Discussed Themes vs Obscured Themes

Authors who are actively interested in raising questions and engaging their audience intellectually tend to go for discussed themes or obscured themes, because these are the ones that draw the reader’s eyes to the message and ideas. When they are poorly done, both can be incredibly pretentious and self-indulgent. Discussed themes can lecture while obscured themes can sneer down their noses and say, “none of you can understand me? Well, I guess you’re just not smart enough.” Both of these make me angry, because the aim of good art is not to elevate the artist, but elevate the audience, to entertain and enlighten. When done well, both discussed themes and obscured things are enlightening and often entertaining. It’s only their strengths that differ.

As I noted in the post on obscured themes, those work best when they hint at common issues; experiences that are universal or near to it, questions that have been asked since the beginning of thought, primal fears and deeply embedded archetypes. This works for two reasons. First, the more broad and applicable the hints are, the easier it will be for the audience to project a specific idea onto the story. Second, when a question has puzzled humanity for eons, it must not have an easy answer, and a story that is able to admit there aren’t easy answers might be the most satisfying of all. Discussed themes do a better job with more specific questions. They can still talk about universal ideas, but while obscured themes must sacrifice depth for breadth to be applicable, discussed themes can take a microscope to an issue without losing their audience.

Rashomon and 12 Angry Men both start with characters trying to determine whether a particular character is guilty of a crime or not. Rashomon then works outwards. What if we can’t always know the truth? Does that make us wonder whether we can ever know the truth? Can we even trust our own perspective? How do we cope when we realize life withholds the answers we seek? 12 Angry Men goes deep. It dissects a specific instance of potential injustice, and how it is handled by the laws of a particular time and place, shows us the faults and strengths, and ends on a pragmatic but reassuring note; we can’t be certain justice was carried out, but there is a sense that it was given it’s best shot. The fact that they take your thoughts opposite directions doesn’t change the fact that both make you think.

Which brings me to a misconception I’ve seen stated about discussed themes. I’ve heard it said that stories with answers (discussed themes, telling the audience the writer’s point of view) dictate your thoughts, and while stories with questions (obscured themes, letting dilemmas and ambiguities loose on the audience) let you think for yourself. I understand where that idea comes from, but from what I’m observed what happens is actually nearly the opposite.

As I noted in the example of Jurassic Park, I actually tend to disagree with the theme presented in that movie. I think it raises some good points to consider, but if they figure out a real way to start cloning dinosaurs, I’m probably going to be first in line for that petting zoo. I love science, I love progress, and while I think we should be realistic about our fallibility we shouldn’t let fear of screwing up prevent us from testing our limits. This isn’t just because I came to the movie disagreeing. In fact, when I first watched the movie I was a hardcore Christian and steeped in anti-scientific dogma. Jurassic Park showed me the wonders of science and the disadvantages of it at the same time, which as I said is what well written discussed themes do. The points the characters were making challenged me to examine my own thoughts more deeply. I was making up my own mind, taking the evidence presented by the movie into account. Now I disagree with their ultimate conclusion, but that doesn’t reduce my enjoyment of the film a bit.

Obscured themes, on the other hand, make use of what the individual audience member already believes. They are built of what the reader has heard or experienced or internalized before. A discussed theme can present the audience with a perspective or argument or bit of evidence they have not experienced before. Obscured themes don’t have that luxury. Their strengths are in bringing unconscious thoughts to the attention of the conscious mind, and helping you put together ideas you already had but hadn’t realized were connected. Their weakness is that, far more than discussed themes, they can reinforce confirmation bias.

It is invaluable to both explore your thoughts more deeply, and have your thoughts challenged by outside evidence. A person who does not understand their own thoughts is a person who cannot examine their own thoughts. I’d question whether a person who does not understand their thoughts is even truly thinking. On the other hand, thoughts are honed and perfected by being exposed by conflict and contradiction. Again, because a good discussed theme will expose the audience to both the writer’s point of view, and the points of view they disagree with, whether any individual audience member already agrees with the writer or not, they should still find their ideas challenged by a story with a discussed theme. They might come down on the same side, or the opposite side, but they should still be better thinkers for it.

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