Early on in this blog, I made a post about the question of how to write themes, how I think it’s an under-discussed part of storytelling and why I think they are so hard to talk about. I wrote that with the intent to let my thoughts evolve and return to it again and again. This is my first fulfillment of that promise.
I’ve come up with a system for categorizing themes. It’s probably not the only one that can be devised, just as you can categorize plots in many different ways. It might be one that I end up changing any number of times. But it’s a good start, I hope. My three categories are discussed themes, silent themes, and obscured themes.
Discussed themes are the most easy to identify. The writer puts their point out in plain view by having the characters discuss it. However, the discussion can only be part of it. Otherwise it’s an essay, not a story. The events in the story have to play out the ideas discussed. Stories with discussed themes are like a hypothesis and experiment in science. The characters propose one way of viewing the world, and the subsequent events show whether their view is correct or not.
The discussed theme is the advantage of being clear, but it runs the risk of being didactic or pedantic. The experiment is not blinded, and the writer has the ability to manipulate events to support their own point of view. If the writer cares deeply about the point they have to make, they are tempted to exclude any events from their story that do not demonstrate the point they want to make, and ignore any good arguments against their conclusion. When a debater relies on logical fallacies and appeals to emotion, they suggest that either their ideas are weak, or they don’t really know what they are talking about. It makes their audience distrust them, and by extension, their ideas. In short, a weak argument has the opposite effect it intends on the people it most wants to convince. A strong debater is willing to take on the best arguments of the people who disagree with them. The same goes for a story with a discussed theme.
One of the best examples I can think of a discussed theme done poorly is The Monuments Men. George Clooney makes five or six speeches about how art is valuable and worth saving, even at the cost of lives. What are the counterarguments? There are none. At times it looks like we will get one, when a military official denies the Monuments Men some sort of aid, or when the people Clooney is giving presentations to ask him to justify his mission. But they are never allowed to be eloquent on their own behalf. They are walking invitations for Clooney to express the Official Theme of the Movie, and he is always given the last word. The events of the film are similarly biased in his favor. People die for the works of art, but all of them are Monuments Men. This is not a strong challenge to Clooney’s position, because all of them eagerly volunteered for the work and none of them expressed the slightest doubt as to the value of their work. Throughout the movie, I kept thinking “this movie needs a gruff yet lovable private, sent to guide these clueless professors through enemy lines. He can’t agree with their mission; he’s just doing it because those are his orders. And he needs to die. Then we will see how confidently the next speech on the value of art is delivered.”
I didn’t think this because I disagreed with a single word Clooney was saying. In fact, I agree with him. If I were living under a totalitarian government that was trying to eradicate oppositional by burning books it disliked, I damn well hope I would have the courage to hide King Lear and the Tao Te Ching and Calvin and Hobbes. If I died making sure just one of these were preserved for future generations, I would consider it a good death (even for Calvin and Hobbes. Especially for Calvin and Hobbes). I would love it if their story sparked a massive dialog about the value of art to the human race and what measures we should take to protect it, but because the story was clumsy and artless in its execution, it was dismissed, along with its idea. That is what frustrates me.
A perfect counterexample is Jurassic Park. I can think of more sophisticated examples, like To Kill a Mockingbird or Fiddler on the Roof, but the first one that came to mind was Jurassic Park, and it’s the one I’m going to use, precisely because it is so much the opposite of The Monuments Men. One was Oscar bait, the other was light summer fare. One is historically based, the other soft science fiction. One was expected to make a point, and the other one actually did. The theme of Jurassic Park is, “be humble when playing around with nature. We are fallible, and playing around with things we think we understand but don’t can have disastrous consequences.”
The story is pretty simple. A billionaire uses cutting edge science to clone dinosaurs for a theme park. Stuff goes wrong, the dinosaurs break out and everyone gets eaten except for a few plucky heroes who escape. The story, as it is laid out, seems like it could be very simplistic anti-science action thriller. But the complexity starts with the debates. During the first discussion, between the scientists and the billionaire, chaotician Ian Malcolm isn’t allowed to stick with simple put downs like “the lack of humility that’s being displayed here is staggering.” Hamilton, the billionaire, comes back with challenges. Would Malcolm have such a problem with cloning if Hamilton was doing this with endangered species like condors, or extinct ones like the dodo? Aren’t there wonderful implications in his work for discovery and education? Malcolm has to think his arguments through more thoroughly, because he is being presented not with the worst arguments against his position, but the best ones the writers could come up with. Nor do the writers use the cheat of making Malcolm’s opponent a greedy, unlikeable character. Hamilton is kind, funny and grandfatherly. While he stands to profit, he cares less about that and more by the genuine joy of making people happy. I liked both characters, and I thought they both made good points.
Although you wouldn’t expect it from a simple summary, the events continue to grant points to both sides. Science got them into this mess, but without their technology they hardly would have gotten out alive. In between the scenes of danger, there are many pleasant, beautiful, awe-inspiring moments between the humans and the dinosaurs. Without Hamilton’s meddling, those scenes would not have been possible. The movie still declares Malcolm the official winner, but the overall perspective presented is complex and nuanced.
As a result, even though it’s primarily a fun action film, I was left thinking a good deal about the ideas contained in the film. Even today, when I think about the uses and misuses of science, scenes from Jurassic Park drift through my mind. That is the sign of a good theme; it leaves you thinking about it for a long time afterwards, whether you agree or disagree. Here’s the funny thing. Although I agree with the points made by Jurassic Park, watching it doesn’t motivate me to sign petitions banning cloning research. It makes me more excited than ever about the things we can achieve. It wakes my mind up to the wonders that are out there and how we can use science to reach them. It comforts me to think that even if, in our overeager curiosity, we unleash a herd of hungry velociraptors, maybe we will have enough creativity and resilience to get to the chopper out of there. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
As I said in my last post, theme the part of the story that is most dependent on the audience. Maybe you’ll put in all the work for an audience that largely just cares about how many people get eaten by the cool giant lizards. Maybe you’ll find that, after all the work you put into showcasing a great debate, you haven’t convinced your audience of your point but rather eloquently argued your opponent’s position. It takes humility to write a good theme, because more so than any other part of your writing, the theme is not about you and the story you want to write, but about ideas and truth. Maybe it’s okay to have been wrong, if by being wrong in the right way, you end up directing a larger part of the world towards what is right.
Coming up next; silent themes.