Monday, February 9, 2009

More themes

Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about: being true to your dream(s)?

Now this is sort of the opposite problem as the last one-- this is not too individualized; it's truncated. Being true to your dreams what? Do you mean a moral edict here? You should be true to your dreams? Or a recommendation: Being true to your dreams will bring you happiness? Or a warning: Pleasing others will mean you can't be true to your dreams? Or Being true to your dreams will make you selfish?

(Themes do not have to be sentences. There's a different type of theme that I call "the concept theme", where a concept like fate or evil is explored, as Oedipus the King explores the theme of fate. But for reasons I haven't deciphered yet, positive or happy ending stories seem usually to have sentence themes, perhaps because these stories are usually meant to be morally exemplary, so have an aphoristic approach.)

So let's assume that the theme is a positive one, that being true your dreams is good. So how to set up?
Let's look at a rather clever (if I do say so myself) way to present the process of theme in the three-act structure. It's based on Hegel's dialectic, which kind of applies to everything. ;)

Thesis: The statement. (NOT THE THEME. The theme derives from working through the story.)
Antithesis: The negation or flipside of the thesis.
Synthesis: What after going through those two in the story, the crisis/climax third act leads to.

Let's try a very common thematic progression, where a character has been hiding his past. Oh, you know, there's some of that in MAD MEN, so let's use that as an example.

Thesis: You can escape your past. (Don has discarded his past, has a new name, a new history, and it's a success-- he married a beauty queen, started a great career, lives in the suburbs. No one knows about his humble origins.)
Antithesis: You can't escape your past. (Don's younger brother finds him and contacts him. The brother wants his love, wants to be part of his family, but Don cannot allow it. The young man commits suicide, breaking Don's heart but-- it seems-- keeping the past secret. Then a young rival coworker -- who is interestingly like his brother in looks, but is rotten and venal-- finds out part of the secret and threatens to expose him. Don defies him, and manages to get away with it-- the boss doesn't mind... "All ad men lie, big deal." But now his secret is coming out.)
Synthesis: Only by accepting the past can you move on into the future. (Maybe that'll happen in the next season. :)

See how that breaks into the standard Aristotelian three-act structure:
Shortish setup
Long complication and reversal, rising action and conflict.
Explosion into crisis, then climax and conflict resolution.

Okay, so how does that apply to "Being true to your dreams is (something positive)"? I don't want to assume what it is in a statement form, but just thinking generally, this is just an example of how this might be structured:
Thesis: Adulthood is all about giving up your youthful dreams. (When I grew up, I put away childish things.)
Antithesis: Giving up your youthful dreams means giving up your self.
Synthesis: Maturity means finding and fulfilling a dream that works with your new adult self. (Groan... okay, so the synthesis should be like that only intelligent. :)

That is, in the process of the book, the theme might actually evolve. Like maybe we start off with a preliminary theme that we should stay true to our dreams. But as we write the story, we just can't make it work that our hero is going to end up abandoning his family and business career to fulfill his childhood dream of being a professional comedian. But we also can't condemn the poor guy to the life he thinks is trapping him. And so we come to some synthesis in the end that takes into account the totality of the story, maybe that he starts doing standup on the weekends at a local club, creating a new dream that is more consonant with his adult self and the responsibilities and joys of his life, yada yada. (I once knew a guy who in his thirties, decided that he was going to fulfill exactly that youthful dream. Interestingly, his first step in doing this was to dump his girlfriend-- a friend of mine-- to date another friend whose father was kind of prominent in Hollywood. Kind of an unheroic route to fulfilling his dream!)

Anyway, how would you set that up in the opening? Seems to me that you might not show his dream so much as his current life... but there's something that hints at the previous dream. Like maybe he's actually really funny. He's teaching math at the local high school, and his students think he's hilarious because he's always wisecracking. So maybe the first scene starts with him teaching an algebra class, and he can't help himself-- he makes some joke, and the kids fall apart laughing, and he looks through the little window in the door and the principal is passing by. And he's suddenly reminded of his responsibilities and snaps into stern-teacher-mode. (This might really respond to parallel structure-- the very last scene replicating the setting and situation -- hero in his classroom, but this time, he goes with his gift, knowing that the students will learn better if they're engaged, maybe. One of my favorite books, Up the Down Staircase, uses this structure. The new teacher in the first scene regards a student yelling, "Hey, teach!" at her a sign of disrespect. When in the end scene, a student yells that at her, she responds with a cheery, "Hey, pupe!")

So we see in the first scene his sense that he must be responsible and sober, and there is only a hint of that youthful dream of being a comedian, and-- I think this is important-- we see him specifically "putting away childish things" by assuming that stern mode.

I do think it's essential to SHOW things happening. It's not enough, I'd say, to have him teaching in a classroom. That doesn't present the thesis of putting away the youthful dream. (You do not have to get explicit, like it might be if he threw his copy of "How to Make It in Standup Comedy" into the trash.) While the readers might not immediately understand the importance of his telling a joke to his students, then seeing the principal, then assuming a stern mien, they will add that in to all that the story unfolds, and later see this especially in contrast with what happens in the second and third acts. The readers accumulate understanding of your story-- everything adds up (if you do it right). And the theme is the product of this process of accumulating meaning through the unfolding of the plot and the change in the characters.



Riley Murphy said...

You say:

The readers accumulate understanding of your story-- everything adds up (if you do it right). And the theme is the product of this process of accumulating meaning through the unfolding of the plot and the change in the characters.

This is what I call a perfect nutshell. I have come back to read this post a couple of times, and I just wanted to mention that. Also, I did copy, paste and send this post to my son - who is studying journalism in college. I would try to tell him, but no matter how many discussions we had - where I highlighted the importance of ‘showing’ - as opposed to hitting the reader over the head with ‘the obvious’, he seemed to think that this was a woman's writing style issue -- which it clearly isn't and I thank you for making sense where I couldn't. He just sent me a copy of his latest short story and the 'theme' (you gotta know how much I love that) is: not everyone can be saved. The structure and flow of his work? So much better because he applied your advice.:) Big thank-you for this!

Edittorrent said...

That's a great theme too!

Edittorrent said...

Oh, you know, when readers complain that something is "preachy," it's often because the theme is stated out straight -and- because it isn't a process-- the first chapter says the theme and so does every other chapter. The message doesn't change at all throughout the story.

Riley Murphy said...

That is so true! I like the way you think. 'Preachy' is a good word - it says it all. You know? I really do think that this post didn't get the attention it should have. I guess that comes with the territory, right? Some topics people explore and others they don't. But man, there is some really good information here.

Edittorrent said...

Thanks... never know what will spark something (or not!).