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How to Balance Plot & Theme

Few things are more frustrating than when the "ideas" behind a story overpower the organic nature of the plot and characters. The goal of storytelling is to create an immersive experience for readers, allowing them to connect with the narrative and the characters on a personal level.


However, as powerful as the ideas an author wants to show their readers might be, they can easily undercut an otherwise compelling narrative. When themes are emphasized at the expense of the plot, the author seems to intrude too much into the story, making readers feel like they're being preached at rather than invited into a world.


This kind of writing robs readers of the ability to make their own conjectures about the story. Imagine watching a movie when the director suddenly steps into the action and starts commenting on what’s going on, telling you all about the characters and the action and explaining their motives. You don’t get to develop your own thoughts about the story and characters. You’ve just been told what to think.


That’s not storytelling. That’s propaganda.


(Note: Director’s commentaries, where the goal is for filmmakers to expound on the behind-the-scenes work of creating the movie, are obviously exempt from this.)


Nothing frustrates me more in this area than bad “Christian art.” These films and novels often fall short because they prioritize themes and messages over storytelling. Instead of engaging narratives, readers get thinly veiled sermons that fail to resonate with a broader audience. Great storytelling conveys profound truths in a way that touches hearts and minds organically.


If I want to hear profound biblical truth, I’ll pull up an app on my phone and listen to a sermon. Then, I’ll watch a movie or read a book and think about the story in light of what I’ve just learned. Trusting readers to make these same connections will automatically create a better experience with your work.  


So, how do you effectively balance plot and theme? How can you avoid the pitfall of letting ideas you want to express become more important than the story?


Here are some strategies to help you weave your themes seamlessly into a plot that will grab your readers’ attention and catch them up in a unique and beautiful story.

Understand the Role of Theme

Themes are the underlying ideas that give depth to your story. They can be moral questions, societal critiques, or personal explorations that add layers of meaning to your narrative. However, themes should emerge naturally from the plot and the characters' journeys, not be imposed upon them.


Understanding that themes are not the driving force but the subtle undercurrent can help you maintain a balanced approach. For instance, if you're exploring themes of redemption and forgiveness, let these ideas unfold through the characters' experiences and the natural progression of the plot. The theme should enhance the story, not dictate it.


Develop Strong Characters

Characters are the heart of your story. They drive the plot forward through their actions, decisions, and growth. To balance plot and theme, ensure your characters are well-developed and multi-dimensional. Their motivations, conflicts, and transformations should naturally reflect the themes you wish to explore.


Creating detailed character profiles can be incredibly helpful. Understand your characters' backgrounds, desires, fears, and moral compasses. This depth will help you see how your themes can organically emerge from their experiences. For example, a character struggling with guilt may find redemption through their interactions and decisions, subtly reinforcing your theme without overtly stating it.


Weave Themes Into the Plot

Instead of starting with a theme and building a plot, begin with a compelling story idea and let the themes reveal themselves through the unfolding events. This approach ensures that your plot remains dynamic and engaging, with themes integrated naturally.


Use subplots to explore themes in different ways. Subplots can provide a rich tapestry of perspectives and experiences that reinforce the main themes without overwhelming the primary storyline. For example, in "The Great Gatsby," the primary plot revolves around Jay Gatsby's pursuit of Daisy Buchanan, which explores themes of love, wealth, and the American Dream. Meanwhile, the subplots involving Tom Buchanan's infidelity and Nick Carraway's moral growth enrich these themes and add depth to the overall narrative, showing different facets of the same core ideas.


When in Doubt, Rely on Action

One of the cardinal rules of storytelling is to show, not tell. Rather than explicitly stating your themes, show them through your characters’ actions, dialogue, and the consequences they face. This method allows readers to draw their own conclusions and engage more deeply with your story.


For example, instead of having a character preach about forgiveness, show their struggle to forgive through their interactions and personal growth. This approach is more impactful and resonates more strongly with readers. Readers are more likely to connect with a character’s journey when they can see and feel the struggle rather than being told what to think or feel.


Balance Dialogue and Action

Dialogue is a powerful tool for revealing themes but should be balanced with action. Characters can discuss thematic elements, but their words should be supported by their actions and the plot’s developments. This balance keeps the narrative engaging and prevents it from becoming didactic.


Be wary of having characters give a "Big Speech" to convey your themes. This can easily come across as preachy and disrupt the flow of your story. (I'm looking at you, Atlas Shrugged.) Instead, let your characters' actions and choices reveal their beliefs and values. For instance, a conversation about justice can be powerful, but it becomes even more so when followed by actions that illustrate the consequences of justice or injustice. This combination of dialogue and action keeps the theme present but not overpowering.


Reflect and Revise

After completing a draft, take a step back and reflect on how well your themes are integrated. Are there parts where the theme feels forced? Does the plot flow naturally, or does it feel derailed by thematic elements? Revising with these questions in mind can help you find a better balance.


Seeking feedback from beta readers, specifically on integrating plot and theme, can be invaluable. Fresh eyes can often spot imbalances that you might miss. Feedback can guide you in fine-tuning your narrative to ensure that themes are woven in seamlessly.


Balancing plot and theme is crucial to creating stories that resonate deeply with readers. By focusing on solid character development, weaving themes naturally into the plot, and balancing dialogue with action, you can create meaningful and engaging stories without coming across as didactic.


Remember, the most powerful stories are those where readers discover the themes for themselves, guided gently by the unfolding narrative.


Storytelling is a powerful tool. When done with skill and finesse, it can convey profound truths in a way that speaks to the heart. Keep writing, refining, and trusting your stories' power to impact and inspire.


Want More Tips for Building Better Stories?


For more detailed guidance on crafting compelling stories, check out the Ultimate Writing Project Workbook. This comprehensive resource is filled with exercises, worksheets, and practical advice to help you build your book and make a lasting impact on your readers.


Whether you're just starting out or looking to refine your skills, the Ultimate Writing Project Workbook is designed to support you at every step of your writing journey. Click the button below to grab a copy.

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