Plot vs Theme

I think we all understand what is meant by the plot of a novel.  It is the story line; the summary of what happens.  The theme is the message that the author is trying to get the reader to think about.  It is the philosophical/theological/social/psychological message of the novel.  The theme may not be very clear; it may be quite subtle or implied, because the author wants to present the reader with a puzzle: something important to consider.

It is probably fair to say that every novel has a plot, but not every novel has a theme.  For example, my novel, The Iranian Scorpion, is a thriller, and as such, it has a plot, but I didn’t intend it to have a theme.  I suppose, considering the novel retrospectively, one might say that its theme is the near impossibility of banning addictive drugs such as heroin, but I didn’t intend to write the novel to make that point.

Consider To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the great novels of the 2oth century.  The plot is quite complex.  It involves two young children, Scout and Jem, who live with their widowed father, a lawyer, in a small Alabama town in the 1930’s.  The father, Atticus, is appointed by a judge to defend a black man who is accused of raping a white woman.  In the course of the trial, Atticus establishes that the white woman and her father are lying.  Nonetheless, the black man, Tom Robinson, is convicted by the jury.  Tom is killed in escaping from jail.  What follows is an attack by Bob Ewell, the accused’s father, on the children at night.  Boo, an elusive and mysterious neighbour, intervenes.  Bob Ewell is thought to have fallen on his own knife and died.  The plot itself has elements of uncertainty: the evidence presented at trial, the attack on the children, the motivation of Boo.

The overriding theme of the novel is the racial prejudice which existed in the American South in the ’30’s.  But there is also the idealistic courage of Atticus and his children in the face of prejudice.  In addition, there are issues around social class and gender which are touched on.

I think it is fair to say that the plot, while it reflects some of the author, Harper Lee’s, childhood experiences, is constructed so as to develop the themes for the reader.  Harper Lee took two and a half years to complete the novel, and during that time, she became so frustrated that at one point she threw the manuscript out a window into the snow.  (Her agent made her retrieve it.)  In my view, To Kill a Mockingbird is the best example of compelling plot and themes beautifully integrated.

A lesser example would be my novel, Sable Shadow and The Presence, which has as its themes the overriding importance of identity for us as human beings.  Identity is who, why and what we are.  It is critical in determining how happy we are in the life we lead, and our identity can be changed under certain circumstances.  The plot is the life of a bright, but introverted male character who grows and develops into a ‘great success’, only to see his success evaporate, and having to build a new identity.

Topics for Novels

How do writers choose a topic to write about?  What factors influence the setting, the characters, the time frame, the key events?

I suspect that every author will have a slightly different answer to these questions.  In my case, there was a different set of criteria which influenced the topic for each of my six (so far) novels.  I often think it would be easier if I had a consistent topic and some repeat characters, as the late P D James had with her detective stories.  The problem for me is that I get restless with repetitive tasks.  I would make a very poor assembly line worker.  I changed my major in college twice – from architecture, to mathematics – before settling on physics.  As a naval officer, every day was different.  As a salesman of heavy electrical equipment, every sale was unique.  As a manager and as a management consultant, every situation one faces is different.

Starting with Fishing in Foreign Seas, I tried to stay within my experience: romance, Sicily, the north-eastern US, raising a family and the sale of heavy electrical equipment.  I added some sex and some intrigue for seasoning.  For me, this worked, but I wanted something grander, more important.

What could be more important than sin?  What could be grander than six life stories entwined?  That was the premise of Sin and Contrition.  With a chapter devoted to each sin, I found that each character developed uniquely, and that my imagination could add interesting – but credible – surprises.

Efraim’s Eye came about because of a charity assignment I had in Mexico, where we suspected the chief executive of the charity of being corrupt.  I felt that a corrupt charity was interesting, but probably not gripping.  But, what if the purpose of the charity’s corruption was the financing of a terrorist attack?  And what if there was an intense love story?

The feedback from readers of Efraim’s Eye was very good: it was an exciting thriller with believable characters.  I decided that I wanted to write another thriller; this time about the drugs trade, and I decided that Afghanistan, with its huge output of opium for heroin, and being in the public eye, was the setting.  But, I also needed an immediate destination for the heroin, as very little of it is consumed in Afghanistan.  Some research convinced me to make Iran the home of the bad guy and the immediate destination of the heroin in The Iranian Scorpion. 

Before I finished Scorpion, I started on a novel in the first person about a bright, self-conscious boy who hears unfamiliar voices, which, over time, he attributes to representatives of God and the devil.  I wanted to write a serious novel which, through the life of Henry, explored psychological, theological, and sociological issues around the choices we make in our lives – for better or worse.  I wrote three chapters of Sable Shadow and The Presence before setting it aside: I had lost my way and needed to take a break.  But with the completion of The Iranian Scorpion, I came back to Sable Shadow with new enthusiasm, and I completed it.

In the back of my mind was another novel, slightly similar to Sable Shadow, but an allegory, told in the first person, set largely in the Middle East, with Middle Eastern characters, and dealing with the search for meaning in life.  I’m working full tilt on it now, but before getting really started, I wrote Hidden Battlefields, another thriller, this one about a huge shipment of cocaine from Peru to the ‘Ndrangheta mafia in southern Italy. Four of the main characters from Scorpion are in Hidden Battlefields.  The theme of Battlefields is how major conflicts in our values and priorities can affect who we really are.

As I look back on the progression of novels, two trends stand out, both of which amount to increasing levels of challenge for me as a writer:

First, my craft as a writer is being challenged on all fronts: character development, thematic subtlety, language, credibility and interest.

Second, I have to do more and more research, to the point now where I spend more time on research than I do on writing.