This is a bonus post for The Story Game. It's long, and not fully proofed. It's just that theme is a really big subject, so I wanted to go into it in more depth. But I also want to finish up the Situation Worksheet before Thanksgiving, so... here goes:
Frankly, theme isn't something you impose on a story anyway -- it happens organically, and if you are the sort of person who does think about theme, odds are that you just discover it as you write.
And yet, I have found it incredibly useful in brainstorming. It can work a lot like a prompt -- you take it up, play with it, if magic happens, you keep it. If not you adjust it or discard it. (Which is true of all the elements of this Story Game. We'll talk about that tomorrow when we get to the brainstorming phase.)
What Is Theme?
Theme is the larger subject that a story is about. It's not a moral. It's just a personal quality or emotion which the story explores. In the end, the story may take a stance on it -- and that would be a "moral" -- but the theme is not that stance. It's just the subject of that stance.
It's really hard to write something without a theme. It just sort of happens. Usually, though, you can tell a story that has a stronger theme, becuase it ties together in a more satisfying way. Sometimes when the plot itself doesn't hang together too well, but the story seems to work anyway? That's because of theme.
And some genres have specific themes of their own which you write variations into. Romance is always about finding that "happily ever after." Crime fiction explores justice (or lack thereof). Within these big themes, the author will have his or her own themes, and a particular series may have it's own theme, and an indivicual story may have it's own variation.
So, for instance, while crime fiction might be about justice, a particular series might be about couples finding their happily-ever-after (mystery/romance), or about a damaged hero struggling to live up to his own standards (many hard-boiled and police procedurals), or about trusting in the genious of a miracle worker (Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, etc.), or it might be about the arrogance of crime (Columbo). And the individual stories may be about self-sacrifice, or fear, or paying your dues.
And in every case, the theme is also about the opposite. You can't write about fear without writing about courage. You can't write about trust without writing about mistrust. (Some people place their trust in Miss Marple, but so many dismiss her as unable to deal with anything serious.)
That's why you shouldn't mistake a theme for a moral. It doesn't work if you limit it to the final lesson. A theme works best when it's open. When it's about reflections and shadows. If your main character is afraid and needs to learn to be brave, it's perfectly okay if there's a subplot where someone is too brave and has to learn to be more cautious.
Just having those two things in a story -- like a mirror image -- creates resonance. It's like harmony -- two notes that are different and yet they work together. It doesn't even have to be obvious or overt. You don't have to force it. Just the fact that you have several people dealing with fear and courage in different ways creates these little notes.
Probably the very best example of using other characters and little subplots for theme is Casablanca. The theme of Casablanca is survival. It was made at a time when the world had gone mad, and nobody was really sure any we would survive. And we see dozens of characters responding in different ways -- some being selfish, some foolish, some brave.
Casablanca makes a good example of how a story can have both a moral and theme -- and they are not the same: Througout the story, people perish or thrive at random. People die for doing the right thing and for doing the wrong thing too. The lesson here isn't about how to survive. The lesson is that, in a world gone mad, nobody cares about your problems, and maybe you shouldn't either. You have the option of giving up on survival and just doing the right thing.
It's interesting that the writers and actors and director did not know how this movie was going to end until they wrote the ending. They had planned four different endings. But as soon as they filmed the first one, they knew it was right. And it was right because it gave meaning to the whole story that went before.
That's what theme does -- it ties everything together and gives meaning.
But that's why you can't really impose it, and often have to discvoer it. (So tomorrow I'm going talk about how that works in the Story Game.)
In the meantime, I'll give you a tip to help you find the theme -- and lesson both -- of a story:
How Does It End?
When I was writing screenplays, I did a "Pitch Festival." That's where you go to an event where there are a whole bunch of execs and agents and such in a room, and you sign up to make 5-10 minute pitch meetings. The bell rings, you run to your assigned spot, and start pitching, they ask some questions, you answer, then the bell rings again and you run off to the next one.
Some of these execs were very good at pulling they needed out of flustered authors. One guy finished up each session with one simple question -- he said it was how he know the whole flavor of your story: what is the very last thing that happens, the very last image before the credits roll?
The story I was pitching that day was The Scenic Route -- a story about a pair of directionally challenged robbers who get lost on their getaway. And when I say lost, I mean really really lost. By the end of the first act, they aren't sure what state they are in. By the end of the story, they've lost everything - even their cool sunglasses, but they've gained some friends -- something they've never had -- and a kind of family, and the first rudimentary sense of responsiblity.
But they have a long way to go, and the only thing they know how to do is steal, so the end I gave the exec was that they steal a car to take care of their friends, and as they make their getaway, they turn the wrong way. Ha ha. Funny ending.
The exec liked it, but didn't ask for the script.
But his question bothered me. I realized that the ending was wrong. The whole schtick about making wrong turns isn't a joke. It's a theme. The story is, overtly, about characters who struggle to find their way morally as well as directionally. These guys have no point of reference for either thing, except for each other. They have no compass. And that's the theme. It's not about being lost and making wrong turns. It's about struggling to find your way with out a compass. Because they DO struggle.
Having Luther (who isn't usually the driver, but now he wants to drive because he wants to find his own way) make a wrong turn is not thematic. It's just random. Furthermore, because they'd gained some members to the gang who aren't directoinally challenged, they do now have a kind of compass.
So I changed the ending.
Luther does indeed turn right when he's told to turn left, but then we hear the voice of one of his new companions saying "Your other left!" And we see the car stop and turn around.
Now, when I did that, it wasn't because I had thought of my theme in words. It was more something I felt. But feeling it did help me make a right choice.
Themes in The Story Game
Themes are incredibly personal. I often find other people's theme choices to be incredibly dissatisfying.
Therefore, I recommend that you start your own theme list the way you should collect your own title words. It can, however help to start with someone else's lists -- to give you an idea of the kind of thing you might use.
When I started this game, I used the Brainstormer randomizer to pick a theme. Half of their choices don't make sense to me, so I usually keep spinning the wheel until I get something that does.
Here are a few of the words I use myself: Courage, Greed, Mentor/Pupil relationships, Fear, Self-Sacrifice, Indulgence, Growth, Darkness, Fire, Reflection, Twins, Celebration, Exhaustion, Desperation, Survival, Loss, Competition, Secrecy, Taste, Love of Life, Caretaking, Duty, Honor, Dullness, Shyness, Outsiders/Insiders, Barriers, Doorways, Inebriation, Amnesia, Self-Promotion, Self-Sacrifice, Pride, Lust, Steadfastness, Rot, Authority...
Taking the items that speak to you, maybe a few that challenge you, but leave the rest. Fill it in with your own.
I tend to focus on things that affect the choices a character makes. Personal qualities, relationships. However, I sometimes throw in something I see that sparks my imagination. I also like to put in words that have multiple meanings. ("Darkness" in a suspense can mean dark moods, evil motivations, ignorance, and the actual darkness of night or a dungeon.)
In the end, it can be anything that evokes a response in you. Tweak your list as you go.
Tomorrow we finally Play The Game! We'll put all the elements together and brainstorm a story concept out of it.
See you in the funny papers.