Apres Moi Le Deluge

Problems with plot-theme

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Hi, this is my first post on here, though I have been reading posts on here for a while.

I know a bit about the theme, plot-theme, and plot, as Ayn Rand spoke of them, but I havn't actualy read her book on writing fiction yet, so I may have misunderstood it.

I find it easy to think of a theme for stories, however, where I have problems is picking which concretes should go towards making my plot. When I have writers block, I have a method of finding concretes that helps, I look through history books and biographies, as the situations provided often get my mind working and provide inspiration.

So, I find it easy to decide on a theme, and to think up lots of material for my plot. But, my problems are that, I often have difficulty deciding which of the concretes (situations, characters, etc) I thought up to use in my plot, and I have problems working out the plot-theme to connect my theme to my plot properly. I think these two are connected, as not being able to get a good plot-theme makes it difficult to work I need for the plot. So, maybe its just one problem I have.

I was wondering if anyone has any useful methods for working out a plot-theme, or if I've obviously misunderstood something.

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I find it easy to think of a theme for stories, however, where I have problems is picking which concretes should go towards making my plot. When I have writers block, I have a method of finding concretes that helps, I look through history books and biographies, as the situations provided often get my mind working and provide inspiration.

So, I find it easy to decide on a theme, and to think up lots of material for my plot. But, my problems are that, I often have difficulty deciding which of the concretes (situations, characters, etc) I thought up to use in my plot, and I have problems working out the plot-theme to connect my theme to my plot properly. I think these two are connected, as not being able to get a good plot-theme makes it difficult to work I need for the plot. So, maybe its just one problem I have.

I was wondering if anyone has any useful methods for working out a plot-theme, or if I've obviously misunderstood something.

All stories have the same basic structure: they are about people who want values, whether or not they get what they want, and how it happens. A plot is a story in which (1) there is a conflict between the people and the values they seek and/or the values are extremely difficult to achieve and (2) in which the outcome (whether or not the values are achieved) is ultimately determined by the free-will choices and actions of the people seeking the values.

The first step is to define who the main characters are and what they want. Then include only events and circumstances that (1) put them in conflict or make it difficult for them to get what they want and (2) show what they choose to do and how it results in them getting or losing the values at stake.

For specific step-by-step guidance in structuring a plot, see my recommendation (here) of Structuring Your Novel by Meredith and Fitzgerald a terrific little book that shows you how.

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For specific step-by-step guidance in structuring a plot, see my recommendation (here) of Structuring Your Novel by Meredith and Fitzgerald a terrific little book that shows you how.

I would recommend this book as well. Also, a good book to help in introspecting your way through writing "hangups" is Ayn Rand's Art of Nonfiction. In chapter 6 "Writing the Draft," she gives numerous examples of problems she learned how to deal with as she learned her craft. Some examples are "The Squirms" (where your subconscious is faced by a contradiction that you need to give your conscious mind time to discover), "The White Tennis Shoes" (procrastination), "Over-Staring" (rereading sentences in an attempt to recapture your train of thought), etc. All of her examples give lucid descriptions of the likely mechanism at work, as well as reasonable ways of dealing with them. At one time or another I have suffered from every malady she lists.

I know that the title indicates nonfiction, but I think it is as valuable to a fiction writer as her Art of Fiction. Whereas AoF has a terrific discussion on plot-theme, including step by step breakdowns of a few stories that are familiar to Ayn Rand fans, AoNF does a better job of describing the difficulties faced by a writer in constructing, and structuring, their work. Also of use are the sections in AoNF on creating an outline (the general principles apply to fiction) and the terrific section on Editing. Being a good editor is as important as having good ideas as far as I'm concerned.

I wouldn't recommend any one of these books over the others. Definitely get all three. :wacko:

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As far as something to help you out right now, I have found it helpful to think of the plot-theme in terms of what I have to say about the plot, as the author. If the plot is about a man choosing between defying an authority or obeying and doing something he doesn't agree with, you are stating your plot-theme if you rephrase it to say, "a man must choose between betraying his commander and betraying himself." Likewise, to achieve an opposite meaning (and thus a vastly different plot-theme), you might instead say "A man must choose between his reservations during a moment of weakness and his longstanding honor." (Ok, so the last one wasn't very good. I wouldn't want to write it anyways :wacko: )

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I know that the title indicates nonfiction, but I think it is as valuable to a fiction writer as her Art of Fiction. Whereas AoF has a terrific discussion on plot-theme, including step by step breakdowns of a few stories that are familiar to Ayn Rand fans, AoNF does a better job of describing the difficulties faced by a writer in constructing, and structuring, their work. Also of use are the sections in AoNF on creating an outline (the general principles apply to fiction) and the terrific section on Editing. Being a good editor is as important as having good ideas as far as I'm concerned.

I wouldn't recommend any one of these books over the others. Definitely get all three. :wacko:

Thanks, to both of you, for advising these books. While I plan to read all three, I can only afford to buy one book a month at the moment realy, so I've ordered The Art of Fiction from the abe books website, and put the others on my "to read" list. I also want to get The Romantic Manifesto.

Also, the "overstaring" you mentioned sounds familiar ;), I found that, if I force myself to stop working while I'm not stuck on something, while I'm still on a good run so to speak, it is a lot easier to pick up again when I come back to it, than it is if I stop working when I'm stuck on a particular point. Maybe thats just me though.

Betsy Speicher said:

(1) there is a conflict between the people and the values they seek and/or the values are extremely difficult to achieve and (2) in which the outcome (whether or not the values are achieved) is ultimately determined by the free-will choices and actions of the people seeking the values.

A lot of the time, when I write, the conflict is actualy between two conflicting values that a person holds, eg, the desire to be a good, honest, reporter, and the desire to keep your family safe, when reporting the truth in a particular situation would put your family in danger. (btw, would that be a good plot-theme for "honesty", or is it to concretised?) If the primary conflict is within a person, and between their values, does the theme, plot-theme and plot work any different? And, is it a good idea to have characters (other than the main character) who symbolise the parts of his mind in conflict, as a way of further dramatising the conflict?

(Also, I don't know if, or what, this changes, but so far I've only wrote short stories, because if I think they're a lot better to practice on than longer forms of fiction, but also because I enjoy short stories)

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A lot of the time, when I write, the conflict is actually between two conflicting values that a person holds, eg, the desire to be a good, honest, reporter, and the desire to keep your family safe, when reporting the truth in a particular situation would put your family in danger. (btw, would that be a good plot-theme for "honesty", or is it to concretised?)

I think that's a great plot-theme and it's exactly what a plot-theme ought to be: the essential concretization of the general theme.

As an example, this is how Ayn Rand defined the theme and the plot-theme for the movie of The Fountainhead:

General Theme: Man's integrity.

Plot Theme: Howard Roark, an architect, a man of genius, originality and complete spiritual independence, holds the truth of his convictions above all things in life. He fights against society for his creative freedom, he refuses to compromise in any way, he builds only as he believes, he will not submit to conventions, traditions, popular taste, money or fame. Dominique Francon, the woman he loves, thinks that his fight is hopeless. Afraid that society will hurt and corrupt him, she tries to block his career in order to save him from certain disaster. When the disaster comes and he faces public disgrace, she decides to take her revenge on the man responsible for it, Gail Wynand, a powerful, corrupt newspaper publisher. She marries Wynand, determined to break him. But Roark rises slowly, in spite of every obstacle. When he finally meets Wynand in person, Dominique is terrified to see that the two men love and understand each other. Roark's integrity reaches Wynand's better self, Roark is the ideal which Wynand has betrayed in his ambition for power. Without intending it, Roark achieves his own revenge—by becoming Wynand's best friend. Dominique finds herself suffering in a strange triangle—jealous of her husband's devotion to the man she loves. When Roark's life and career are threatened in a final test, when he becomes the victim of public fury and has to stand trial, alone, hated, opposed and denounced by all Wynand makes a supreme effort toward his own redemption. He stands by Roark and defends him. Wynand loses, defeated and broken by the corrupt machine he himself had created. But Roark wins without his help—wins by the power of his own truth. Roark is acquitted—and Dominique comes to him, free to find happiness with him, realizing that the battle is never hopeless, that nothing can defeat man's integrity.

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I think that's a great plot-theme and it's exactly what a plot-theme ought to be: the essential concretization of the general theme.

Thanks :wacko:

As an example, this is how Ayn Rand defined the theme and the plot-theme for the movie of The Fountainhead:

General Theme: Man's integrity.

Plot Theme: Howard Roark, an architect, a man of genius, originality and complete spiritual independence, holds the truth of his convictions above all things in life. He fights against society for his creative freedom, he refuses to compromise in any way, he builds only as he believes, he will not submit to conventions, traditions, popular taste, money or fame. Dominique Francon, the woman he loves, thinks that his fight is hopeless. Afraid that society will hurt and corrupt him, she tries to block his career in order to save him from certain disaster. When the disaster comes and he faces public disgrace, she decides to take her revenge on the man responsible for it, Gail Wynand, a powerful, corrupt newspaper publisher. She marries Wynand, determined to break him. But Roark rises slowly, in spite of every obstacle. When he finally meets Wynand in person, Dominique is terrified to see that the two men love and understand each other. Roark's integrity reaches Wynand's better self, Roark is the ideal which Wynand has betrayed in his ambition for power. Without intending it, Roark achieves his own revenge—by becoming Wynand's best friend. Dominique finds herself suffering in a strange triangle—jealous of her husband's devotion to the man she loves. When Roark's life and career are threatened in a final test, when he becomes the victim of public fury and has to stand trial, alone, hated, opposed and denounced by all Wynand makes a supreme effort toward his own redemption. He stands by Roark and defends him. Wynand loses, defeated and broken by the corrupt machine he himself had created. But Roark wins without his help—wins by the power of his own truth. Roark is acquitted—and Dominique comes to him, free to find happiness with him, realizing that the battle is never hopeless, that nothing can defeat man's integrity.

I had no idea that the plot-theme for The Fountainhead would be compelling reading in its own right.

And, I think I understand now that I was trying to avoid concretes in my plot-theme, when in fact your meant to put the essential concretes of the plot - down to a certain level - but not all the inessential details. Is that right?

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If the primary conflict is within a person, and between their values, does the theme, plot-theme and plot work any different?

Not really. You still have to concretize the conflict in the events in the story and have the character resolve it by his choices and actions.

And, is it a good idea to have characters (other than the main character) who symbolise the parts of his mind in conflict, as a way of further dramatising the conflict?

That can be very effective if it makes sense for your story. Dominique and Wynand might be good examples of this.

(Also, I don't know if, or what, this changes, but so far I've only wrote short stories, because if I think they're a lot better to practice on than longer forms of fiction, but also because I enjoy short stories).

Starting with short stories is an excellent idea if that is what you want to do and it is also a manageable project for a beginning writer learning her craft. Observe that Ayn Rand started with short stories, plays, and screenplays before she tackled writing a novel.

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Dominique and Wynand might be good examples of this.

I thought something like that when I was reading The Fountainhead, I thought that they were both like Roark, but each with their own fault or weakness that made them vulnerable.

I'm not sure exactly how to summarise what I think their faults/weaknesses are, but I think they are something like:

Dominique: Thinks that because some people are bad, the whole world (and everyone in it) must be bad, so she avoids people.

Wynnand: Thinks that everyones a hypocrite and so enjoys proving this (ie, by paying an individualist to write collectivist articles for his paper, and vice versa), as it makes him feel justified in printing things he himself disagrees with in the Banner so that it stays popular.

I'm probably not exactly right with my analysis of them though.

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So, I find it easy to decide on a theme, and to think up lots of material for my plot. But, my problems are that, I often have difficulty deciding which of the concretes (situations, characters, etc) I thought up to use in my plot, and I have problems working out the plot-theme to connect my theme to my plot properly. I think these two are connected, as not being able to get a good plot-theme makes it difficult to work I need for the plot. So, maybe its just one problem I have.

I was wondering if anyone has any useful methods for working out a plot-theme, or if I've obviously misunderstood something.

To make it a little more explicit because I think the others have hit on it. And if I understand you correctly. Those two problems aren't connected, they are the same problem. And your reporter example shows you can do it, although it can be murder sometimes. If the concretes are equal in their ability to carry forward the theme then choose by feeling. What interests you? If medicine bores you, but deep-sea diving fascinates you, it would be a mistake to choose medicine. Beyond that level functionality is key; conflict, conflict, conflict. If you've got your hero riding off into the sunset in chapter 2 (meaning you have him without conflict) break that horse's leg.

Also remember that Ayn Rand's analysis of fiction writing is not a step-by-step tutorial on how to write a book. You do not, when you decide you want to write a book, have to start thinking of a theme as your first step. It might be step 5 (moving out, obviously of the 3 major fiction categories). You might have an idea that just slaps you across the face, and you've plotted half a story before theme even consciously occurs to you. Or you see a particularly interesting person reading in the bookstore, and you have half a biography sketched out and 50 years of background before you come to theme. Theme absolutely is a step, just not necessarily step number one. Although before you start to peck out Chapter 1 (or Chapter 30 depending on where you want to start) you should have your theme (and all the others for that matter) laid in stone.

Personally, I can't stand to start with theme. That's just a personal preference. I find that the possibilities are just too enormous. Especially as a fantasy writer - what can't you do with any theme? Also I was such a rationalist when Peikoff's OPAR came out that I was filled with glee when I saw the chapter titles, because I thought "Wow! He's got all possible book themes written out in order!" Reason as Man's Means of Survival - ok - now plot-theme it, then plot it, then characterize it. Needless to say, a short time later it was at least ten years before I thought of writing again.

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You do not, when you decide you want to write a book, have to start thinking of a theme as your first step. It might be step 5 (moving out, obviously of the 3 major fiction categories). You might have an idea that just slaps you across the face, and you've plotted half a story before theme even consciously occurs to you. Or you see a particularly interesting person reading in the bookstore, and you have half a biography sketched out and 50 years of background before you come to theme. Theme absolutely is a step, just not necessarily step number one. Although before you start to peck out Chapter 1 (or Chapter 30 depending on where you want to start) you should have your theme (and all the others for that matter) laid in stone.

Personally, I can't stand to start with theme.

I get ideas for stories before I've thought of the theme too :wacko:. Sometimes it can be more difficult to work out a theme for a story than a story for a theme though. But, I still enjoy writing stuff from a theme.

Those two problems aren't connected, they are the same problem

I guess I just restated it in different words ;)

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