Thursday, March 07, 2013

Know More Than You Show, Conclusion: Theme

You’ve probably heard before that you should withhold elements of the plot and backstory, but it’s not often pointed out that you should also play keep-away with your theme.

I’ve mentioned before that I disagree with the oft-repeated advice that you should have a wise statement of philosophy on page five.  If you’ve done that, you should delete the scene, and maybe replace it with a misguided statement of philosophy that will get replaced much later, shortly before the climax.  I’ve also talked about how, if you have a character who asks the thematic question early on, then it’s good to interrupt them before they can get an answer, because the story itself should be the answer.

As with character and plot, this is hard to do.  You’ve got something to say, and now you want to say it …but you have to stop yourself.  You don’t actually want your audience to hear it, you want them to feel it.  And they’ll only feel it if they’ve been allowed to draw their own conclusions.

The meaning of a movie is created not by the composition of the shot but by the opposition of the cut. It’s no accident that the inventor of most powerful cinematic cutting techniques, Sergei Eisenstein, was such a fan of Georg Hegel, who believed that new ideas could only emerge from the collision of old ideas.  Eisenstein knew that butting two contrasting images against each other created more meaning than any one shot could on its own.

It’s tempting to process your own conflict and then present your audience with a finalized synthesis, because that way you can carefully control what their takeaway will be, but there’s no point, because they won’t care.  Instead, present them with a thesis and an antithesis, slam them against each other, and let your audience do the rest.  Force them to synthesize it, even if that means that they might reach a different conclusion than you would.

What were Shakespeare’s politics? Did he agree with Brutus or Marc Antony?  Prince Hal or Falstaff?  No one knows.  His plays are filled with huge ideological conflicts but few definitive statements.  He gives us a thesis and antithesis and leaves the synthesis to us.  That’s why he’s immortal.


Christine Tyler said...

This is brilliant, and a huge help. Thanks!

Crystal said...

I needed this post. Thank you, once again.