Why Everything In Your Story Must Tie Into Your Theme

Character or plot?  The debate about which one is more important to a story has gone on for a while and will continue to go on for the foreseeable future.  Many valid arguments are made from writers and readers on both sides, with many concluding that the best answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Yet, while character and plot are certainly important to a novel, I’m going to suggest in this article that if you’re only asking yourself if your novel should be character-driven or plot-driven, you’re missing a key element of your story.  It’s like having two legs of a three-legged stool.  With great plot and great characters, you can indeed write a fun story.  But until you have the third missing element, you won’t have a great one.

And that missing element is theme. Tieintotheme

Now, immediately upon reading it, there are going to be some people who are going to wonder why theme is all that important.  Perhaps it’s good to have, but no way is it as central as characters and plot.  After all, if theme is given a large place in a novel, doesn’t the novel simply become preachy and unreadable?  These are the objections that may very well be raised against this thesis.  And to be fair, the latter is a valid concern.

But what I’m going to attempt to show in this article is that theme is an integral part of any novel, and that a failure to develop it is, in the end, a failure to use literature to its true potential.  Characters may endear themselves to us.  Plots may grip us.  But it is theme that teaches us.

Prolegomena: Theme or Message?

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Josiah DeGraaf is a high school English teacher and literature nerd who fell in love with stories when he was young and hasn’t fallen out of love ever since.
He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations. What causes otherwise-good people to make really terrible decisions in their lives? Why do some people have the strength to withstand temptation when others don’t? How do people respond to periods of intense suffering? What does it mean to be a hero?
These questions drive him as a reader, and they drive him as a writer as well as he takes normal people, puts them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then forces them to make difficult choices with their lives.
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as entertaining as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. In the meantime, you can find him writing articles here as he works toward achieving these goals.