If I choose to write a literary novel should I follow the same steps ? What about theme as opposed to Story goal? I am confused.

by Raymonde Zuckerkandel
(Lawrence, NY USA)

Question: I chose to write a literary novel as opposed to genre. How about theme as opposed to story goal? Should I use both theme and story goal? You do mention theme but do not elaborate on literary novel structure. I am confused. Are both structures the same?

Answer: Theme is not the same as goal. Goal can be an objective the protagonist wants to achieve that will affect or involve most of the characters as well, or it can be a concern that the majority of characters share. In either case, achieving the goal will bring balance/healing/safety to the story world. Failing to achieve the goal (as in a tragedy) will result in an unfortunate consequence -- a threat made manifest.

Theme has several meanings. Some consider it to be a subject matter to be explored. Others, including dramatica theory, consider it to be an approach to handling a problem that will be evaluated in the story. Some events will show this approach in action, while others will show the opposite (counterpoint). The reader must evaluate which approach is the best.

For instance, if the goal is achieved because the main character chooses the correct approach to take at the climax, the thematic message of the story then becomes, "When faced with this type of problem, this approach is the best."

On the other hand, if the main character makes the wrong choice and the goal is not achieved, the message becomes "When face with this type of problem, this approach is the worst."

The above is oversimplifying things a little, because a novel may contain several related thematic arguments, but that's the general idea.

As for literary fiction... one of the defining characteristics of literary fiction (if any) is that it downplays plot structure in favour of style, voice, authenticity, originality, and depth of characterization. It tends to emphasize internal rather than external conflict. That doesn't mean the structure isn't there. But it's as though it has been moved into the background and often underdeveloped while these other elements are made the foreground and are much more developed.

It's hard to generalize about literary fiction, because literary writers try to avoid predictable patterns. However, one common approach is to use extensive flashbacks to elucidate the experiences that influence the main character's decision (but the decision still matters). Another is to use multiple POV characters to distance the reader from the main character and give them a more objective view of the story while still providing an intimate and authentic look at each character's inner life.

Literary fiction, as you suggest, can also emphasize theme over story structure in an attempt to evaluate a philosophical premise. This doesn't mean you should dispense with goal. An excellent way to evaluate a premise is to depict it in action, in the effort to deal with a problem or achieve something.

Without a defined goal, a threat or consequence, requirements to achieve the goal, and forewarnings that the consequence is looming, even a beautifully written literary novel can seem pointless and static. The reader can get bored because "nothing is happening" and "nothing seems to have any point."

Maybe that's the philosophical message you want to convey, but you will retain more readers by telling them the story of how someone reaches that conclusion than by avoiding story altogether.

Best of luck.

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