Theme As The Engine Of Plot

Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 27: Theme As The Engine Of Plot


Writers Write creates writing resources. In this post, we look at how you can look at theme as the engine of plot.

  1. Continue writing the scenes or chapters of your novel.

Breaking it down

Time alone

A writer friend of mine recently posted a picture of her writing desk as she worked on her novel on Facebook. It was a happy post because her novel was ‘flowing’ and she was surrounded by her notes as she typed away at her laptop. I felt happy for her. I knew exactly what she was feeling.

There is nothing as great as spending hour after hour immersed in writing your novel. When it’s going well, the time just flows and you sometimes forget to eat or stop for a coffee. When it’s not going well, every moment can feel like torture.

This week I realised I’m rapidly approaching the end of my rough draft of the novel. Yes, there’s lots of missing scenes, research still to be done, and other missing elements, but it’s exciting to see it take shape. As I come towards the end of this stage of the journey, everything that takes me away from writing just drains me – work, social activities, and so forth. The good thing is that while I do these things, the characters and plots are still always at the back of my mind.

Themes and other things

I’ve been reading Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange again this week. This is an iconic book that seems to find a new audience, and fresh controversy, in new generation. In an essay at the back of the latest edition, Burgess speaks about the theme of the book. Beyond the debate about good and evil, he believed that man’s ability to choose and have free will is what gives us our humanity.

I was reminded of this when I was facilitating Writers Write this weekend. It’s so important to have something to say in your story – even if it’s something only you feel passionate about.

For me, theme must inform every element of plot. For example, while my novel’s plot focuses on stalking, this is really a device to illuminate my themes of obsession, jealousy, the fear of rejection – the idea of wanting someone you can’t have and the fear of losing someone you have to something or someone else.

Theme is the engine of plot. It stays under the hood and it’s not always pretty, but it’s what gives that slick little racing car its power, isn’t it?

Primal terrors

Sometimes we get so hung up on creating the perfect scene, with just the right setting, or finding the right dialogue, we forget about the primal core of our novels. (Just recently I spent almost an hour figuring out what outfit my heroine would wear to lunch.)

I was reminded of this last night while having dinner with two good friends next to a crackling log fire with a glass of wine.  These friends are not writers but were discussing human genetics and DNA haplogroups – which was when I started staring into the fire and drifting off with a vague smile on my face.

Just then one of was saying that research shows that many people share a common mother who migrated to the north. And I perked up. In my mind, I was thinking: Who was this woman? How did she survive? Defend herself? She suddenly became an incredibly important and vulnerable character in my imagination.

Of course, a quick look on Google this morning, suggest that this Mitochondrial Eve was a single woman but a confluence of shared bloodlines, but still it made me realise that our primal instincts in life are ancient and are passed down in our DNA.

We want to survive. We will fight for that right to defend ourselves. We want to find the perfect mate and will fight for that too. We’re all fighting to stay alive. This is such an important part of any thriller – or even a romance novel – and I realised I needed more of that energy in my own story.

Timelock — 2.5 to 5 hours

Spend half-hour or a full-hour a day working on the scenes or chapters of your novel.

5 Quick Hacks

  1. Create a short ritual to get your writing time started – maybe it’s sharpening some pencils, laying out your notes. It will become a trigger to help you get started.
  2. Why not write a short essay or blog on the theme of your book? What if you were asked to give a speech on your theme? What would you say to your audience?
  3. List six possible titles for your novel. Which one ties in the best with your theme?
  4. Next time you’re at lunch or dinner, listen out for those conversations that suggest a character or a story. Play with the idea. Write it down.
  5. Look at the names of your main characters. Do you like them? Are they strong enough? Or have they been placeholders until this point
    in time?

Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘The thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone.’ — Martin Amis

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

 by Anthony Ehlers

If you enjoyed this post, read:

  1. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 26: 3 Tough Questions You May Be Facing
  2. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 25: Your Mid-Year Analysis
  3. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 24: How Important Is Style In A Story?