Monday, August 20, 2012

Plot Vs. Theme

For a couple of years now I've been writing about my lack of enthusiasm with the Wants/Obstacles/Resolutions writing plan often lauded as a way of creating plots. I don't find it very helpful because:

1. You're supposed to give characters something to want. Well, what are they supposed to want? And, for that matter, what characters? Then there's the matter of coming up with obstacles for them to overcome so they can get what they want. Who is supposed to come up with those things, anyway? This seems to me like pulling a plot out of...ah...nowhere.

2. It also seems to be less a method of creating any kind of plot than it is a method of creating a formulaic story about overcoming adversity, the adversities being the obstacles to getting what the protagonist wants. Even if you're not talking a traditional problem or victim story, but a journey story, survival story, or romance in which the protagonist wants to get somewhere, live, find love, there's an overcoming adversity aspect if you are simply tossing in problems for characters to overcome. There's nothing wrong with formula stories, if you happen to enjoy the particular formula involved. But telling writers to use a give-them-something-to-want-and-then-keep-it-from-them formula is not really telling them how to create a plot--which is, by the way, supposed to be a series of causal steps leading to resolution and not just problems to overcome.

I recently finished a reread of Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. The author, Rust Hill, says of formula stories "...the formulas were sometimes wonderfully nebulous, like the almost equally famous "Twelve Basic Plots" (or however many it was), which would present one of the so-called "basic" plots in a single word like SEARCH, then start listing: "Search for identity," "Search for loved one," "Search for the father," and so on. The categories never seemed to have much connection to plot; if they had any relevance at all, surely it was to theme."

Rust didn't elaborate on his thinking. But I think the Wants/Obstacles/Resolutions or give-them-something-to-want-and-then-keep-it-from-them format isn't a plot any more than "search for identity" is a plot. It's a formula and formulas, as Rust says, are all about theme. "Searching for identity" is thematic. It's about a story's world view, a world view that determines that individuals need to learn who they are. "Overcoming obstacles so you can achieve your heart's desire" expresses a world view that that type of thing can actually happen.

Formula/theme may have an impact on plot. But it isn't a substitute for plot.

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