September 11, 2016

Plotting with Themes

How to Use Themes to Plot a Novel

When building a plot, it helps me to start to think about the themes across the novel fairly early. In my mind, I try to identify three themes that will bridge the whole novel together. I also find that, by thinking about themes, I can provide my novel with more substance. (As a chronic under-writer this is particularly useful to me.)

I use the 10-20-10 method and beat sheet to first map my plot, and then once I have the ‘bones’ of it, I move into trying to establish my themes.

For every novel I write, I start with three themes.

Normally one or two themes come to me easily, but sometimes the third theme takes more time. I often get to the point that I do some googling, read my existing plot about twenty times, sleep a week, and then I come up with all three themes.

Once I have three themes, I identify ten places in my plot that each theme is expressed.

These ten places can be as bold or subtle as you like – there just has to be ten of them! Slamming out five existing plot points is the easy part – and then you start thinking about where the others can be seen again.

Let’s use an example. Let’s say a theme is love (the old favourite). Your ten moments could be:

  1. Monica’s wedding
  2. The last thing grandma says before she dies is that she loves Shirley
  3. Charles cheats on Shirley – unlove
  4. Scene with new puppy – emotions of love
  5. Monica posts loving Facebook images of honeymoon
  6. Charles says “I love you”
  7. Shirley struggles to feel/say “I love you” to Charles
  8. Shirley reads lost love letters between grandma and another man (not grandpa)
  9. Puppy car accident – love of puppy / love of Charles collide at vet
  10. Shirley says “I love you” to Charles

Now, this is lame, but you can see the basics of the plot here. Another theme that may be apparent in this piece is death. We have the death of grandma, the death of a relationship (from the cheating), the potential death of the puppy, etc.

Once I have found three themes with ten examples of each, I will have almost thirty plot points. (I say almost thirty because some plot points will overlap.)

Thirty plot points is a great place to start with your novel! It’s not the end of your plotting process, but it doesn’t make a bad beginning.