Ayn Rand’s Writing Tips on Theme, Plot, Characterization and Style
“To be the kind of writer you want to be, you must first be the kind of thinker you want to be.” – Ayn Rand
Recently, I came across the book ‘The Art of Fiction’ by Ayn Rand. An incredible account of Ayn Rand’s lectures on writing. And when Ayn Rand is handing out advice, you listen.
I count The Fountainhead among my favorite books. I loved Atlas Shrugged as well. Rand is a love or hate kind of writer. The ideas and themes she presents are provocative and serve as a philosophy itself.
Rand held that fiction has four essential elements: theme, plot, characterization, and style. In the book, the greatest emphasis is put on plot and style.
Her thoughts on writing are profound and eye-opening. Her advice invites me to work harder on my writing and improve my work on many levels. I even had another good look at the outline of my book and restructured my plot and theme. Plus, I thought even more deeply about my characters.
In this article, I will share with you the lessons I learned from the book.
#1: On the Power of Your Subconscious
“What is colloquially called ‘inspiration’ – namely, that you write without full knowledge of why you write as you do, yet it comes out well – is actually the subconscious summing-up of the premises and intentions you have set yourself.” – Ayn Rand
Read that again. It has a certain logic to it, doesn’t it? Although we like to believe is the mythical element of ‘inspiration’, it makes sense that inspiration also stems from the thought process we had before we started working on our creation.
If you describe a forest you can conjure up images of all the forests you have visited in your life. Then you determine what you want to project and what mood you want to project in your story. The knowledge of the forest is stored in your subconscious.
This holds for more elements to your story. You make it happen yourself. The knowledge you have of your plot, theme, and characters is stored in your mind. These are ready for you to call upon when you’re in the process of writing. Rand: “What is guaranteed is that you will always be able to express exactly what you intended to express.”
This leads me to the next thing. If you have thought about what it is you want to convey, you can get it all out.
“Before you sit down to write, your language has to be so automatic that you are not conscious of groping for words or forming them into a sentence.” – Ayn Rand
So, write without judgment. Don’t edit yourself while you’re in the process of writing that first draft. A professional writer does the polishing afterward.
#2: On Theme
“A novel’s theme is the general abstraction in relation to which the events serve as the concretes.” – Ayn Rand
By general abstraction, Rand means that you should be able to sum up your theme in a sentence. No more than two.
She gives the reader two examples of themes:
For Atlas Shrugged: the crucial value of the human mind.
For Les Misérables: the injustice done to the lower classes of society.
When constructing a story, one usually starts with a theme in mind. At least a theme connected to your story idea. A theme is the backbone of your story which your plot will ultimately support.
“The purpose of all art is the objectification of values. The fundamental motive of a writer – by the implication of the activity, whether he knows it consciously or not – is to objectify his values, his view of what is important in life. A man reads a novel for the same reason: to see a presentation of reality slanted according to a certain code of values.” – Ayn Rand
The theme you come up with is highly likely connected to values you hold dear in life. When writing a story, make sure that the values you have in mind are important enough to worry about. Because if they are, readers will care for your story. However, that doesn’t automatically mean that they agree with you. And that’s ok.
“By what he chooses to present, and by how he presents it, any author expresses his fundamental, metaphysical values – his view of man’s relationship to reality and of what man can and should seek in life.” – Ayn Rand
So think about your values when coming up with the theme of your story. What do you think is important? What makes you angry, upset or excited? What do you strongly believe in?
#3: On Plot
“A plot is the purposeful progression of event. Such events must be logically connected, each being the outgrowth of the preceding and all leading up to the final climax. I stress the words events because you can have a purposeful progression of ideas, or of conversations, without action. But a novel is a story about human beings in action.” – Ayn Rand
Devise obstacles for your character. According to Rand “the worse you can make it, the better dramatically”.
“The essence of plot structure is: struggle – therefore, conflict – therefore, climax. A struggle implies two opposing forces in conflict, and it implies a climax. The climax is the central point of the story, where the conflict is resolved.” – Ayn Rand
Stories reflect on aspects of our own lives. Nothing ever goes the way we want it. Something always gets in our way. Who or what gets in the way of your main character? What hurdles do they need to overcome to get from point A to B? I don’t mean going from place A to B (although you can do this of course). I mean how do they get from state A to B? Conflict between characters creates progress in a story.
“The plot-theme is the focus of the means of presenting the theme.” – Ayn Rand
I’d never heard of this prior to reading the book. However, it makes sense. The plot functions as a means to carry out your theme and in essence what it is you have to say. The plot-theme is an action in relation to your theme.
Again, Rand gives the reader two examples of plot-themes:
For Atlas Shrugged: the mind on strike.
For Les Misérables: the struggle of an ex-convict to avoid the persecution of the police.
“The plot-theme is the central conflict that determines the events of a plot. It is the seed enabling you to develop a whole plot structure.” – Ayn Rand
The best way to formulate your plot-theme is to look for a central conflict that you want to present in your story. Look for on that’s not merely one-sided, it must be complex enough to make constructing a story possible. Above all, there must be a conflict of values An example she gives is for Notre Dame de Paris: the priest being in love with a gypsy dancer
“The climax is that event or development within a story where all the struggles of the characters are resolved. Naturally, it comes near the end; how near depends on the nature of the story.” – Ayn Rand
The climax of your story should resolve the central conflict you presented. It should resolve all conflicts, don’t leave anything open. You must examine the final choices of your characters and their consequences. Sometimes, you can dive into the consequences of your resolutions too. As a way to conclude your story. Rand suggests you should figure out your climax first when you construct your plot. (She is definitely a fan of “outlining” or “plotting”).
#4: On Characterization
“Characterization is really the presentation of motives. We understand a person if we understand what makes him act the way he does. To know a person well is to know “what makes him tick”, as opposed to not seeing beyond the superficial actions of the moment. […] The main means of characterization are action and dialogue.”
I’ve never come across a writer who is so good at using dialogue and actions to convey what makes a person tick. It’s Rand’s greatest superpower. Especially in terms of the character of Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. Everything he says and does expresses his values and take on life. You will never catch him (and in effect Ayn Rand) say something inconsistent with his character.
Rand posits the following: “A character comes across as an integrated person when everything he says and does is internally consistent.”So even conflicts and contradictions in a character must be consistent. In the book, ‘The Art of Fiction’, Rand provides a deep analysis as to how she accomplishes this that goes beyond the scope of this article.
“To understand a personality is like peeling off one onion skin after another. First you understand the immediate motive behind his actions. Then you ask: Why this motive? You peel off another skin and go into deeper motivation – until you come to grasp the fundamentals of the personality. The same applies to characterization in fiction.” – Ayn Rand
Get to the foundation of what your character is about, once you figured that out, let it simmer in your subconscious and the dialogue and actions should come naturally to you. Motivational depth is important to create believable and relatable characters.
#5: On Style
“That which can be synopsized in a brief sentence – theme, plot, characterization – is the ‘what’ of a novel. Style is the ‘how’ – it is that which cannot be synopsized.” – Ayn Rand
Style deals with how you select and present content. How you describe something. This differs greatly among writers. Some use two sentences to describe a room, some use a few pages.
Style also deals with the words you use and the method of constructing your sentences. This varies greatly.
“So many possibilities exist, that you never have to worry about whether you will achieve an individual style. You will achieve it; but only if you do not aim at it consciously.” – Ayn Rand
Read books from authors you admire. Study their art, but leave it. Don’t try to be like someone else. Don’t use words you don’t understand yourself. What I’m trying to say here is ‘don’t force it’.
‘Show, don’t tell’ and make the reader draw conclusions. Don’t spell everything out. The reader is way smarter than you think. Perhaps even smarter than you.
For more of her observations on style, again I recommend reading the book. Rand compares many different pieces of writing and analyzes the styles used by herself and that of her fellow authors. She’s brutal but very insightful. I learned that I still ‘tell’ too much. A bit is ok, but you should predominantly show, of course.
In addition, Rand goes into depth about using how to use metaphors, transitions, narrative, descriptions, the use of dialogue, etc.
I hope you enjoyed learning from one of the greatest storytellers of the last century.
One of the most striking things about her writing is the amount of precision, thought and realism she puts into her work. She calls this the “Romantic” form of writing. (The opposite form is called “Naturalistic”).
Oh, and I didn’t even know Ayn Rand’s first novel, ‘We the Living’. Lucky me. I ordered it straight away and I can’t wait to see the master at work again.
I highly recommend using the above lessons to improve your craft or better yet, read the book and be inspired.
“Art is primarily a presentation of values.” – Ayn Rand
What piece of advice speaks most to you? Do you agree with Rand’s view on writing? Let me know in the comments.