Analysis
Today’s post is the second in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you all have so kindly sent in. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.
Today, my thanks to Erik Börjesson for sharing the following excerpt from his fantasy Rose of the Winds:
“Hey!” The squirrel leaped from the branch in a streak of red. She ran after it, weaving through a clung of sap trees and jumped over a thorn bush; the world passed her in streaks of colours and shapes. Where she was going was of no concern, what mattered was the squirrel and little more. The squirrel’s coat of brown and red blended in with the canopy of the trees as if it was wearing camoflauge. She held the camera with white fingers, its leather strap chafing her neck, a drop of sweat streaked down her forehead. A low branch came up ahead. Clara lunged to her knees, sliding over the forest floor, showering browned leaves and clods of dirt in her wake, her head barely missing the branch. She stopped, panting, her heart beating in her throat. Clara looked for the squirrel, turning around in circles. She finally spotted it clinging to the grey trunk of an ashtree. Quick as lightning, Clara bent down on one knee and focused in on the squirrel. Snap. “Gotcha.” She smiled a wicked smile and wiped the sweat from her forehead. The squirrel retreated to the safety of the canopy, relieved that the chase was over. Clara stood up and brushed the cakes of mud off her blue jeans; though, some of it still clung to them. She turned to leave, but then stopped. Where was the trail? It felt like something cold and nasty had turned her guts inside out. She looked around for something familiar. She spotted the low branch and went back and under it; she soldiered on. Next was a thorn bush. Clara walked and walked but found no bush. Was the tree with the low branch really the same one she had passed?
Even in this in medias res excerpt, Erik does a great job with forward momentum, thanks mostly to the character’s goal. She wants something, and that is the entire point of the scene. As the scene goes on (there’s a subsequent section I haven’t shared due to length constraints), it’s also clear he has a great grasp on scene structure. We start out with Clara’s goal to take a picture of the squirrel, encounter conflict as the squirrel runs away, and reach a “yes, but…” outcome when she succeeds in her goal, only to then have to react to the realization that she is lost. So good job, Erik!
However, today, I would like to use this opportunity to explore the how, when, and why of paragraph breaks. For starters, here is how I would edit the excerpt to add a significant number of paragraph breaks. You’ll immediately notice how much more white space this provides, which makes the piece less formidable, easier to read, and clearer in its presentation of action.
The squirrel leaped from the branch in a streak of red.
She ran after it, weaving through a clung of sap trees and jumped over a thorn bush; the world passed her in streaks of colours and shapes. Where she was going was of no concern, what mattered was the squirrel and little more.
The squirrel’s coat of brown and red blended in with the canopy of the trees as if it was wearing camouflage.
She held the camera with white fingers, its leather strap chafing her neck. A drop of sweat streaked down her forehead.
A low branch came up ahead.
Clara lunged to her knees, sliding over the forest floor, showering browned leaves and clods of dirt in her wake, her head barely missing the branch. She stopped, panting, her heart beating in her throat. She looked for the squirrel, turning around in circles.
She finally spotted it clinging to the grey trunk of an ash tree. Quick as lightning, she bent down on one knee and focused in on the squirrel.
“Gotcha.” She smiled a wicked smile and wiped the sweat from her forehead.
The squirrel retreated to the safety of the canopy, relieved that the chase was over.
Clara stood up and brushed the cakes of mud off her blue jeans, though some of it still clung to them. She turned to leave, but then stopped.
Where was the trail? It felt like something cold and nasty had turned her guts inside out. She looked around for something familiar. She spotted the low branch and went back and under it; she soldiered on. Next was a thorn bush. Clara walked and walked but found no bush. Was the tree with the low branch really the same one she had passed?
3 Rules of Paragraph Breaks
When and how you break for a new paragraph is as much a stylistic choice as anything else. Pacing will be a major consideration as well. Faster, choppier pacing does much better with shorter paragraphs—sometimes paragraphs of even just a single word. Slower, more leisurely—or more academic—pacing will usually do better with longer paragraphs, although you shouldn’t hesitate to break up dense sections of text when possible to make them more readable.
You will also want to insert a paragraph break into the midst of a single speaker’s dialogue if you are interspersing the dialogue with a second character’s non-verbal reactions. This brings me to an oft-overlooked and but equally important second rule…
2. New Actor = New Paragraph
Maybe you wondered why I ended up adding so many paragraph breaks to Erik’s scene when it has so little dialogue—and no conversational exchanges whatsoever.
The reason is that actors within narrative are treated the same as speakers. Usually, when characters exchange actions, the rules are the same as when they exchange dialogue. In Erik’s example, Clara acts, then the squirrel acts. We have two actors in this scene, which means each should get a new paragraph. The paragraph breaks give readers immediate signals about who is the doing the acting.
The exceptions to this rule all of which hark back to those grade-school adages about topic sentences. Sometimes, in some paragraphs, the emphasis will need to remain on a primary actor, rather than bouncing between the actions/reactions of multiple actors. For example, you may need to briefly indicate a response from a second character, but you’ll maintain a cohesive paragraph because the emphasis remains on a singular character or on a cooperative action or movement.
The servant unlocked the padlock with a great squeaking. The portcullis stuck when he tried to raise it, and the knights had help him lift it off the ground. They ducked under, and the manservant guided them across the courtyard, through the dusty shambles of the main foyer, and up two flights of stairs.
Indirect internal narrative: If these crazy people didn’t get out of the way, he was just going to run them over.
Direct internal narrative: If these crazy people don’t get out of the way, I’m just going to run them over.
Observation/description: Street lights blinked past.
Keep in mind these differentiated parts of the narrative will not always require their own paragraph break. An intimate sense of your pacing will help you decide when a break is best and when it isn’t. One good rule of thumb, however, is that if you spend more than two sentences on any one narrative type, it’s probably best to think about breaking for a new paragraph.
We might assemble the above examples like this:
He revved the car.
“You crazy driver!” she yelled.
His heart hammered. If these crazy people didn’t get out of the way, he was just going to run them over.
Street lights blinked past.
When set up like this, the man, the woman, and the street lights each ground themselves on new lines within their own topic sentences. The man’s indirect thought about running people over is introduced and grouped with his own related physical reaction.
An understanding of motivation-reaction units (MRUs) will help you ground your instincts for ordering the various parts of narrative. A proper MRU starts with the motivation or cause, then lines up the resulting effect as another string of causes and effects: feeling > thought > action > speech. Once you can differentiate between the roles of various sentences, you will have a better feel for when to break between them.
Paragraph breaks are important both as a tool for pacing your narrative and for subtly guiding readers through the nuances of your expanding story. Used skillfully, they create an inviting presentation of text that pulls readers in, keeps them grounded, and urges their eyes and imaginations forward through the prose.
My thanks to Erik for sharing his excerpt, and my best wishes for his story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!