Sunday, April 6, 2008

Creative Tension between Plot and Theme

I've written a dozen short stories and find that the best ones are those which maintain a creative tension between plot and theme. Here are some ideas for how you might work for that creative tension.

Playing with the Plot

One of the ways you can discover creative tension between plot and theme is to play with the plot. Plot is the story line or narrative structure of a story. The pyramid structure involves a beginning (exposition), rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. When plotting a story, you may find it helpful to draw a pyramid. Now make a list of the most important events that take place in your proposed story. Decide where these events should go on the pyramid and write them down. Make this diagram #1.

Consider this example. My list has 2 children who discover magic rings. The rings transport them between worlds. An evil queen attaches herself to the children as they escape from her dead world back to their own. She brings chaos to the children's world until they bravely drag her out by transporting themselves into an unknown world. In that new world all comes right when they meet a regal talking lion. (Readers will recognize the plot of C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew.)

In this story the children's discovery of the rings is the beginning and so I would write that at the bottom left of the pyramid. Their travel to another world and their attempted escape from the evil queen is the rising action. The unleashing of the queen's fury on unsuspecting Londoners marks the climax. The children's action in dragging her out of that world is the falling action, and their meeting of Aslan and the creation of Narnia is the resolution.

But this would be a very different story if I reordered these elements. For example, I might have the children discover the rings and travel to Narnia. The rising action would be what happens in Narnia that results in the children being sent by Aslan to Queen Jadis' world. The encounter of the children with Jadis and the final days of her realm would be the climax. The children's escape and return to Narnia would be the falling action and Aslan's sending them home with special honors would be the resolution. Label this second pyramid diagram #2.

Now draw a third pyramid and reorder the events again. What does this reordering of events suggest about the theme of your story?

What is meant by theme?

The theme of a short story is its view about life and human beings. The short story presents a theme through the characters, actions, dialogue, setting and symbolism. Playing with the plot often clarifies theme for the writer. Very often we are working with themes unconsciously. In the plots above we have the theme of children caught between good and evil. Regardless of how we plot the elements, the children must to decide which side they will serve, and having decided, they must learn to be courageous in the face of dangers. This is the theme of The Magician's Nephew. C.S. Lewis doesn't tell us the theme. We have to discover it through the plot.

As you plot and replot your story you will gain clarity about your theme. Once you understand it, strengthen the theme by incorporating symbolism. Aslan represents the divine person of Jesus Christ. He is symbolized by a regal beast who comes and goes at will, often appearing in bright light and exhibiting great strength, compassion and self-sacrifice. As C.S. Lewis demonstrates in his many writings, the Bible provides a vast reservoir of symbols that are useful to story tellers, so don't neglect to read it.

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