Organic themes are symbiotic with their stories’ plots. This is because when everything is working well in a story, plot and theme are two halves of a whole, each one “proving” the other. When plot and theme are not working together, that’s a sure sign your story is in trouble.
Theme can be a tricky storytelling technique. Plot is often easier to grasp; we can see it, after all. Theme, meanwhile, still carries around something of a mystique. And yet when it’s not working, oh boy, is it obvious.
I’ve written at length, in my book Writing Your Story’s Theme and elsewhere, about the necessary cooperation of the “Big Three”—plot, character, and theme—about how one generates the others. Basically, if your plot and character arc are functioning properly, then you can be sure a solid theme is also emerging. By the same token, if your story is successfully “proving” a strong thematic principle, then your plot structure and character arc beats will also be convincing to readers.
Today, I want to talk again about how organic theme arises from plot (and vice versa) and specifically how to recognize five important elements of an organic theme. This post was inspired by a misbegotten viewing experience with a 1995 HBO movie you’ve probably (and fortunately) never heard of. In Pursuit of Honor, starring Don Johnson, is supposedly about the final days of the U.S. Cavalry. Set in the 1930s, the Cavalry receives word that tanks are now the ride of the future and that their horses must all be destroyed. A renegade squad decides to save the horses with a desperate ride across the U.S., all the way from Mexico to Canada.
Pretty heroic, right? It’s also more than a little far-fetched, especially in light of the fact that nothing like this ever happened (that, in fact, many of the Cavalry horses ended up, ironically, as movie horses). However, the far-fetched non-reality of the premise isn’t necessarily the problem. Certainly many a better story has been told on many a stupider premise. But particularly because this story is trying to sell viewers on a far-fetched premise, its burden of proving its verisimilitude becomes all the more important. Basic story-world details aside, nowhere is verisimilitude more important than in the realism of plot and theme.
The shortest explanation for the responsibility of any story’s plot and theme combo is simply: make it feel real. More specifically, you must make the characters’ experiences (plot) and emotional motives and responses (theme) feel real. If you can do that, you can go so far as to tell a crazy cooked-up story about a Spanish general-turned-gladiator trying to take over the Roman empire (that’s Gladiator if you couldn’t tell). Nobody will care that the story is hooey.
On the other hand if the harmony of your plot and theme fail, what you might end up doing is taking beloved franchise characters and turning them into grotesque caricatures of themselves, completely sapping audiences’ suspension of disbelief and draining all heart and soul from the story (and that’s my take on Thor: Love and Thunder, if you couldn’t tell).
Today, because In Pursuit of Honor is fresh on my mind, I want to talk about its missed opportunities for elevating itself with organic themes. I’m going to contrast it with one of my all-time favorite classic westerns, John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, because I feel the two stories share similar thematic potential.
Two Ways to Write Organic Themes
First of all, what are these “two ways to write organic themes”? Simply this: either theme must arise from plot, or plot must arise from theme.
Character is also vital, as the third member of the Big Three, but it lives in between plot and theme. Although you can certainly focus most of your attention on character arc in order to generate both cohesive plot and theme, plot and theme together will also generate all the opportunities you need for a strong character arc. (I have written specifically about character arc’s relationship to generating theme here.)
Theme From Plot
Organic themes arise when the mechanics of the plot are well structured and well explored. If you thoroughly and honestly follow your character through the events generated by your plot conflict, certain themes will inevitably emerge. When those themes are then honed and emphasized, what results is a powerful sense of cohesion between the two.
Plot From Theme
You can, of course, start with theme if you prefer. The trick here is to take an abstract idea (explorations of Puberty or Grief or Trust, for example) and use it to generate only plot events that develop the characters’ relationships to this idea.
If, however, you’re writing a story in which the theme has nothing to do with the plot and/or the plot is not exploring or commenting upon the theme, then you know you’re missing out on organic themes for your story.
4 Must-Have Elements of a Theme That Works
Let’s examine four elements that prove a theme is working within your story. And by “working,” I mean more than the theme simply acting in cohesion with the plot. I mean that the plot is generating events that force the characters to grapple with the questions and the consequences of the theme.
1. What Is Your Story About? No, What Is It Really About?
Your initial answer to this question might be that your story is about a mutiny on a ship or the death of a child or a romance after a cancer scare. That’s good enough for a first answer. But now ask again: “What is your story really about?”
What your story is really about will be something deeper than just the obvious plot action. For example, the mutiny story might really be about the atrocities of the 18th-century naval system or it might be about power vacuums or it might be a great big metaphor for claustrophobia. Regardless, zoom out and look at the big picture. Within any functional plot idea, there is the potential for a deeply wrought exploration of theme.
How to Create Organic Themes: For example, while The Magnificent Seven‘s simple plot is about a ragtag bunch of gunfighters hiring on to help a farming village chase off bandits, its theme is much deeper. Underneath all the gunfire, it is a story about the end of an era: the last of the gunfighters. This is subtly evident throughout the story at every turn and is underlined in the closing lines, when one gunfighter says to the other, “Only the farmers have won. We never win.” The film closes on two survivors once more turning their backs on community and riding away into a future that has no place for them.
How Not to Create Organic Themes: In Pursuit of Honor is also a story about the end of an era. It clearly sets itself up as a story about the end of a more “honorable” way of making war, in contrast to the mechanized horrors yet to come in the impending Second World War. The entire plot focuses on “one last ride,” as the rogue soldiers race across the American frontier, much as did their pioneer forefathers only a half a century earlier, in a desperate gambit to save their horses. As you can see, even in this far-fetched premise, the theme is there. It is merely waiting for a craftsman to whittle it out of the raw wood and bring it forth into a realized plot. Unfortunately, that is not what happened in this film.
2. Events Create Theme, But by Themselves Are Not Theme
Here’s an important riddle of the writing profession: plot can create theme, but it is not theme. Simply put, you can trot your story through any number of events, but by themselves these events will not show audiences what your story is about on a deeper level.
This deep level of theme is accessed when you show how your characters are affected by the events of your theme. Events are important, but consequences are more important. When events cause characters to feel something, audiences will believe those events actually possess any meaning. Do not neglect the reaction phase of your story’s scene structure; this is where your theme’s gravitas will find the necessary space to unfold.
How to Create Organic Themes: Although categorically an action film, The Magnificent Seven spends most of its running time on slower scenes in which the gunfighters interact with the villagers. This is important because it allows the story to contrast the comparatively peaceful and loving family lives of the villagers with the lonely and sometimes brutal lives of the gunfighters. Even more importantly, it allows the story to show what these interactions mean to the gunfighters. Each character has his own subplot, but perhaps the most moving is Charles Bronson bonding with three youngsters, which forces him to face his own submerged past as a half-Mexican, half-Irish boy who was caught “in the middle.”
How Not to Create Organic Themes: In Pursuit of Honor creates plot events that put its characters through the wringer. These men desert their outfit and herd horses across the full length of the American frontier, all while being chased by both the new Armored divisions and their fellow Cavalrymen. But none of it ever feels weighty because the effects of these actions are never fully explored. Unlike the pioneers who had to fight their way through weather and over mountains, holding out for the next water hole, and praying to beat winter, these Cavalrymen barely grow beards, never go hungry, somehow skip the Rockies altogether, and seem to make the trip all before spring ends.
3. Theme Means Nothing Without Character Change
E.M. Forster famously commented upon plot and theme when he said:
“The king died, and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.
Fundamentally, what he is talking about here is the need for story events to not just impact characters but to change them. This is the measure of whether a story’s plot is progressing. If there is no change, then there is no progression—and no point. This is why theme is inherently linked to character arc. If the character is arcing, then theme is emerging. Although the opposite is also true, theme cannot emerge if the character is not responding to the plot events in some deep way.
This means more than simply the character reacting externally. Throwing a punch back at someone because they swung at you first is not necessarily a “change” that will advance the plot or reveal theme. However, if the act of throwing that punch forces the character to question his or her mode of being, then you have the opportunity to truly advance the plot in some way.
How to Write Organic Themes: The Magnificent Seven is a magnificent story primarily because it comments upon changes in its characters—and then allows these changes to create both context and commentary for the thematic discussion. The story opens with a varied group of gunfighters, all of whom initially seem superior to the poor villagers who can’t even protect themselves. However, by the end, the gunfighters’ experiences in the village have shown them (and the audience) that, in fact, they are the ones who are poor. Only one of the surviving characters is shown to make substantial changes to his life in the end, but we understand that even the others have experienced inner change as a result of their experiences.
How Not to Write Organic Themes: In Pursuit of Honor makes a few attempts at character development, but not enough to save itself. It sketches a poorly developed arc for its protagonist, a rookie lieutenant leading the misadventure, who we are meant to understand grows into his rank with the help of a savvy sergeant. But the savvy sergeant, despite a rich backstory, never breaks his robotic demeanor, even when executing his own beloved mount. The other soldiers aren’t characterized at all. We never get a sense of who these men truly are as individuals and what their desperate actions in risking both their careers and their lives mean to them.
4. There Must Be Consequences in the End of the Story
For a theme to be a theme, it must mean something. And it won’t mean anything unless that meaning is at stake throughout the story. By the story’s end, which thematic argument wins out should create grave consequences for all of the characters.
In an action story, the conclusion of the theme will often have life-and-death stakes. In a relational story, the relationship will be at stake. In other stories, what is at stake may simply be the characters’ ability to be honest with themselves and maintain inner integrity. Regardless, according to what the plot has so far set up, what happens in the end of the story must matter. Your theme depends upon it.
More than that, what happens must be a natural outgrowth of everything that has happened up to this point. A story that has focused on life-and-death stakes needs to focus on those stakes in the finale, not relational stakes—and vice versa. If your themes are organic, they will be present on every page of your story and nowhere more prominently than in the finale.
How to Write Organic Themes: The stakes in The Magnificent Seven are called out by the antagonist, the bandit Calvera, when he first discovers the gunfighters in “his” village. Half joking, he speaks to the lead gunfighter of his own supposed mercy in leaving the villagers enough money to have hired these gunfighters to fight against him. Calvera chortles, “Sooner or later, you must pay for every good deed!” This will turn out to be prophetic, both for Calvera himself and for all the gunfighters—who are given the choice to leave the villagers in the face of doomed odds but choose to come back anyway. The only way for the importance of this decision to matter is for this choice to come with a heavy cost. And indeed it does as most of the gunfighters are slaughtered.
How Not to Write Organic Themes: The stakes in In Pursuit of Honor are reiterated throughout the story. First, if the horses fail to reach safety in Canada, they will be massacred. Second, the soldiers are risking court-martial if they are caught and the inglorious end of their careers either way. Third, their live are at risk simply in taking on such a daring mission. Unfortunately, however, the weight of these stakes is never conveyed. Although one sergeant does die, we don’t much care because he was never characterized. Even worse, when the Climax sees the Cavalrymen triumphantly herding the horses into the kindly hands of the Canadian Mounties, all possible consequences for their choices are wiped away. In a massive deus ex machina, it is announced at the last moment that the President has heard of their mission to save the horses and granted them a full pardon—a story beat made all the more egregious by the fact that FDR was never mentioned in the story up to that point.
If there is one simple and non-technical lesson here, it is simply go deep. Organic themes arise from stories that thoroughly and honestly explore the consequences of their own plot events. If that’s not happening, then whatever potential your story’s premise may hold for a strong theme will be wasted. The good news is that any story worth exploring will almost always bring with it the possibility of a compelling theme.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What organic themes are you exploring in your latest story? Tell me in the comments!
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