Theme vs Plot

By Judith Proctor.

Oh Boromir, the tower of Guard shall ever northwards gaze,
To Rauros, golden Rauros falls, until the end of days.

I cried. Lots.

Until today, I thought Harry Potter was the best film of 2001. Now I know that 'The Fellowship of the Ring' beats it hollow.

It's interesting to work out why, as both films had excellent casts and superb special effects.

I believe the difference boils down to this: plot and theme. Harry Potter had plot, but TFOTR had theme and plot.

What do I mean by theme, and what is the distinction?

The plot of the film is all about what should be done with the ring and who goes on the quest and what happens to them. The *theme* is about temptation. One by one, each character has to answer the same question. "Do you want the ring? What price are you prepared to pay for power?"

The genius of the script writers in adapting the book is that they have focused in on this point as the cornerstone of the film and made it work. We know not only what choices are made, but why. It is no coincidence that the only person to fail the test is the one who faced the hardest choice. The elves were leaving Middle Earth, the mortals did not have this choice. The men fighting on the front line had the invasion on their doorstep - they were the ones facing death and the destruction of all they held dear. It's hard to take a long-term perspective under those circumstances.

That's why we cry when Boromir dies. We know the despair that drove him. He was not an evil man, nor even a bad one. He was human.

Theme is important to fanfic and it's not taken into account nearly as often as it should be. The theme may be as basic as love or betrayal, or it can be more complex. It can ask questions "What price are we prepared to pay for freedom?", "What matters more: to live or to maintain honour?". It can ask whether we value friends more than family, or even the critical importance of chocolate to life.

Plot relates to structure. A plot should have a beginning, a middle and an end, which sounds terribly obvious until you start to think about what you actually mean by beginning, middle and end. Usually, that will mean 'development of problem, struggle/complictions, resolution of problem for good or for ill'. Plot can exist both on the large scale and the small. Even a thousand word story can have a plot.

What is not a plot, is a series of events that simply follow one another with nothing that links them together. eg. I went shopping, I bought some bananas, I played with the kids.

Now, if I'd used the banana to shoot the kids when they ambushed me in the kitchen, *then* I would have a plot, as the events are linked - there is cause and effect.

If that story had a theme, it would probably be 'expensive toys are not always the best'. If I was actually writing that as a theme, I would probably then add extra details to develop the theme more such as having the kids launch their ambush from a fort made of the box that the computer came in.

If you can work theme into your stories, I guarantee they'll be all the better for it. The commonest theme in fanfic is probably 'your buddy/love/team care enough about you to risk his/her/their necks for you' but there's a lot more that can be woven in. Theme can be what makes the reader sit back and think "What would I have done if I had to face that situation?"

Themes that come to mind from various stories/episodes include:

Can you sacrifice someone you love to save others?

What's more important to you, saving the life of 100 humans or 1000 aliens?

Is it right to free slaves if that will result in the death of others?


Are you responsible for acts carried out by those under your command? And if so, how far are you prepared to accept the penalaties? Consider both the case where you agree with what they did and where you disagree.

Each of the above can have a plot built around it with little effort. In fact, it can often be easier to determine the theme first and then build the plot around it. On the occasions when I start with plot, I inevitably find that the story does not come properly to life until I have found out what the theme is.

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Last changed on 09th of January 2002