Podcast

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Losing My Religion, Part 6: Misconceptions About Theme

Many writers avoid discussing theme for fear of being moralistic, but this is a fundamental misunderstanding...

What I Used to Think: Your theme is a statement of the moral of your story.
  • What I Now Realize: The theme of your story is derived from the irreconcilable ethical or moral dilemma that underlies the dramatic question.
What I Used to Think: The hero should choose between good and evil.
  • What I Now Realize: A choice between good and evil is a no brainer, so it will be dramatically inert.  The hero should be forced to choose between good vs. good, or evil vs. evil.
What I Used to Think: The moral dilemma should be solved at the end of the movie
  • What I Now Realize: Your story should make a statement about this dilemma without entirely resolving it.  The hero should be forced to choose between those two goods or two evils, and that choice should have consequences, but the dilemma should live on in the audience’s heads.
What I Used to Think: Irony is the same thing as sarcasm, so only tongue-in-cheek stories are ironic. 
What I Used to Think: Literature is more worthwhile and/or harder to write than pure entertainment. 
  • What I Now Realize: It is extremely difficult to write a story that reliably entertains large numbers of people.  Both great literature and great entertainment are badly needed, very worthwhile, and highly useful to society as a whole.
What I Used to Think: “Literature” refers to serious stories with sad endings. “Entertainment” refers to fun stories with happy endings. 
  • What I Now Realize: Just because a particular episode of “Mad Men” may be funny or have a happy ending doesn’t mean that it’s pure entertainment without any literary qualities. Likewise, just because a “Burn Notice” episode ends with that week’s bad guy getting away doesn’t mean it was intended to be literary.  The primary distinction is that literary stories tend to be about the unintended consequences of the characters’ actions, while purely entertaining stories tend to be about the intended consequences of their actions. 
What I Used to Think: The audience will internalize your theme once you state your theme.  
  • What I Now Realize: If you want your theme to resonate with an audience, your story must ring true-- it must reflect human nature and the way the world works.  
What I Used to Think: Good characters serve good, evil characters serve evil, and supporting characters serve the needs of characters they support.
  • What I Now Realize: Human nature dictates that people only want what they want.  All characters must be motivated by their own self-interest, as they see it. Heroes and villains should never pursue good or evil as abstract goals.  No character should ever ask a co-worker, “What’s wrong?”, or selflessly say, “Do you know what your problem is?” All of these ring phony.  Ironically, audiences admire most those characters that care about themselves.
What I Used to Think: Writers of stylized genre stories don’t need to worry about how the world really works.
 Next, the seventh and final core skill: Tone. 

13 comments:

j.s. said...

"The theme of your story is derived from the irreconcilable ethical or moral dilemma that underlies the dramatic question." This is a very good way to approach theme in many cases. Though I'd say for me it doesn't always work.

So sometimes instead it helps for me to think of theme as the controlling idea and the secret spine of a story. Or as Brian McDonald, who I've referenced before, likes to put it "the invisible ink." It's also that other, second "about" when you ask someone what a movie's about and they tell you the plot first.

If structure is the map, then theme is the compass. You might stumble in the right direction for a while with just one, but to stay on course consistently you need both. Theme can be the key to helping you make the thousand tiny choices on tap at every moment of your draft. If you have a handle on your theme these choices flow with much more ease, force and rightness.

For me, this is the one entry thus far that could maybe use more rounding out, reorganizing and perhaps also some more input from other writers and peers. I like all the insights in the second half of this entry but they aren't strictly about theme per se. The last one probably belongs under "character." Some of the literature vs. entertainment ones might also make sense under "tone."

rams said...

",,,literary stories tend to be about the unintended consequences of the characters’ actions, while purely entertaining stories tend to be about the intended consequences of their actions. " Jaw drop. Nice bit of synthesizing there, Mr. Bird. Wish I'd read you before I took Fiction Workshop.

j.s. said...

I wonder if part of the difficultly with theme is not just that it's kind of a mushy, touchy-feely, English lit crit kind of thing, but that it's simply one of those areas were you haven't fully embraced systematic testing yet. What if you gathered a couple of divergent definitions/descriptions of theme and considered stating the theme of 5-10 different films by each criterion, taking pains to note how accurate and useful each description was in terms of both reflecting and potentially guiding the writer's choices?

Matt Bird said...

J.S.-- I think I left out a step in my thinking here. How about if I put this in the middle, to clarify the transition?:

What I Used to Think: The audience will internalize your theme once you state your theme.

What I Now Realize: If you want your theme to resonate with an audience, your story must ring true-- it must reflect human nature and the way the world works.

Maybe that would help it together?

In an upcoming series on second drafts, I'll have a piece on tying as man tiny choices as possible into the theme.

Matt Bird said...

Yeah, I decided to put that in there.

j.s. said...

Matt, that internal connecting thought does help a bit.

But I guess I'm still thinking about stories with themes that don't present themselves as irreconcilable ethical/moral dilemmas but that still resonate strongly with an audience and guide a story forcefully. Can you state the theme of TERMINATOR or E.T. in terms of a good/good or bad/bad dramatic question? Maybe? But it's more useful for me to think of these films as driven by powerful controlling ideas than the thorny dilemmas that are the stuff of great classical drama. In the first case (TERMINATOR) about fate/free will and the difference one life makes and in the second (E.T.) about growing up and beginning, through empathy, to care about and act on behalf of others.

I think that it's easier for somebody aspiring to write pure entertainment, just genre stories and good yarns to fool themselves into believing they never have to traffic in theme if theme is defined so as it seems to apply only to more literary fare. I have a friend who intuitively connected with the themes of his first few scripts, which got him a lot of attention, and then started to stumble when he begin getting assignments. The writing was just as good but the stories weren't, in large part because they didn't have themes and he had never figured out how to work one out consciously. They weren't "about" anything.

Anonymous said...

",,,literary stories tend to be about the unintended consequences of the characters’ actions, while purely entertaining stories tend to be about the intended consequences of their actions.

"Entertainment" forces identification with a character as he moves through a problem in the way prescribed by an ideology. This paradigm makes a victim of the viewer, because the very act of identification allows the ideology to be pushed through forcefully without being noticed, by way of the character's decision making and values, and the very structure of the story.

"Art" avoids forced identification, instead maintaining a distance that allows the character's engagement with an ideology to be seen clearly without the viewer's subjugation to it. It has the effect of empowering the viewer.

Mike Wollaeger said...

How is this for a bad/bad breakdown of The Terminator:

On one side is ignorance: the cops and how they view Reese, which is certainly the more comfortable place for Sarah to be. It means there is no assassin after her. But ignorance is bad.

On the other side is the destruction of the human race. Also bad.

Sarah has to accept a dismal future in order to save the human race. And that's the "bad" she chooses.


j.s. said...

Mike, to be honest that feels a little forced to me. For Sarah Connor ignorance isn't an really option, the comfort of her ignorance is taken away from her by force before she has any choice in the matter. I'm finding it difficult to see how looking at the theme with this dynamic enriches the story much for audience of for the writer.

Matt, I suppose why I keep on about this is that I'm wondering if there are practical ways to roll up one's sleeves and work on theme in the same way that you've demonstrated all the other core skills can be worked on. Is there help out there for people like my friend who, in the past, had imagined theme as something that would arise magically from the whole, because it often did, but who now is called upon to work faster and less intuitively and finds his work lacking without the extra layer of meaning that theme creates.

I bet nobody ever says they passed on a genre script because it was lacking a (well developed) theme. But I bet they'd pass just the same in favor of something that delivered the goods but felt more substantial because it was actually about something too.

I guess another way you've touched on theme already is when you've written about the "core metaphor" of various franchises and TV shows. I think it could help this entry to link to those ideas too, which are closer to what I'm getting at when I say that sometimes theme makes more sense to me in terms of a throughline of a single strong unifying or controlling idea.

Matt Bird said...

I split the metaphor stuff off into tone, which has been pushed back to next week. Obviously, at a certain point, these distinctions become rather indistinct...

Mike Wollaeger said...

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It feels a bit forced to me, too. I think that's because I'm not convinced Terminator has much of a theme.

Nevertheless, Sarah's ignorance is in tact much later into the film than most people remember: she calls her mother from the hotel and tells her (her, being the Terminator himself) where she is. If she were willing to accept everything Reese said, there is no way she would do that.

Almost immediately after that, he shows up to kill her and we go through a very long action sequence that ends the movie (well, that and a coda).

The real "theme" of the movie, if I were forced to pick one would be more along the lines of "shouldering a burden" or "making a sacrifice for the rest of mankind" -- Reese does it to come back to 1984, and she takes over from him at the end of the movie.

NInjas Love Nixon said...

Matt, j.s., and Mike: Are we looking at certain themes arising out of moral dichotomy, while others are embodied in the structure of fable?

It seems to me that many stories test and demonstrate the outcome of a certain virtue or vice under duress. As such, those stories function as reassurance or warning, and can be either entertaining (The Terminator, E.T.), or literary (The Godfather).

j.s. said...

Mike, I agree that themes of faith in and sacrifice for an oblivious humanity run deep in the TERMINATOR series.

From Sarah's perspective, thematically, the first TERMINATOR film is also about how -- in an entirely non-treacly and un-Hallmark special context -- none of us can know how important our seemingly mundane lives might turn out to be. Go back and look at the beginning of that film. It's all about how much of a grind life is for Sarah and how none of it seems important to her. She makes a mess at work and her friend says: "In a thousand years, no one will care."

The overarching Cameron TERMINATOR series is also about the interaction of fate/free will. About how the initial Terminator unit, by trying to kill Sarah so as to kill her unborn child John, creates the conditions by which he'll be born and prosper as a guerilla leader. There's a reason the first film ends with Sarah riding off into the storm with a bumper sticker that reads NO FATE.

The second TERMINATOR film is about Sarah becoming what she feared and hated -- a robotic killing machine believing it can predict and kill its way out of an unwanted future. She's forgotten her "no fate" motto and must relearn her humanity through the lesson of her son's compassion and measured use of force and the second Terminator's ultimate sacrifice.