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Plot Depth through Thematic Significance

By Martha Alderson, M.A.

Plot involves at least three primary threads: Dramatic Action, Character Emotional Development, and Thematic Significance.

Of these three elements, writers are equally divided between those who begin a project by concentrating on the Dramatic Action and those who begin with Character Emotional Development.

Dramatic Action writers tend to thrive on the excitement of what happens in the story. The first draft of a Dramatic Action writer is full of excitement with lots of conflict, tension, and suspense, twists and turns, chases and confrontations, and usually contains little character development. Often, a reader's comment of this first Dramatic Action draft is: "Why should I care?"

Writers who prefer to explore the different aspects of a Character's Emotional Development delve into what makes her tick, her feelings and emotions, her loves and hates. The first draft of a Character Emotional Development writer tends to be full of insight into the human psyche, with very little happening in terms of Dramatic Action. Often, a reader's comment of this first Character Emotional draft is: "When is something going to happen?"

Far fewer writers choose to begin with the Thematic Significance thread. These writers usually have a message they wish to impart, but not much of an idea of characters or what will happen.

Wherever you begin writing, by your final draft, you have an idea of the deeper meaning of your story, what you are trying to say and the ways you have attempted to communicate that meaning through your story to your audience.

Crystallize the meaning into two specific universal themes and improve your chances of creating a classic blockbuster story.

Two Kinds of Thematic Significance

When a character is changed at depth over time, a story becomes thematically significant.

1) Character Emotional Development Thematic Significance

In Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Nick serves as the narrator. Of all the characters in the story, Nick is the only one who is changed by the Dramatic Action, thus making Nick also the protagonist. (The definition of a protagonist is the character most changed by the Dramatic Action in the story. If several characters in your story are changed by the Dramatic Action, then the protagonist is determined as a matter of degree and significance of change.)

Some might point to Gatsby as the protagonist, alive in the beginning and dead in the end. What counts with Thematic Significance is not the change from alive to dead, but how the Dramatic Action creates a long-term emotional change in the protagonist.

Nick sets his own Thematic Significance in Chapter 3 when he states that he is one of the few honest people he has known. Since he is the narrator, the reader is curious to know if he is reliable, or not. Does Nick have a clear sense of himself from his time in the war as he thinks? Or, does he have more to learn about himself before he can accurately judge himself? In the end, Nick understands he has only begun to live up to his initial assessment of himself as stated in the beginning.

A Thematic Significance statement for Nick's character emotional plotline could be:

Only with maturity and assuming personal and moral responsibility are we able to accurately judge ourselves and others.

2) Dramatic Action Thematic Significance

The Great Gatsby, as with all classic stories, deals with universal themes. Along with Nick's personal Thematic Significance, there is also an overall meaning or Thematic Significance for the entire story.

A Thematic Significance statement for The Great Gatsby as a whole could be:

Ambition for money and another man's wife leads to destruction.

Eat, Pray, Love

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is a character-driven memoir and soon-to-be released motion picture of the same name. In this story, the protagonist (I use the term character and protagonist even with a memoirist in order to make the reference less personal and to remind memoir writers to develop their character to show change and transformation) attempts to achieve her goals (outlined below). She also, on a much deeper level, undertakes an intensive spiritual investigation. As a seeker, her focus is on the search for Truth or meaning.

The book is more prose writing than in scene, in that the author spends lots of time describing Italy, India and Bali, the places where the three segments of the book unfold. In much of the book, the author also discusses her thoughts. Because of the subjects she described - the history of meditation, descriptions of the Ashram, and the like - are fascinating and extremely well-written, and most readers like to learn something new through reading, many will not object to the telling nature of much of the narrative.

When Gilbert does write in scene, the descriptions and discussions have depth and impact. However, the Dramatic Action, when in evidence, is secondary. Her Character Emotional Development and search for resolution and God over time carries the significance.

A thematic significance statement for Eat, Pray, Love could be:

A spiritual journey is challenging but, when undertaken with passion, and dedication, can transform a person enough to overcome hurt, and to love again.

The Beginning (1/4)

The Beginning of Eat, Pray, Love functions in an introductory mode as all good Beginnings do. The protagonist's Dramatic Action goals are clearly outlined: 1) to spend one-third of the story in Italy learning the language, 2) one-third on her Guru's Ashram in India in meditation, and 3) one-third in Indonesia with a medicine man. Her Character Emotional Development goals are clearly implied: 1) undergo intensive self-inquiry, 2) recover from her recent divorce, and 3) find balance and spirituality in her life.

The Beginning of the story takes place in Italy with a goal of learning Italian. This section functions on a sensory level with lots of eating great bread and pastries, drinking wine, and meeting terrific men. Of the three sections, Italy is the least challenging for the author, which is fine because this is where we find out her issues: she has had a spiritual crisis, which ended in a divorce and was followed by an unfulfilling relationship.

In the Beginning, and into the Middle of the memoir, the protagonist freely shows her flawed self, which, at times, comes across neurotic enough that if her writing were not so compelling, the reader might not stay with her. However, the more flawed the character, the greater the possibility in the final transformation.

The Middle (1/2)

In the Middle third, the protagonist travels to her Guru's Ashram in India and spends her time there mostly in meditation. When she is in scene in this section, it is often with Richard from Texas who is a hoot and a compassionate mentor.

The more she has to devote to meditation, the more frustrated she becomes, which is an effective means of revealing more and more of the depth of who this person truly is. Take note: Although the project only covers one year in her life and the author has several memories of the past, there are only a couple of instances where she actually goes into a flashback.

The Middle is the territory of the antagonists and the bulk of this character's antagonism comes from her own mind. She can't concentrate. She can't meditate. She can't let go of the past. She engages in useless longings.

In her search for spirituality, "you revert from what attracts you and swim toward that which is difficult." The more difficult her journey becomes, the more flawed we see her character. Still, as challenged as she becomes, she never gives up or gives in.

At around the three quarter mark in the story, the crisis hits after she climbs to the top of a tower at the Ashram and asks to be shown everything she needs "to understand about forgiveness and surrender." Up until this point in the book, we know she has been craving a resolution to her dissolved marriage. She would have loved to have an actual conversation with her ex-husband, but knows that will never happen due to the ugliness of the divorce, which had turned them into "two people who were absolutely incapable of giving each other any release."

Once she drops into mediation "to my surprise, I did an odd thing. I invited my ex-husband to please join me up here on this rooftop in India.... And he did arrive." What happens after that, as she finds out what she needs to about herself and her part in the past, is she finds the release she so desperately craves.

The End (1/4)

The End is the section where the character now shows whether or not she truly understands her flaw and her part in what is not working in her life.

The Climax occurs at nearly the end of the story when the protagonist commits to helping a woman with a child of her own and two orphans she has taken in. Up until this act, the protagonist has been completely self-centered. She has obsessed about her life and flaws and worries.

At the Climax, we see that the wake-up call that came at the Crisis has ripened into the new personality deeply enough that she is able to extend herself in generosity and help another person. This action is the perfect metaphor to show character transformation. We have a definite sense that the protagonist would not have been capable of doing what she does for this family if she had not experienced every single thing she has undergone previously - the definition of the Climax.

The Resolution

In the end, the protagonist finds love, and satisfies the thematic significance statement: A spiritual journey is challenging, but with passion, and dedication can transform and overcome hurt enough to love again.

To write a lasting and meaningful story, don the hat of a sleuth. In each rewrite, provide another layer of the Thematic Significance of your stories. Your readers may never uncover the deliberate care that went into the formation of every detail of your story. They will be left to ponder the meaning you set forth, possibly even be changed at depth by your story's theme. The effort is worthy.

Hands On

1) Who is the protagonist of your story?
2) Write down a Thematic Significance statement that encompasses the emotional transformation your protagonist undergoes from the beginning and throughout to the end of the story.
3) Write down a Thematic Significance statement that encompasses the meaning of the overall story. In other words, what do all of the scenes and Dramatic Action together add up to mean in the end.
4) Infuse your story with this theme through details and comparisons, metaphor and simile.

Excerpts of this article were taken from Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple by Martha Alderson, M.A.

Meet the Author: Martha Alderson, M.A.

Martha Alderson, aka the Plot Whisperer, is the author of the Plot Whisperer series of plot books for writers: The Plot Whisperer Book of Prompts: Easy Exercises to Get You Writing, The Plot Whisperer Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises to Help You Create Compelling Stories – a companion workbook to The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. She has also written Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple (Illusion Press) and several ebooks on plot. As an international plot consultant for writers, Martha’s clients include best-selling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. She teaches plot workshops to novelists, mem...