Theme: what's in it for you?
Some thoughts, along with some stuff I’ve found, on how theme works in stories: what it is, where you can find it, why no story can do without it (except those that can), how writers can overthink theme, and why it’s never a good idea to write ‘art’
Theme is what a story is really about. Theme articulates how the author feels about their story. Theme (along with character) is what makes a story unique, rather than just another story about a guy robbing a bank, hunting monsters or falling in love with the wrong girl. Theme is about what the plot actually means, to the writer at least. If I'm having trouble driving a story or if the characters feel a bit directionless, it's often because my theme isn't quite there yet and needs focusing into something stronger, simpler or more coherent.
Sometimes I know what the theme is before I've even written the pitch. In such cases, I'll be thinking something like, 'Gee, I really want to tell a story about what it's like to sacrifice something you love. Now what kind of characters would best embody that? What kind of situation would best dramatise that? Where do the ninjas come in?' Other times the theme doesn't emerge until I'm one or two drafts down the line.
When writing comics, I find it's good to know the theme by the time you're writing the breakdown*, because, as Pixar screenwriter Andrew Stanton says, "Theme dictates every decision." I say "it's good to know the theme by the time you're writing the breakdown". It would probably be more accurate to say, "it's good to take a stab at what you think the theme could be". Like everything else in the story at this stage, the theme will change several times before you finally nail it.
What’s in it for you?
Theme is really about finding something in the story to which you can relate. As storyboard artist Emma Coats recently tweeted, “Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.” Comic writer Mark Waid wrote a great blog on the same topic. In it he explains why it's vital for writers to find something in common with their characters, even if that character is an immortal god of thunder whose day job involves punching people through buildings.
I think the need to relate to your characters is why varied experiences can be so important to a writer; greater experience gives you greater sympathetic range. And by ‘greater experience’ I don’t mean giving up your day-job to go Eat Pray Love in Cambodia. It’s about being alive to what any experience has to offer, no matter how mundane. It’s about living in the moment. Another veteran comic writer John Ostrander wrote a profound article on theme in issue 12 of the (sadly no longer published) comic-writing magazine Write Now!, in which he said that it’s "not a matter of how much experience we have had but what we have learned from it."
Critics obsess over theme because it’s the gateway into the writer’s soul. It’s the writer’s contribution to our collective understanding of the universe. However, as Ostrander points out in his article, your truth it is not the truth. There is no one universal answer; there is only our answer. A story's theme is unique to the storyteller, but it must also mean something to others. Andrew Stanton calls this need to connect with other people, “probably the greatest story commandment, which is ‘make me care’. Please - emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care.”
Theme vs. moral
Don't mistake a theme for a moral. Morals are the currency of fable, not great drama, although dramatic themes often explore a moral or a single idea. When I wrote the second series of Age Of The Wolf, I didn’t figure out the theme until I was halfway through writing the scripts, which, as it turned out, was way too late, caused a lot of problems and ate up a lot of hours in fixing it. But anyway, the subtitle of this series was ‘She Is Legend’, but the theme, I realised, was really ‘is she legend’? Does the heroine always do the right thing? Make the right choices? Is she always noble, virtuous and unselfish? No. Because the people we revere as 'legends' are really just ordinary people; weird, scared, selfish ordinary people. On the other hand, does she get the job done, beat the bad guys and save the people? Yes. I didn’t come to any kind of conclusion about all this. I just let the story steer itself along these lines and left the rest to the gods.
Again, as Ostrander points out (man, you should really go buy this issue), morals differ from theme because they state a truth that allows no further questions. The greatest works of drama convey ambiguity. And ambiguity can enable a story to transcend the coarse mechanics of narrative. One way in which it can do this is by evoking the open-endedness of real life and inflicting a wound that the story cannot heal. This occurs in Jaws when poor Mrs Kintner confronts Chief Brody on the dock, slaps him in the kisser and sobs that heart-stopping line, “But still my boy is dead now and there’s nothing you can do about it.” As film critic Antonia Quirke writes in her razor-sharp BFI monograph on this movie, “an element is introduced into the film that cannot be resolved, or absolved by catharsis. This is the extra leap that art makes. To introduce a trouble which cannot be cured by the resolution of the story.” At this point, it no longer matters if the shark is killed – and the story’s line of action resolved – a mother has lost her child, nothing can bring him back and she will feel the pain of that loss for the rest of her life.
And yet some stories seem to get by just fine without theme. Movie critic and novelist Stephen Hunter is spot-on when he wrote this about Die Hard in his book of collected reviews Violent Screen: “[The movie] illustrates a key principle in the realm of melodrama: if it’s fast and gaudy enough, and if it beats you to oatmeal efficiently enough, you’re willing to throw out all your doubts, sit back and suck up the excitement.”
Snatch is another great example of a movie that gets by pretty much on plot alone. Its characters are ciphers who all sound the same, but the film is so fast and the plot so deftly, so gleefully constructed that you're missing out on a great ride if you don't give in and enjoy it. Hell, it's all art as far as I'm concerned (I stand firmly in the Scott McCloud 'art-is-a-raspberry' camp**).
I guess an absence of theme is a form of ambiguity in itself, and as such opens theme-less melodrama up to interpretation just as much as a masterful novel like The Great Gatsby. Film studies professors these days are as likely to read a student thesis on Steven Seagal movies as they are on the work of auteurs like Hawks or Hitchcock.
Too much theme?
Every story is worth something, even if it's only worth a rant about how much it sucks. And, of course, these days everyone has a platform on which to express what they feel a story is worth. No wonder writers get nervous. It’s a demanding crowd out there, and bad reviews - professional or otherwise - all amount to bad publicity, which many writers fear can sour their chances of scoring their next gig. Such a volatile atmosphere can perhaps intimidate a writer into fussing about theme, spending more time worrying about how that theme will be interpreted and less time actually telling the story.
To take a couple of recent cinematic examples, movies like Prometheus and Man Of Steel feel to me like they're overcompensating. Why overcomplicate what are essentially pulp stories, whose vigour and meaning reside in their very simplicity? Why strive to answer the sort of questions asked by people who are more interested in trivia than in surrendering themselves to a great story? And don't get me started on the whole prequel thing, a trend that often feels dedicated to destroying whatever mystery made the earlier stories so enticing in the first place. I'm also reading a lot of comics these days that feel like they're labouring to create a worthy contribution to a time-honoured canon, straining to satisfy the dreary demands of continuity.
Dammit, just lighten up and tell me a story!
We all know that (zap, pow) comics are no longer just for children, while pioneering critics and theorists like Kim Newman and Scott McCloud have helped vindicate the 'low' genres and mediums (and thus influenced these fields creatively way more than I think many people realise - but that's another pet theory of mine). It's great that the value of melodrama and comics has been recognised, but what happens when writers take that recognition too seriously and become preoccupied with what it all means? In his gripping film history Blockbuster: How The Jaws And Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood Into A Boom-Town, film critic Tom Shone explains how the Alien franchise fell foul of overthinking. “The more fascinated Alien films grew with the richness of their own thematic texture, the more they neglected their humble duty to terrify, and by the time of Alien Resurrection [or indeed Prometheus - Alec], the series had unspooled into mere marginalia, of archival interest to those who wished to know what happens when you give an Alien movie to a Frenchman to direct.”
No writer wants to come across as an amateur, but it's never EVER a good idea to write 'art'. That applies whether you're Barbara Cartland or Vladimir Nabokov. When in the midst of writing, say ‘balls to art’. It's a raspberry. Concentrate on the task in hand. Think theme, not art. Look for the simplest piece of emotional truth at the heart of the story and communicate that. Don’t think,
feeeeeewl! Speak your mind, but remember Denny O'Neil's cardinal rule of theme (apparently passed on to a young John Ostrander, whose Write Now! article you should really, really read): “You can say anything you want but first you must tell a story.”
* When you're writing a comics series, or branded fiction (like, say, a Warhammer tie-in book for Games Workshop), the commissioning editor - if they like your initial pitch - will usually ask for a 'breakdown' of what happens in each chapter of your proposed story. Before you can actually write the story you're proposing to write, you have to explain how that story starts and ends, how it moves from A to B, and how the main character does this, that, the other and why. The process of figuring all this stuff out is what screenwriters call ‘outlining’ or ‘breaking the story’. Most writers agree it’s a nightmare process that usually feels like the story is trying to break you!
** Go read chapter seven of McCloud's Understanding Comics...
If you want to find out more about what I think when it comes to writing comics and stuff, check out Comic script formatting: here’s what I do... Or if you’d rather read what better-qualified folks have to say about this sort of thing, go read Pixar’s Andrew Stanton on great storytelling, Emma Coats’ 22 rules of storytelling and go buy some back issues of Write Now! while you’re at it.