Deepen Your Plot

It’s one thing (and a good thing, too), to create a fast-moving plot. It’s quite another to write a story that lingers in the reader’s mind long after the last page.

While these two goals aren’t mutually exclusive, the latter requires that you take your writing to a deeper level. Themes, subplots, symbols and motifs are four aspects of fiction that will help you get there.

TAKE-HOME VALUE

At some point in your plotting, ask yourself what the take-home value of your story is going to be. What’s the lesson or insight—the new way of seeing things—that you want the reader to glean? Keep your answer to one line. This is your theme.

Think of theme as the one big statement about the world your work of fiction will convey. A novel should have only one main message, though it may offer several submessages.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov propounds numerous messages, such as the futility of pure intellect and the burden of free will. But it has only one main theme, which might be phrased: Faith and love are the highest values of human existence.

Themes deepen fiction, but you mustn’t take a theme and force a story into it. This results in a host of problems, among them cardboard characters, preachy tone, lack of subtlety and story clichés. How can you avoid these novel killers? Here’s one simple rule to remember: Characters carry theme. Always.

Develop your characters fully and set them in the story world where their values will conflict with one another. Allow your characters to struggle naturally and passionately. The theme will emerge without effort.

SUBPLOTS

You must also weave theme into plot. Like a tapestry, thematic strands must come together in a seamless way to create an overall effect. The feel must be organic. This is most often done through subplots.

A subplot can be primarily thematic, concerned with what the lead character needs to learn. While the outer action of the main plot is going on, causing all sorts of problems for the lead, the thematic subplot focuses on issues that are personal and interior.

For example, you have a detective who’s trying to solve a murder. In the main plot he’s going to interview witnesses, follow leads, avoid death, fight with his partner, run up against his captain and so forth.

At the same time, he’s having trouble at home. His wife starts drinking because of the stress. This affects the kids. The detective’s marriage is falling apart because he hasn’t learned how to give his wife what she needs. This is the subplot that carries a theme, which might be: Learning to love is as important as success at a job.

A thematic subplot can end on a positive or negative note and still carry the central message. If the wife leaves the detective at the end, that’s negative, but the lead has learned the lesson in a bitter fashion. He may not accept the lesson, but it’s hit him in a personal way.

Perhaps the detective figures out he must sacrifice something of his professional life to keep his marriage alive. He and his wife reconcile—a positive note. The lesson is the same.

A thematic subplot adds depth and meaning to a story. It allows you to make a statement about the important things in life, even if the main character isn’t thinking about them most of the time.

SYMBOLS AND MOTIFS

A symbol is something that’s representative of another thing. A motif is a repeated image or phrase. Both symbols and motifs deepen your plot, but only if they’re not forced. Again, natur-alness is the key.

Norman MacLean’s “A River Runs Through It” relies on water as a central motif. It begins:

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana …

From the start, we have a connection between water, religion and family. The river becomes the central image throughout the story. When the narrator watches his brother fly-fishing from a boulder, he reflects, “The whole world turned to water.”

And at the end, the narrator tells us:

All things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time … I am haunted by waters.

The motif was literal at the beginning, symbolic at the end. It frames and defines the story.

Janet Fitch weaves symbols and motifs into White Oleander. The oleander plant—tough, attractive, poisonous—represents Astrid’s mother, who tries to control Astrid’s life from prison. The tomato plants “groping for a little light” signify Astrid herself as she faces various challenges. These elevate the story from a collection of plot incidents to a commentary on life, love and human resiliency.

You’ll find symbols and motifs in your work by paying attention. Write scenes rich in sensory detail and look closely at what you’ve created.

Do this: Make three columns on a sheet of paper. In the first column, record the rich details that stand out in your scenes. In the middle, list your main characters. In the last column, catalog the significant settings.

Now look for connections across the columns. Connect a detail with a character or place. Or work the other way, from place to character to detail. Pick the strongest two or three connections and see if you can weave them into your plot as motifs or symbols.

Is any of this easy? Of course not. Is it worth it? Many times over. Memorable fiction is in short supply. Why not add to it?

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