Story, Plot, Arc and Theme — how they work together

Story, Plot, Arc and themeAny new writer might well be confused by some of the terms used in writing such as story, plot, arc and theme. Aren’t they interchangeable terms? It’s easy to see why the terms might be confused.

The first person to distinguish story from plot was E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel (1927). Forster wrote a story ‘can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.’

‘The king died and then the queen died is a story. But the king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.’

This is a reasonable definition of plot. But is story just narrative? In screenwriting, the term ‘story’ is often used in a much wider sense to explain the deeper meaning that the audience experience through the protagonist’s inner struggle to deal with the plot points.  It is what the story is really about. Kate Wright in Screenwriting is Storytelling Creating an A-list Screenplay that Sells explains this approach as follows:

Story and plot are intricately woven inside story events, and while the audience cannot tell them apart, each is distinct: Plot is self evident, and we experience it objectively, scene by scene. Story is the deeper meaning behind the plot, and we subjectively infer its moral truth–or absolute truth–sequentially, by identifying the inner moral struggle of the main character.

Under this approach both Plot and Story are separate important elements. An audience (or readers) may be fascinated by the progression of events that a human being encounters in the plot, but what really engages them emotionally is how the main character reacts to this progression of events and this insight is what the story is really about.

Audiences and readers don’t fall in love with a plot, they connect with the main character and experience his/her emotional struggle to deal with those events. As the conflict escalates, audience/reader tension rises until tension is finally resolved at the climax of the story. This release of tension is what Plato described as catharsis: the release of emotion that makes us all feel better. At that point, we figuratively punch the air and celebrate our main character’s victory, or we cry if the story ends in tragedy. This emotional effect is the primary reason why we engaged in the story in the first place. We empathise with the hero/heroine and want to see them succeed. Story is therefore more about the emotional experience of the audience/reader.

How the main character changes over the course of the story is the character arc, or what some screenwriters describe as the hero’s inner journey. It will be part of the audience’s/reader’s emotional experience. For example, it’s Luke Skywalker inner journey from a scared farm boy to courageous Jedi knight.

As explained in the previous blog, the main character usually has a flaw at the start of the story, and during the story the plot challenges the main character to overcome his flaw. And as we have seen from the previous blog, the main character’s flaw or weakness should be the right type of flaw to be tested by the story. Depending on the type of story, the main character’s initial weakness could be anything. For example: naivity, lack of confidence or self belief, hubris, or some negative believe which he/she needs to overcome during the story in order to reach their story goal.

The underlying story is often about what the main character learns during the course of the story. If he/she changes for the good, then the story ending is normally positive. If he/she refuses to change, the story may well end in tragedy. Either way there is a moral undertone that we can attribute to the theme of the story. The theme is the moral of the story or some self evident truth about human nature. For example, even death cannot defeat love (Romeo and Juliet).

So the deeper meaning of story, plot, theme and character arc are all different aspects of a storytelling, but they are closely linked together.


Theme – the magic ingredient within a story

In my last blog, I tried to define story as:

“ …a tale about a character or characters, set in a particular environment or time, who struggle to deal with an important problem or opportunity that comes into their live(s) and which sets in motion a sequence of events and actions that logically lead to a climatic ending consistent with the theme of the story.”

In my view, a story should all ways have a satisfactory ending consistent with the theme of the story in order to provide the reader with the necessary emotional pay-off that they expect. So what is theme? Basically, theme is what the story is all about. Not the plot itself, but the underlying message that the story is illustrating through the actions of the characters. It is usually a moral message the reader can relate to. For example: good will overcome evil; love conquers everything; family are more important than personal gain; absolute power corrupts; freedom is worth fighting for, etc.

In children’s fairy tales, fables and parables the theme is usually very obvious. In a complex novel the theme or themes might be less obvious. Some writers have said not all stories have a theme. I disagree. All stories have at least one theme. Without a theme a story is just narrative without a sense of purpose.

That doesn’t mean that the main character should be a paragon of virtue. Most main characters have some flaws, and part of the story is how they change as a result of the actions that effect them: the character arc. Some main characters may well go from bad to even worse. They may succeed with their goal; but may lose something more important to them in the process. Even with these types of stories there is a message. The issue is whether the message resonates with the reader. Where the message doesn’t resonate with the reader the impact on the reader may be one of shock. The question is whether the reader wants to shocked like this or not.

What should a writer do to incorporate theme into a story? The answer is that the writer doesn’t incorporate theme directly — it is part of the story already. The writer shouldn’t have to think about it too deeply. And the last thing they should do is to get preachy with the reader. It is what the story is about.

What makes a great writer

Have you read a book you simply couldn’t put down? Have you ever thought about how the writer did that — kept you engrossed in the story? In contrast, have you ever read a book where you’ve found yourself skipping through passages to speed up the story? The difference between these two books is that elusive quality that makes the difference between a great writer and the rest. Can it be learnt? Most self-improvement books on writing will help you become a better writer. They can help eliminate some of the obvious mistakes that newbie authors make about such matters as structure, point of view, dialogue, and character development. But these books won’t necessarily make you a great writer. Perhaps that elusive quality is something natural that cannot be learnt or comes with years of experience, perhaps not.

Let’s take a look at those two books again. What made the first book a page turner and the second not? Some of the answers might include:

  • A compelling ‘new’, ‘interesting’ and ‘plausible’ story line.
  • A ‘resolute’ and ‘likeable’ hero/heroine that grows during the story so that you want to empathise with and root for.
  • A major source of conflict and tension to frustrate the hero/heroine’s goal, and create high stakes for failure.
  • A plot line that keeps the reader guessing about what’s going to happen next.
  • An underlying theme that resonates with the reader.

In contrast what causes us to skip over some passages of the slow book? Some answers might include:

  • Too similar to other stories of the same genre.
  • Flat, uninteresting characters that cope too easily with the problems thrown at them.
  • No tension. Nothing much happens, nothing much seems to matter.
  • Too predictable.
  • Dull and boring passages that don’t move the story forward.

Of course, this only tells us what the difference is between a great story and a poor story, it doesn’t tell us how a great writer achieves this. How is a lot harder to understand.

Perhaps one of the hardest element is finding a story that is genuinely new. The great writers seem to do this extremely well. Take JK Rowling’s invention Hogwarts — a school for wizards — in the Harry Potter series. Stories about wizards were not new; neither were stories about school adventures. But putting the two ideas together created something new and unusual. Take Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series that spawned a whole new genre of romantic stories about vampires. Prior to this vampires had a bad press as the embodiment of all evil. Meyer changed all that by recasting these blood suckers as heroes. Often creating something new is about combining unrelated ideas that don’t seem to fit together, or turning a story idea on it’s head.

Great writers tend to pick extraordinary characters as their heroes/heroines and then make us root for them. By extraordinary I mean larger than life, but believable, and not without their flaws. Part of any story is the internal journey the hero/heroine makes to find what is important to them — the character arc. It is just as important as the hero’s external journey. The hero needs to deserve success if he/her is to achieve it, and he/she will only deserve it if they overcome their own weaknesses. Great writers also tend to build empathy with the hero/heroine by writing deep in the hero’s/heroine’s point of view. Only by allowing the reader to experience and feel what the hero/heroine is experiencing first hand will this empathy be built.

A hero/heroine can only show their character by what they do. Without a big task or problem to overcome there is no story. Great writers motivate their heroes/heroines towards a goal and then frustrate them with all kinds of obstacles and dilemmas to throw them off course. The bigger the obstacles and the consequences of failure, the greater will be the tension in the story. Story writing is therefore all about creating and maintaining tension. Without tension there is no desire for the reader to read on, to see what happens in the end.

Great writers have the ability to surprise the reader. A story that is too predictable in its plot line is boring. Readers want excitement, a thrill; even if they know the story will end well, they want to be teased along the way.

Lastly, great writers have an ability to play with the reader’s emotions and ultimately to deliver a satisfying ending in accord with the theme of the story. The theme might be as simple as ‘good overcoming evil’ or ‘love conquers everything’ but it should fit into the range of the reader’s expectations.

These are some of the qualities that I think distinguish great authors from the rest. You might have different ideas; or perhaps I’ve missed something. Let me know what you think.