Three Things a Theme Needs

Ideas in stories fascinate me, and one of the things that interests me most is the lack of consensus on what makes a good theme. I write about this a lot.

I’ve been trying to look at themes in stories from a different angle lately. Instead of just thinking about whether I agree with the moral of what I just watched or read, I’ve been thinking about how the idea was presented. Regardless of whether I consciously agreed, how did my heart react? Did the ideas seem well supported by the story, or were they awkwardly wedged in?

In the process, I’ve noticed three basic things that help a story’s theme not only sound true, but feel right.

1. Complexity. The story shouldn’t be populated by straw men. The utopia shouldn’t have gaps that the writer has conveniently overlooked. The world should feel multi-dimensional and complicated, just like the one we really live in. It’s seeing high-minded ideals interact with a messy world that makes stories so interesting. That’s the reason we forget the PSAs we saw in our teens but remember the gangster films.

2. Continuity. In music, the theme is an arrangement of notes that recurs throughout the piece. They tie the whole piece together. In a story, images, situations, phrases and dilemmas that occur over and over again create a sense of coherence. When, in the last fifteen minutes of a story, a character blurts out an aphorism and everyone nods at how profoundly it fits the moment, it feels clunky. We roll our eyes and think, “oh, right, they’ve gotta have a moral. Whatever.” But if that idea has come up before, and been examined by different characters from different angles, depending on their personality and what is going on at the time, the theme feels integrated with the story, not tacked on to check an item off a list.

3. Intersectionality. Contrary to the common idea that you need a single theme, stories are most interesting when they explore the overlap of a few values and ideas. The theme can’t just be love. What about love? That it conquers all? Well, you can’t literally have it conquer everything. The story has to end sometime. So maybe “all” in this case is represented by families who object because the two belong to different religious castes. Great! But now you’ve got a society with a religion and family obligations, and you’ve got to develop those things to flesh the story out. Now there are themes involving love, religion and family. The author might think its about love conquering all, but someone else could write a whole paper on how well it demonstrates religion stifling free expression of love.

These three aspects, complexity, continuity and intersectionality, combine to create a story that feels like its definitely about something, but still leaves the readers freedom to figure that out for themselves.

How Subjective is a Story’s Meaning?

When talking about a story’s meaning, many people argue that the meaning of a story is variable and personal, subject to individual interpretation. I myself have favored that in some of my previous posts. However, every time I say or hear this, it feels like a half-truth. I do think that interpretations can be more or less valid, on something of a double axis sliding scale.

The first axis is based on whether an interpretation rests on what is actually in the canonical work. I’ve seen interpretations that rely heavily on something that isn’t in the canonical work, or on ignoring something that is there. If someone can easily refute your interpretation by pointing to contradictory events in the story, that isn’t a good sign.

Because these interpretations are so easy to refute, it’s actually pretty rare for me to find one that I take issue with on that ground. I do recall, quite a long time ago, there was someone ranting on the internet about how sexist Firefly was. The author wrote that Zoe calls Mal “sir” and concludes that the show was saying something negative about black women. Nevermind that Zoe is intelligent, highly skilled, outranks every male on the ship except Mal and is in no way subservient to her (also white) husband. Nevermind that she disobeys Mal and teases him as an equal. Nevermind that there is an in-story explanation; her identity as a former soldier is important to her and she and Mal served together, and so it’s taken, in story and by most fans, as a subtle reminder that she is a trained and disciplined warrior at her core and you should not fuck with her. I could easily turn this into a very long rant about how poor that author’s reasoning was, but I’m going to resist, because it’s not the point of this blog. I was just hunting for an easy illustration of my point.

The other axis is based on how well a story lines up with reality. If these events played out in the real world, how would they be perceived? The question of whether Fifty Shades of Grey portrays romance or abuse hinges on this aspect of interpretation. Both sides are in agreement about the content of the novel, some simply claim that in real life it would not be abuse because “its this thing called BDSM, and things work differently there, I guess” and the other side says, “Yeah, no, all those things he does are absolutely considered abusive, especially in BDSM.” At this point I should confess (brag?) that I haven’t personally read the book, so I’m not going to argue a side, just say that those who have argued that it is abusive have done a better job of inclining me towards their point of view.

That second criteria is much more tricky to measure.

First, there are any number of stories where the events portrayed are improbable or impossible in the real world. This can be because the genre is science fiction or fantasy, because sloppy writing lead to plot holes and poor fact checking, or because the book was written back when people thought spontaneous human combustion was a thing. Again I could do a whole blog on those issues alone, but this post streamlined I’ll move on.

Second, humans are not particularly well suited to figuring what reality actually is. There are vast swathes of the spectrum of light that we cannot see, as well as sounds we can’t hear, scents we can’t smell, and things we cannot taste or touch without physical damage. We cannot experience events before our births or after our death, and within our lives we can only visit a limited number of places in the universe. On top of that, our memories are flawed, reports from others can be biased, and any inferences we make must ultimately be based on one or more of those limited, flawed sources of knowledge. As a result, our own ideas about reality evolve constantly and will always disagree with the ideas of someone else.

This is why it is useful to debate and compare our different interpretations of a story. Stories are little models of reality; pretty, self-contained dioramas of what the author thinks real life is like. This gives the rest of us something tidy and consistent and to look at together. We then compare it to our images of reality, we all share the results, and we have a new means to figure out where we disagree and why.

There is still plenty of room for subjective interpretations. For example, in the beginning of Frozen, Elsa’s parents try to teach her to control her powers, while isolating her from the rest of the kingdom. I saw parents whose intentions were good, but who ultimately did more damage by encouraging her to feel ashamed, isolated and repressed. Then I watched Confused Matthew’s review, and he saw a plan to give her the space to figure herself out in private, and step two would be teaching her to reintegrate into society. To him, the tragedy is that, if they had been able to continue, things might have turned out just fine.

Neither of our interpretations are more rooted in the film than others. They rely on assumptions about alternate futures and the parent’s knowledge and intentions, which we can only guess at, based on a short song montage. I don’t think either one is more realistic, either. The real world contains both parents who might handle that kind of problem well, and ones who might handle it terribly, despite the best of intentions. If Confused Matthew and I sat down together and compared our views, we would learn something interesting about each other, about our biases and experiences, but neither of us would walk away feeling that our own interpretation was wrong, or that the other’s was right.

I am not a relativist. I think that there is an objective reality out there, and the history of human science and philosophy is the history of a tiny, fragile little race fumbling out to grasp hold of it. I like thinking about what stories mean because I think they are part of that history, and I wish we had a better common language to help us discuss them on the same terms. So I offer up these basic rules of thumb as a candidate.

What do you think? Am I making sense? How objective or subjective do you think stories are?