Plot vs Theme: the Ruminating Teen

Partner-in-Crime and I recently watched a few episodes of the 2009 documentary Whatever: The Science of Teens. (You can get it on iTunes. YouTube Trailer here. Make sure you read the comments below the trailer for extra giggles.) It’s an Aussie production, and it covers stuff like risk, binge drinking and sleep.

I enjoyed watching it because, apart from reassuring us that at least one of our offspring is behaving in a completely normal fashion, I remember clearly what it was like being a teenager. I remember thinking, ‘Far out, I can’t believe the stuff that comes out of the mouths of adults. Stab me with a fork if I ever turn out like that.’


Here I am: a shade past 40 … listening to all the stuff that comes out of my mouth. (Actually, this has been happening regularly to me over the past 15 or so years. Take a look at this comic I did when Ms 13 was two:)

Out of my mouth

The point? It helps, as a parent, to have been a teen already. But it also helps to be reminded of this.


As an introvert – and therefore someone who spends much happy time in her hamster ball – I grew up aware of the fact that a great deal of kids my age were masters of externalising their every thought. (And that was well before social media. I can’t imagine what it must be like growing up now. #cognitiveoverload)

I also understand it’s likely to be easier for some teens to spend a lot of time alone in their room plotting and percolating ideas … and doing a fair amount of repetitive thinking. Mulling things over. Personally, I think it’s important that kids are given space to think; there’s a lot to digest. But, as the Whatever doco points out, for teens, too much ruminating can be unhealthy.

Hearing this made me think about Plot and Theme: something I talk about a lot in my work with writers.

Action vs Ideas

It’s not rocket science that Plot is really the world of Action. Concrete happenings that form the spine of the story. An example: Boy leaves home and flies accurately enough to blow up a planet, thus saving the universe. (Very truncated version of Star Wars, Ep.4.)

Theme, on the other hand, is the world of Ideas. (Not to be confused with Premise, which I can talk about another time.) Theme is far more slippery, because a writer can use many techniques and devices to put across their theme. An example: Good vs evil; Technology vs spirituality (aka The Force); Coming of age. These are all themes that emerge from Star Wars Ep.4. [A useful post on Theme (with trademark expletives) from Chuck Wendig here.]

This sounds obvious and easy, but it isn’t. People who are starting out on the writing path often think a theme is a plot.

Why am I ranting about this, when my post is about teens?

Because the more I think about Plot and Theme, Action and Ideas, the more I think it can be a useful way to think about Life.

So much of being a teenager, especially, is about the expanding World of Theme, and the ballooning World of Plot. It’s just that – as I recall it – sometimes the worlds don’t quite match up, and you end feeling like your Ideas – the stuff in your head – are worlds apart from the day-to-day reality of the Plot of your life. Not only are you frequently unable to carry out your ideas because of practical obstacles like lack of income or resources, but then there’s the problem of trying to make sense of the social goings-on around you, and the challenge of fitting in with your peers – in thought and in action.

New Plots, New Stories

If you are caring for a teen yourself, I expect there are days when you’re about to get everyone out the door to go somewhere only to find your teen in their room in a real stinker of a mood, stuck to their smart phone, or listening to that woeful Breakup song for the nth time in a row (or both at the same time) … and refusing, come hell or high water, to leave the bedroom.

There is real wisdom in the ‘Pick your battles’ idea, but I reckon it’s worth fighting this one if the opportunity arises. Because, while inside the Teenage Bedroom is a superb environment for growing and digesting New Ideas, outside it there are sterling opportunities for New Plots. Flat tyres, missing the bus, not having enough food for, oh, an excruciatingly long hour or so … etc. Yes, every New Plot is an opportunity to learn how to sync up the World of Ideas with the World of Plot. And sometimes in a humourous way.

Frame it

I am trying valiantly to teach my kids about ‘framing’, and how they can choose to frame situations in their own life. Admittedly, it’s hard to look at your own life through a different lens, and I am always grateful for my friends, and for Partner-in-Crime, who has an almost opposite personality type to me, and who is able to give me an alternative POV on my own situation – and on that of our kids.

PS. Sometimes parenting can feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. But remember: there’s nothing wrong with a good brick wall. They occasionally feature in very good stories.

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