June 4, 2020
Many writers struggle early in their writing journal when they try to sort out the difference between plot and theme. In fact, the two work in tandem to create a story but they are not the same. Plot is the series of specific, purposeful cause-and-effect events that take a story from the beginning to the satisfying ending. Theme, on the other hand, is the truth explored by a story. Theme is made up of the questions asked and examined. It's the big ideas. Friendship is a common thematic area explored in children's fiction, as are honesty, duty, family, and love. A story needs both a plot of action and reaction, and a theme that gives the story depth and meaning. To better understand plot and theme, let’s look at some examples.
Check This Out
Book blurbs often reflect the dance between plot and theme. Let's look at the book blurb from Pax by Sara Pennypacker:
Pax and Peter have been inseparable ever since Peter rescued him as a kit. But one day, the unimaginable happens: Peter's dad enlists in the military and makes him return the fox to the wild.
At his grandfather's house, three hundred miles away from home, Peter knows he isn't where he should be—with Pax. He strikes out on his own despite the encroaching war, spurred by love, loyalty, and grief, to be reunited with his fox.
Meanwhile Pax, steadfastly waiting for his boy, embarks on adventures and discoveries of his own.
So what does this blurb tell us about the plot? There are several plot actions and reactions noted in the blurb:
1. Peter rescued Pax as a kit, which resulted in a strong bond between them.
2. Peter's dad enlists in the military, forcing Peter to return Pax to the wild.
3. Peter is sent to his grandfather's house, and so strikes out on his own to find Pax.
4. While Pax waits for Peter he has adventures and discoveries.
Note especially how the plot bits reflect specific actions and their results. This is an important element in plot. Plot is all about how characters react and how their actions change the circumstances of the story. Plot isn’t simply stuff happening. Plot is purposeful action that changes the way the journey of the story unfolds.
So what does the blurb about Pax tell us about theme? We know this story is going to touch on themes of duty, as well as love, friendship, and loyalty. From the blurb, we can infer that Peter's father feels a duty that compels him to enlist in the military. Peter's love and loyalty to Pax compels him to seek out the fox after he’s forced to abandon him (which is both duty and friendship/love themes). And Pax waits steadfastly for his boy (again touching on friendship and the duty it puts on us.) Themes are often complex and multifaceted. The unfolding of theme is brought about by the action of the story, but theme does not equal action. Theme equals the concepts and truths explored, examined, and illustrated by those actions.
Let's look at this again in another blurb, this time from The Space Between Lost and Found by Sandy Stark-McGinnis. The blurb begins with a bit that is all about theme: “…a powerful story about family, friendship, and the light that can be found even in the darkest of places."
This opening bit of the blurb tells us nothing about the plot of the book at all and focuses entirely on the themes explored in The Space Between Lost and Found. It gives two general themes of family and friendship, but then tells us a specific truth the book illustrates: "light... can be found in even the darkest of places." Notice how none of that offers us specific events and actions in the story. Theme doesn’t do that. Instead, theme is about what the story means. That's the heart of theme.
And Plot Again
If theme is what the story means, then plot is what the story does. In the blurb for The Space Between Lost and Found, the publisher tells us specifics from the story:
Cassie always looked up to her mom, a vibrant woman bursting with grand ideas.... But then came the diagnosis, and Mom started to lose her memories. Even the ones Cassie thought she'd never forget. Even Cassie's name.
Cassie tries her hardest to keep Mom happy . . . to focus on math lessons and come up with art ideas that used to burst off her pen. But as Mom's memories dimmed, so did Cassie's inspiration. She's even pushed away Bailey, the one friend who could help make things okay.
So, Cassie decides to take action. It's time for one last adventure… even if it means taking a big risk to get there.
This tells us the major specific event that pushes the action of the story. The main character's mom gets sick and is losing her memories. This is the inciting event of the plot. The result of this one event pressures Cassie to react. One reaction is that Cassie loses something as well, her inspiration. The blurb also reveals specific actions in the story as Cassie tries to focus on math lessons and tries to come up with art ideas. Cassie also pushes away a friend. But then Cassie begins this unnamed adventure. Notice how all of these things are events and actions that would be specific to this story.
Check Out More Blurbs
Read the backs of the books on your shelf, noting which parts of the book blurbs focus on specific actions, reactions, and events of the plot. Then pick out those elements that focus on the book's themes. Blurbs tend to touch on both plot and theme because plot is the journey of the book, but theme is the meaning behind the journey. Both tend to be important to readers looking for a good book. Our own stories will also need both of those things––a journey to take the reader on and the meaning behind the journey, the truth that is revealed by the actions of the plot. Once you can sort out plot and theme in the books around you, you'll be better able to make them dance in your own stories. And everyone enjoys a good dance.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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