Lessons to Practice #19: Organizing Principles and the Deepest of Themes

Hello and good evening! How is everyone doing tonight? I myself am feeling pretty phenomenal. Work, triathlon, Acro Yoga, and creative writing have all kept me sharp and cheerful this past week. I hope that all of you also have many accomplishments and experiences to revel in!

Thematic elements of fiction can feel very subjective at times. Theme is like an ether that most anyone can point out,no but few can expertly articulate in their written prose, much less their spoken prose. That’s why writing exercises are so critical, and why all of us could stand to step back and really look at the big thematic picture that we’re weaving.

One such activity is to do an organizing principle examination. Paula Munier wrote of these principles in her excellent book on writing, Plot Perfect. First, let’s take a look at the three main types of organizing principles that Paula wrote about. Then I’ll talk about how organizing principles can help us make our themes clearer and more enduring in the hearts and minds of our readers.

What is an Organizing Principle?

According to Paula Munier, an organizing principle is “the framework you use to tell your story…an organizing principle [helps] you add layers of meaning, provide a ready image system, enhance the setting, and deepen the themes of your story.”

I appreciate Paula’s definition, and would like to follow it with my own. I believe that an organizing principle is the compass of your story, one that readers can comprehend at first glance and understand what type of tale they’re in for. It’s the melding of your prose, dialogue, imagery, and characterization, all of which come together to form the bulk of your work.

Organizing Principles Picture

When I imagine organizing principle, I immediately think of my home state of Texas. The Lone Star state is so unique because it’s made up of a panoply of traits. Take the land itself: the extreme range in climate and landscape is astounding, from the barren and wind-swept plains of West Texas, to the beaches and palm trees in the south, to the lush green Pineywoods of East Texas. I’d be remiss to leave out the people. We are a melting pot of staunch Conservatives and Traditionalists, well-read Centrists, and benevolent Liberals and Leftists, all from dozens of different countries and along numerous racial and ethnic lines. Throw in our countless culinary delights (or oddities) and the variegated music scenes, and what you have is an inimitable state that is as colorful as it is vast.

The Three Types of Organizing Principles

  1. The Thematic Principle
    • Perhaps the most commonly used principle is theme itself. This is the subject or central takeaway of your story
    • Think of the themes of justice, self-sacrifice, and chaos in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. All of these issues are masterfully realized through the use of motifs (e.g., releasing the hounds, dog bites, the Joker hanging his head out of a car window like a dog enjoying the wind), imagery (e.g., flames, mass hysteria breaking out in large crowds), and characterization (e.g., Batman deciding to take the blame for Harvey Dent’s/Two Face’s murder spree)
  2. The Chronological Principle
    • The interminable cycle of life and death is also a strong pillar of organization. Time itself, whether elapsing over the course of hours or years, can help us as readers better relate to the author’s themes
    • For this principle, I think of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which the life of Stephen Dedalus is chronicled from his boyhood to his adult years. Through this lifelong journey, we can see how Stephen grapples with sexuality, school, his Irish identity, and his own autonomy as he eschews his Catholic upbringing to become an artist
      3. The Methodological Principle

      • This is perhaps the most cut-and-dry approach to developing your theme. Methodology simply refers to the research and design of your fiction.
      • Do you spend hours gathering research articles on PTSD for your new psychology manuscript? Or maybe you interview several police officers to figure out what a day in the life of the Blue is like. However you do it, your research should be reflected in your final product
      • A personal example is my immersion into the uplifting world of Acro Yoga. I didn’t begin to learn how to fly and base simply because I wanted to write about it; I was at a rough juncture in my life and needed to tend to my spiritual and emotional wounds. Acro Yoga has helped me do just that, as I’ve made many compassionate friends and learned a few fluid moves which demand complete concentration, love, and self-forgiveness. Now I feel compelled to write about this art simply because of how much it’s changed my life for the better 🙂

      Just another breathtaking day of basing!

      Taking it All Home

      No matter which principle you decide to use, be sure to review the basic facets of each throughout your writing process. Theme, time, and methodology are definitely not independent of each other, and you may well find that all three approaches overlap the more you write. That’s a good sign! It simply means that you are learning how to juggle multiple perspectives. What will result is a more well-rounded, engaging, and timeless work of art — one that you’ll be happy to call your own.

Which principle sounds most appealing to you from a creative writing standpoint? Do you enjoy seeing other writers use different frameworks? I would love to hear your thoughts and perspectives. Until then, fellow bloggers, keep on blogging!



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s