Obscured Themes

In an earlier post, I started a series. In fact, most of my recent posts have started a series. I really need to stop doing that. Anyway, this series was on three different approaches to writing themes in stories. I explained the discussed theme, where characters explain the ideas the writer is trying to explore, and the events of the story either support or refute those ideas. I was originally going to go in the order of discussed theme, silent theme and obscured theme, but I realized that it will work much better to save silent themes for last, for reasons I’ll explain in that post.

While discussed themes turn subtextual theme into text, obscured themes bury them a layer deeper.  These are the weird stories where something odd is going on and not all the rules are explained. Key elements of the story are left to up to interpretation, which invites the reader or watcher or listener to go hunting for the point.

From Edward Lear's Nonsense Botany
From Edward Lear’s Nonsense Botany

There are two big disadvantages to the obscured theme. From a reader’s perspective, many people simply dislike obscured themes. At the end of a story, they want to know what happened. Then, from a writer’s perspective, making the events of a story unclear jeopardizes their ability to create a satisfying ending, even for those who enjoy ambiguity. How can you feel ecstatic over the hero’s survival if it’s left ambiguous whether they lived or died, or were ever alive? If the villain might have been a mere human or might have been an avatar of an immortal god, and they die at the end, we can’t be sure whether they will return or not, and our relief is uneasy. However, they also have two advantages over any other kind of story. First, they actively engage the reader, and present them with a puzzle that many find entertaining to solve. Second, they acknowledge the fact that in real life, answers are not always clear and events themselves are often up to interpretation. One of the most satisfying things a story can do is take an element of reality that we dislike, and turn it into something so artistically engaging we can’t help but look at it.

It is impossible to do anything about the first disadvantage. It’s a subjective judgment. Most writers of obscured themes have a strong creative urge to deal in ambiguities, and that is fine, but they should probably accept that for them success will look like a devoted  cult following, rather than a bestseller or blockbuster. One way around the second is to let the story’s theme itself focus on uncertainty. Rashomon has three people tell mutually incompatible stories about the death of a lord, and denies the audience an easy way to tell who is telling the truth. It raises the question of how to find peace and justice when the truth is impossible to uncover. Donnie Darko tells the story of a teenager at the center of an otherworldly mystery, but denies him the easy answers so many other stories do. He can’t eavesdrop on anyone who knows the whole story, he doesn’t have any wise mentor who always and only gives him good advice, just a lot of paradoxes, clues and a giant talking rabbit. The  works of Lovecraft used the primal fear of the large and unknown to create a whole new genre of horror. Welcome to Night Vale makes that level of cosmic horror everyday reality for a small town, and plays with questions of complacency, selective ignorance vs acceptance and how to feel safe in a world beyond your control. All of these stories are incredibly satisfying, because ambiguity is a part of everyday life that all of us have to deal with. We like answers, but we can’t always get them. Most of the time stories offer us an escape from that, but it’s nice that sometimes they give us a way to deal with that as well.

The other route is to tell a story that can be interpreted in one of several ways, and make sure that whichever one the readers pick, the story is satisfying. This is difficult, because it essentially doubles the workload of the author, but when it can be pulled off it is very interesting.

The Winter by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. It's either a nature god or a really, really weird tree
The Winter by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. It’s either a nature god or a really, really weird tree

Pan’s Labyrinth uses the simplest version. It has two storylines, one a very realistic story of Captain Vidal pursuing rebels in the mountains, at the end of the Spanish Civil War, the other a beautiful fairy tale surrounding his stepdaughter Ofelia, who discovers she is a long lost fairy princess. People who watch it seem to be split neatly in half between those who see a dark fantasy and those who see a non-magical drama. It all depends on whether they interpreted Ofelia’s story as literal or whether they decided we are only being shown the game of let’s pretend she is playing. Despite seeing two different stories, with different messages and in different genres, people on opposite sides can still agree that we hate Captain Vidal and empathize with Ofelia, and agree that the story is satisfying. At the same time, because they can adjust the story to fit the genre they find most effective, the story can be more personally moving than it would be if it was made absolutely clear that it is either a fairy tale or a work of realism.

A more complex example is MirrorMask (yes, all one word, with a capital in the middle), a small budget film scripted by Neil Gaiman. It’s a story of a girl, Helena whose mother becomes sick after an argument between the two of them. The night of her mother’s surgery she has a dream about a magical kingdom that has been falling into ruin after a princess, who looks just like Helena, stole their mirror mask and put their queen into a deep sleep. It could be seen almost entirely as a psychological film about Helena confronting her dark side and overcoming her bratty, teenage self, but there are also some elements that indicate the dream is more tied to the real world than that. It has the old “meet someone from the dream in real life” moment, and also a scene where Helena meets her real mother, who claims she is the one dreaming. So is it a shared dream where they are working out their issues together? Is it a magical dream, or are they suggesting that all dreams are, to some degree, shared? If Helena finds the mask, will that affect the success of the surgery?

One more example is The Fountain, which has three stories, all of which revolve around a man seeking immortality and a tree which can grant it. At the outset the stories are each fairly coherent, but how they fit together is not entirely clear. As the movie goes on the three intertwine in more and more convoluted ways. One story might be a fiction written by a character in another, but then again the story leaves open the possibility that reincarnation is real, so they both might be true, and the author is unconsciously remembering her past life. This one is interesting because it actually blends obscured and discussed themes. Characters talk about different views of death, with a particular contrast being placed between the view of death as the end and a tragedy, and the view of death as a key part of a death/rebirth cycle, and a painful but necessary part of a full life. The final scenes are hard to understand, but however you interpret them, they end with a sense of acceptance and renewal.

As indicated by The Fountain and Welcome to Night Vale, it is possible to blend obscured and discussed themes, but it’s not necessary. The point of an obscured theme is that our decision about what is going on is unconsciously shaped by our values, and we craft a theme for ourselves. In reviewing Pan’s Labyrinth, Confused Matthew, my favorite critic, decided the fairy tale is Ofelia’s game and the story was about how the stories we tell ourselves determine the lives we live and the people we become. I see it as a fantasy, and to me it’s about holding onto your values when the costs of doing so seem too high. The story is like an inkblot, or a tarot deck. We read into it what is personally meaningful to us.

I think they're really pretty seahorses.
I think they’re really pretty seahorses.

However, our ideas are still shaped by the elements of the story that are there. MirrorMask is clearly about a parent/child relationship. Pan’s Labyrinth has parents and children, but it doesn’t feel like it’s about them. Ofelia’s relationship with her mother does not have enough conflict and her relationship with her stepfather is clearly not familial. Elements like stories and tests of character are far more important to the narrative. The trick is to hit a balance between elements that are specific enough to be evocative, but general enough that nearly everyone can relate to them in one way or another. The Fountain, the example with the most confusing plot, is also the one that deals with the most universal issue; death. Sooner or later, everyone will be able to relate to a story about dying.

In other words, you can’t just string events together and call them thematically relevant but up for viewer interpretation. Everyone can find pictures in clouds, but some clouds are the blobby ones that everyone agrees are mashed potatoes and then forgets about. The fun ones are clearly a boat, until someone else points out they could be a crane or maybe even a giraffe. Stories with elements that are clearly defined are easier to project themes onto than stories where everything is up for grabs; the mind thrives on limitations.

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