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Marrying Theme and Story | Quadrant Method | Writing 101

It's honestly a little bit of a misnomer to file this under "Writing 101," because it's actually a little advanced. It's the hardest thing to grasp for my students, and the hardest thing to relay for me as a teacher.

It's the idea that, once you've mastered Character Arcs and Conflict and can use them in your work consistently and see them in other works, that the next step is to marry the two to bring your writing to the next level. To make sure your story is effective at relaying your theme, and that your theme helps you execute your story.

Because the individual tools of writing are actually just all components of one large multi-faceted tool called "Good Writing." Learning to use even one of these tools will enhance your writing to the next level, learning to use more than one will make you seem like an expert to a reader, but using them in conjunction with each other produces flawless works that stand up to even rigorous academic scrutiny in addition to being entertaining and commercially viable. The best of all possible worlds.

How do we do this? We start by breaking our Story Circle into Quadrants at North, East, South, and West, making a cross out of the existing lines we divided it into when we first divided it into eight points, as in the picture above. You should have four equal Quadrants, hence the name of this method: The Quadrant Method.

At the tip of each of these points we're going to put parts of our theme, and these parts will inform where the main character / main narrative is in their journey. It'll keep us on track thematically. In each Quadrant of the Story Circle, two things are always true at all times, and which two are true are dictated by the section we're in. So starting in that top-right quadrant, A and B are true. In the lower right, BC are true. In the lower left, DC. And in the upper left? DA.

And where do we get these items from that inform the mood and conflict of the story as we run through its arc? We get them from the four-corner opposition. We use the theme to divide up the plot into sections.

There's no rhyme or reason I've found to which go where, other than: the opposing points must be polar opposites. So if you have "Good vs Evil," then they have to go either at AC or BD, they cannot be next to each other. This makes some degree of logical sense: these illustrate how your characters are polar opposite regarding the themes of your book, so they're going to be polar opposite on this map as well.

Part of what makes this hard to learn and to teach is that it's so esoteric. It really doesn't lend itself well to easy explanation. It looks, and sounds, insane. I am aware of that. It only ever really clicks into place upon multiple examples, so we'll do a fictional one now and use this to dissect multiple different narratives in the future.

Example: Flashing back to when we talked about four-corner opposition, we made up an example of a story about a police procedural drama in which characters conflicted over the how's and why's of the rule of law. There were characters that went by the book, characters who broke the law, characters who were motivated by their desire to catch criminals, and characters motivated by their desire to defend the innocent. Great. So when applying this Four-Corner Opposition to the Quadrant Method, it might look like this:

So in this version of the story, notice that we've placed "By the Book" at the top. What you place at the top is really important because it ends up defining what normal is for your main character / world. Remember that in the Story Circle, steps 7 and 8 are "Return to where they started" and "Having Changed."

In this example, "By The Book" represents the thing they believe at first that they "Return" to in Step 7. They believe it at the start, they return to believing it at the end.

Of equal importance, "Defend the Innocent" and "Catch the Criminal" end up being what is revealed to have changed in Step 8. This model dictates the nature of the change in the character / story.

So attaching this to the 8-point Story Circle, let's beat out this story.

  1. Show who your character is. We're in the top-right here, so according to our Quadrant Method, we're showing that he's a "By the Book" cop who "Defends the Innocent."

  2. They Want Something. We're still in that top-right, so maybe the plot kicks off by a want to Defend the Innocent? Some killer or threat is introduced to innocents in the story?

  3. The Enter an Unfamiliar Situation to get what they want. At this point in the story the character changes / does something unfamiliar to accomplish that want in the last part. According to our map, what's changing is that he becomes willing (or is coerced into) breaking the rules in order to protect the innocent. This is the scene that transitions us from Top-Right into Bottom-Right.

  4. They adapt to that new situation: Still firmly in that Bottom-Right, we see our By-the-Book cop adapt to his new reality of Breaking-the-Rules, testing the lines of what he will and will not do. Is it slowly corrupting him?

  5. They Get what they want: This is another transition point, we're going from "Lower-Right" to "Lower-Left." There's a dark shift happening here, as we change from "Defend the Innocent" to "Catch the Criminal." Maybe we find the innocent but, in the Pay a Heavy Price moment, something awful has happened to them, forcing a change in the character/ novel worldview?

  6. They Pay a Heavy Price for it: We're in the Lower-Right now, and according to our map, we are now willing to break the rules but are no longer motivated by defending the innocent, we are focused on catching the criminal.

  7. They Return to where they started,

  8. Having Changed: In this last section we're in the Upper-Left Quadrant. Maybe the character has some kind of come-to-Jesus moment where they see how far they've gone. Maybe they catch the criminal and are on the edge of exacting revenge on them, but at the last moment prove their valor by rejecting the "Break Rules" mindset they experimented with and chose to bring the criminal in by-the-book. Roll credits.

So you see how that works? Now imagine how different the story would be if you did the same plot points, but flipped "By the Book" and "Break the Rules." Now it's the story of a renegade cop who experiments with playing by the rules, maybe after being assigned a chaperone by his superior, only to decide in the end that his way is best.

What if you keep "By the Book" at the top and flip "Defend the Innocent" with "To Catch a Criminal." Now it's the story of a By-The-Book cop who not only experiments with breaking the rules, but also comes to learn that the goal of police work isn't just to apprehend criminals, but to protect and serve innocents. That's actually a much more hopeful story than our original model, were I writing it I might use that one. See how just flipping what the theme ends on changes the meaning of the story? All without touching the major events of the piece.

What if we altered it a lot? What if "Defend Innocent" and "Catch Criminals" were at the top and bottom instead, with "By the Book" and "Break the Rules" at the Right and Left? Now instead of the "Home State" the cop returns to being his By-the-Book nature, it's his desire to Defend the Innocent.

All these work, they're just different themes with the same sort of story. Same killer. Same evidence. Same characters. Same everything, but radically different messages and themes just by altering the order in which we explore said themes. Cool, right?

The Quadrant Method also gives us a hint as to what characters your main character is in conflict with in each section of the story, as seen in the two images above. In our four-corner opposition, we came up four characters (A,B,C and D, we didn't name them yet) and how they function.

Let's assume your main character is Character C (they need not be, but let's say they are). At the start of the story, we are merely showing them for who they are, not necessarily showing them in ideological conflict with others. In the Second Quadrant, they come head-to-head mostly with Character D, the one who also wants to protect the innocent, but is willing to break the rules to do so. In the Third Quadrant, they butt heads mostly with Character B, and in the Fourth Quadrant, with Character A. This is a road map for which of the secondary characters act the most, speak the most, come into conflict the most in each Quadrant and each set of scenes in order to properly convey the theme of the work.

Neat, right? Don't worry if you're having a hard time wrapping your head around this. I do to, sometimes. This is one of the harder points to get right and to get across. It helps with examples, which we will present in later weeks. :)


Like this and what more of it? I teach interactive online classes over Zoom, three-four times a year for 10 weeks. Take your writing to the next level! Click the link for more information or to contact me.


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