I am really curious about what everyone else is writing. I think there are few things more interesting that what types of stories interest different people and for what reason. Leave me a comment about what your book is about and what happens in it, but first, let’s talk about the difference in those two questions.
My number one pet peeve is when people ask, “What’s your book about?” Don’t get me wrong, I love talking to people about what I’m writing. When I get excited about a project, I want to share it. I love getting people’s reactions, and the different followup questions they ask can be really useful in figuring out new elements of a story.
What I hate is the way the question is phrased, and that’s because the question that’s being asked usually isn’t what that person means to say. What most people mean to ask is what happens in your novel? They want to know what the plot is. Of course we know what that person wanted to say, and sometimes I’ll satisfy it, but I think there’s an important distinction between those two questions.
I know what they mean, but I’ll often answer the question they actually asked to prove a point: “My book is about man’s self-discovery in the face of adversity. I normally get a strange look from that. They were expecting something about how the main character runs away from home, and then he’s chased by the police, and then he gets shot, etc. They didn’t realize they were something different.
Are they really different questions?
One question asks what the book is about, while the other asks what happens in the book. To me, what a book is about is what the meaning is or what the author attempts to convey. The difference is in theme versus plot. It may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but they really are different questions.
Readers are normally there for the experience. They will probably pick up on the message along the way, but most of the people I know don’t pick up a book because they heard its themes were particularly deep. They want to read it because they heard the story was good. What they don’t realize is that the feeling you get at the end of a book that says there’s something deeper about it than the surface is the theme. Let’s look at the difference.
Plot is the series of events that occur in a specific sequence to tell a story. It’s the events that get your character from A to B and makes the story unfold for readers. It’s the driving force of the book.
For someone who hasn’t studied literature or writing, plot is what the book is about. This story is about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole, and weird things happen to her. That’s what the reader sees happening.
What the reader doesn’t see happening is theme, but they get it and they feel it.
Why I think theme is more important
Theme is something deeper in a book. While plot drives the action, the theme or themes (there are usually several themes with one big overarching one) are what holds the story together and gives it meaning. You don’t find themes on the surface of the book, even if they are obvious. The themes are what the plot is trying to show you.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout learns that her community is racist. She watches her father defend a man who no one else wants to believe because of his race. (I won’t say more in case you haven’t read it, and if you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird yet, you need to!). Yes, racism is a theme, along with many others. But the book is about a lot more than just racism. Probably the biggest overarching theme is about how people’s prejudices keep them from seeing the truth in others. It’s about social injustice and how people can let hatred turn them into monsters.
Themes are the elements of the book that don’t depend on the plot for meaning. The plot is the example that accompanies the argument and gives you the hows. The trial in To Kill a Mockingbird is an example of how people can let their prejudices blind them.
Most casual readers don’t have the framework or practice with texts to tell you what the theme is outright, but they can understand the message. Readers understand that racism is a serious issue in the book, and that’s because the plot conveys the theme.
Without framework to tell the difference between theme and plot, though, readers still think they are talking about the plot. A reader doesn’t have to understand themes to understand a book. I think it’s a good thing that more people don’t. It means that they can enjoy the story without worrying about how the writer gets you to understand.
So why does it annoy me?
I don’t mind that readers don’t know about themes if they still get the point. That means the author has done his or her job. I can’t blame people for not knowing the difference and asking a legitimate question.
What actually bothers me is the importance this seems to put on plot. I think it confuses a lot of writers into focusing too much on the events in their stories and not the meaning. You can have a great plot with interesting events, but no meaning. While the plot is important for conveying your meaning, writers should be more focused on what they want their novel to say. If they keep that in mind while they create a plot, then their story will be more focused and have a deeper meaning than just having a series of events that don’t matter.
I don’t mean that you have to have a point when you start, although it can really help. I have no problem with art for art’s sake. I bet many writers don’t set out with a message they want their story to convey, but I think as we write, a meaning evolves, even when you don’t try to find one.
Even I don’t usually start with a message, although I do know what the idea I want to focus on is. I am a firm believer in meanings beyond the plot, and I think it trivializes the importance of books as messengers when someone asks me about the plot and implies that this is what the book is about. To me, a book is only really about its overall meaning.
What my book is about vs. my book’s plot
So in light of the conversation:
My book is about figuring out what matters in life. It’s about duty vs. passion. It’s about how we make our own destinies for good or bad. Do outside forces always control what happens to us, or are we always living off the consequences of our own actions?
What happens in my book is that two characters are thrust together, torn apart, and left picking up the pieces. Each problem they face is a lesson in consequence and fate.
So, let’s talk. Tell me what your story about and what happens in it?