Story vs Plot vs Theme

A post at Writers Helping Writers: Story vs. Plot vs. Theme: Know Your 5Ws and H

First reaction: Five Ws, hmm? And an H. Right up front, I’m feeling skeptical. I guess this is what, why, who, when, where, and how, and I think that is not remotely helpful because fiction is not journalism and because, as a discovery writer, I’m going to start off knowing Who and Where in a very limited sense, and that’s it. Also, none of that gets at theme.

Unless I’m wrong and the journalism thing isn’t where this post is going. Let’s take a look!

No, this is totally the journalism thing.

Journalism writing often uses the 5W1H structure. The first few paragraphs of a news article should answer 6 basic questions (which start with 5 Ws and an H): Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. While fiction writing doesn’t try to cram the essentials into the beginning paragraphs, those same questions are important for our storytelling. In fact, we can use specific questions from that structure to understand the big picture—or essence—of our story, plot, and theme.

Bold in the original, and I have my doubts about whether this is useful, at least for non-outliners.

First, though, we need to understand that our story and our plot are not the same. A story is about our characters’ struggle, while a plot is the events that reveal the characters and choices explored in the story.

There, I agree. Bold is still in the original.

Anyway, we now use the journalism thing to, essentially, rough out an outline. I think this is all useless and annoying, like everything else that involves outlining. But you know when it could be useful? Not before writing the novel; no. I think this could be handy when writing a synopsis, or more particularly when writing a one-sentence summary, a query, or back cover description. That’s when you need to write, essentially:

When ________ faces _______, he must _________ in order to ___________.

And that’s the basic structure of a one-sentence summary. That’s a way of encapsulating character and plot, and it’s very much a who-what-why kind of structure. It doesn’t touch theme, though. Nothing in this touches theme. How does the linked post get to theme? With “Why,” like this:

Why? Why does our character participate in the story (in the big picture)? …. Our Why answers help us narrow down what we’re trying to say with our story, which then helps us define our intended themes. Our protagonist could learn to not take life for granted. Our plot events could present reasons and opportunities for our protagonist to give up, but they believe in the importance of their actions and make choices revealing their persistence. 

I seldom intend themes. Themes, to me, are something that emerge, not something I intend from the beginning. Oh, there’s one Black Dog novella where I realized what at least one important theme was almost at the beginning and deliberately strengthened that theme (family). Usually I notice themes late, or I don’t notice themes at all.

Anyway, I’d do it this way:

Plot is what happens.

Story is how the characters cope with what happens.

Theme is what the story means, not just to the characters, but also to the author and the readers.

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2 thoughts on “Story vs Plot vs Theme”

  1. I just read Jennifer Crusie’s Lavender Blue. The plot is thin, the themes are minor — but what a story!!

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