Thursday, April 21, 2016

Book Examples Needed, Part 3: Small Thematic Details

I always have a hard time answering this question when I run my checklists, not because it’s not there, but because, when it’s done right, it’s hard to spot unless you’re looking for it specifically, and I’ve got 140 questions to answer.  For whatever reason, Enemy of the State was the best I could come up with, but this is a prime spot for plugging in a book instead.  What do you say? 

Do many small details throughout subtly (and ironically) tie into the thematic dilemma? 

As you write your first draft, you can’t worry very much about your theme. You have to simply assume that, if the thematic question is linked to the dramatic question, and everything is sufficiently ironic, then meaning will accrue. As a result, however, when it’s time to tackle later drafts, you may find that your theme is so indistinct that it’s barely detectable.

But wait, you say, isn’t it good that the theme is hard to spot? After all, you want your theme to resonate in the audience’s bones, not rattle around in their skulls, so shouldn’t you pitch it just below the frequency of human hearing? Well, yes, but if that’s the case then, like any good sub-audible hum, it has to be persistent.

Once your story and characters are set, you can go back and second-guess every minor choice you made and change many of them to subtly reinforce your theme. When we write, we inevitably make a lot of choices at random, just to keep writing: What job does the hero’s spouse have? Where are the heroes when they get the big news? Which blunt object is used for the killing? And etc. But now it’s time to go back and make all of those choices more meaningful.

Enemy of the State is a fun little thriller about a labor lawyer who receives damning evidence about the NSA from an old friend, then has to go on the run for his life. The movie has the “good vs. good” theme of security vs. privacy. This thematic dilemma is floated early on by a series of open questions posed by the hero’s wife, who works for the ACLU, but it’s also reinforced throughout in subtler ways...
  • In the beginning, the lawyer is trying to win a labor law case by using a secret videotape against some gangsters. It’s not admissible in court, but the gangsters don’t want it exposed.
  • Who got the lawyer the tape? A young woman he once had an affair with. The affair is over, but now he must hide the fact from his wife that he’s still working with her.
  • Where is he when he runs into his friend? A lingerie store, shopping for his wife, but because of his past affair, he’s afraid that she would assume he’s buying for someone else.
  • Why is he there? It’s Christmastime, which means that they’re hiding presents from their son, and he’s hiding the fact he’s raided their gift stash, which complicates things later on.
These are all things that subtly make that point that we all do things that we don’t want exposed to scrutiny, even if they’re not illegal.

I suspect that none of these details were in the first draft, since none of them is essential to the story, but once the plot had been worked out, writer David Marconi went back and replaced whatever random choices he had originally made with new details that subtly tied into the theme. I’ve heard this referred to as making a “theme tree”, yoking every detail together into a vast system of root and branch that all feeds into an organic whole. Every choice is a chance to multiply the meaning.

What do you say, any books come to mind?


Mark said...

A small one off the top of my head:

In Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives, the theme of individuality v. conformity is prefigured early on by the name of the protagonist's best friend: Bobbie Markowe, which she explains is an anglicized version of the (Jewish) name Markovitz.

I'll try to think of some more.

Mark said...

How about this fabulous line from Gatsby:

"Her husband, among various physical accomplishments had been one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven--a national figure in a way, on of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anticlimax"

Surely this connects to the novel's themes about recreating the past, and, especially the famous last line: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Mark said...

OK, now I'm getting obsessed with finding these.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier - the theme is, more or less, authority v. free will. Jerry, the main character faces a series of different authority figures (coaches, the school secret society, and the principal) and has to make a series of decisions between his desire to please authorities and his desire to make his own decisions. It doesn't go well.

Anyway, Chapter 3 begins with a scene of him in a convenience store reading a Playboy. What I love about this scene is that it's not just that he's reading a Playboy and feeling guilty (a common enough scene), but that he's a a store, where there's a prominent sign labeled "NO BUY NO READ", so Jerry's going against the store rules as well as his religious guilt. The whole first two paragraphs of the chapter are worth quoting. Take a look some time.