No Plot? No Problem–Start with Theme

I’ve been re-reading the best non-fiction book I’ve read this year: Inside Story by Dara Marks. If you want to know how to write a story with impact, one that leaves an impression after your reader is done, read this book. Then read it again. Cover it in highlights and take notes. It’s about writing intentionally.

Pantsers, don’t tune out. It’s not a book about outlining by any stretch of the imagination. This book helps you determine what it is you want to write about and how to make it poignant.

To me, that poignancy is why I write. When I get an email from a Beta that has, “Why would you lead me on like this” as its title, and says “Don’t make me cry over [spoiler] in class,” I feel like I’m doing my job. When I get reviews on my fanfiction that say “how heartbreaking” “this made me cry, and that doesn’t happen often,” I’m in heaven. (Because I’m evil. I love making people cry.)

In Inside Story, Marks argues (effectively) that as writers, we have two choices: following our intuition to combine plot, theme, and characters, or being intentional and letting our characters and plot grow from our theme. The only way to effective storytelling, she argues, is through the second choice.

See how below the jump.

As you’re planning for NaNo, the most important thing you can plan is your theme. Plan this if you outline. Plan this if you pants. It will keep you on track in either case. I’ll take her chapters and break them down into actionable steps. We still have 14 days left before NaNo, so that should be plenty of time to think about it. At least, I hope so. After all, we’ll be writing almost 25,000 words in that time next month.

How to Plot from Theme

1. Choose a broad and universal theme. Revenge, love, friendship, life, death. Coming of age. Something that’s been done a million times. This is how you know you’ve hit on something people can connect with. In the movie The Lion King, the producers decided on coming of age as their main theme. (source)

2. Choose a perspective to bring to that theme. There are a lot of things that can be said about love. That fate will always bring lovers together (Serendipity). That it grows best from friendship (When Harry Met Sally). What do you want to say about your topic? In The Lion King (from now on, I’m guessing at what the writers intended), this theme for coming of age could be “In order to grow up, you have to understand your past and face your fears.” A bit complicated, but go with me. 🙂

3. Choose an external obstacle based on that theme. This could either be the opposite of your theme or it could accentuate it. In Serendipity, the setting of the story is full of small coincidences that both draw the main characters together and keep them apart. In The Lion King, Simba can’t understand his past because his uncle is intentionally lying about it and encourages him to run away.

4. Choose a fatal flaw for your main character based on (you guessed it!) your theme. It should be the opposite of your theme. Jonathan Trager in Serendipity does not believe in fate when the movie starts. Harry believes that men and women can’t be friends. And Simba, thanks to his uncle, believes that hiding from his past and his problems with his uncle is the best route forward for him and the pride.

5. Find a way for your main character to overcome his fatal flaw in relationship. Sara(h) believes in fate. It’s through relationship with her (and the signs they’ve sent out into the universe) that Jonathan begins to believe in fate, too. Harry and Sally go through some terrible relationships and only have the strength to pursue friendship. Nala finds Simba and tells him his choices have ruined the pride and he is needed.

6. Pull it all together. Jonathan needs to learn that fate will always bring lovers together, but he doesn’t believe in fate. The setting of the story is a world where things keep almost going right, but screwing up, so Jonathan doesn’t understand how close he keeps getting to his true love. Only through the help of the fate-believing Sara(h) and the signs they both send into the universe will he be able to see that he was fated to be with her all along.

Simba needs to come of age and understand his past and face his fears. However, his uncle Scar is out to make sure he never understands his past, and encourages him to run away. Simba therefore believes that ignoring his responsibilities is what’s best for the tribe and himself. Only through Nala’s encouragement and telling him the truth about the present will he be able to face his fears and learn what truly happened in the past. Then he’ll be able to be the good king he was destined to be.


That’s it. Now, when you look at your main external plot, make sure that it’s something your main character is incapable of overcoming until he addresses his fatal flaw in relationship (with himself, or a romantic partner, or a friend, or the universe…).

Starting with theme, you now have what you need for a cohesive story, where the main character’s internal journey is reflected in the plot. The tension is automatically high, because you’ve created a world that, in its very nature, resists the change your main character needs to make to solve the problem.

(For those who are wondering, my story is about coming of age, with the thematic perspective of “You must define yourself.” The setting that opposes him is the society that prescribes death dates and death dates that prescribe your potential. His fatal flaw is a lack of value for himself, and in relationship he will learn that a) others value him and b) he therefore deserves to be valued. Once he discovers this, he will have the potential to define himself and his potential apart from his death date. Or so we hope. [I don’t know if I’m writing a happy ending yet or not…])

** There is so much more to Marks’ book than just the little I’ve outlined here (which is about two chapters’ worth).  I highly recommend that you pick it up.

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