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Monday, March 9, 2020

Understanding the Thematic Pendulum

Several months ago, I was introduced (somewhat indirectly) to the idea that the theme in a story is like a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to the other. I wondered about that. And I questioned if it was true.

As a structure, I often picture the thematic thread the same as any plot thread, mainly:

The theme topic is introduced early in the story. Typically, the protagonist starts with a false thematic statement (or a "misbelief" or "The Lie the Character Believes"--all different terms floating around in the writing world for the same concept). And through the course of the story, as they encounter conflicts and characters that explore the theme topic, that false belief is brought into question. Near plot point 2, or The Ordeal (depending on what story structure terminology you use), typically the true thematic statement is revealed and then proven true in the story's ending. In some cases, the true thematic statement may come during the ending instead.

This is usually all manifested through the protagonist's character arc.

But the character arc doesn't seem like a pendulum to me.

I mean, it seems more like an arc, or at least a triangle, like above.

Well, also several months ago, I was using a whiteboard to diagram story structure, but I ran out of room to properly draw the thematic thread line, so, I just decided to draw it like this:

With the zig-zags symbolizing the in-between state where things are being explored and questioned.

A little after running into the pendulum concept, I looked at my whiteboard and kind of laughed because I did seem to unintentional diagram a pendulum effect--a back and forth and back and forth swing.

Okay, hang with me, so prior to all this, I did a couple of posts not directly writing related. One was about exactly why failure is key to becoming exceptional and the other was about how we develop discernment and wisdom as human beings. In order to develop wisdom, we have to have a level of discernment. Discernment can only take place when we encounter opposites. Why? Because wisdom comes from learning how to reconcile these opposites. Now, the opposites may not be direct opposites, but rather, something that varies in degrees from something else (for example, the colors pewter gray vs. steel gray--they are both gray, but we can see the difference).

As more time has gone on, I've thought more and more about how storytelling at its finest is really about imparting wisdom (generally speaking, because there are always exceptions). In some stories, that may be wisdom we already know, but we need to re-hear or have validated to us: Never give up! Love conquers everything! You matter! Other times, it may be new concepts we've never put together before, like how language affects our thinking and cognitive abilities (Arrival) or (for some of us) how when you feed and entertain a nation, they lose their political power (The Hunger Games). Sometimes, the wisdom reconciles things we personally, or our society as a whole, has been struggling to reconcile, such as balancing loyalty to another when it's at odds with our own personal morals.

But in order to arrive at wisdom, you must have oppositions of some sort in play. Otherwise it's not wisdom. It's just knowledge or common sense. The wisdom imparted to the audience is the thematic statement.

Back to the pendulum idea.

As I was looking around, I didn't really see this pendulum idea at work--until I realized I needed to widen my scope from the character arc.

See, when I think of diagramming theme, I think of diagramming character arc. Absolutely the character arc almost always illustrates the theme. But remember what we have been talking about? . . . through the course of the story, as they encounter conflicts and characters that explore the theme topic, that false belief is brought into question.

That's when I realized, it's not a pendulum necessarily within the character (though it can be); it's a pendulum throughout the story as a whole. After that, it all started to fit together.

See, the theme topic will be explored by conflict and by other characters.

Often, thematically speaking, there will be a character at odds with what the protagonist believes, comes to believe, or represents

Jean Valjean vs. Javert
Hamilton vs. Burr
Harry vs. Voldemort
Elsa vs. Anna
The Tortoise vs. The Hare
Shrek vs. Donkey
Dr. Jekyll vs. Mr. Hyde

A lot of times, this may be the antagonist. If not the antagonist, it may be someone who is buddied up with the protagonist.

Interestingly, these characters may sometimes start on the same false thematic statement (Harry vs. Voldemort, Jean Valjean vs. Javert), but by say, plot point one, they start deviating. And by the end, they will be completely different. (Harry and Voldemort both start believing hatred and fear is the most powerful force, but by the end, Harry knows love is the most powerful force; Valjean and Javert both believe justice is the most powerful force, but by the end, Valjean learns and proves mercy is more powerful than justice (a reality Javert literally can't live with).)

HOWEVER, notice that pairings that start this way still have the opposite quality manifested in the story. Harry starts completely unloved, but he is tied to Dudley, who is so loved and doted upon that he is spoiled. Justice has made Jean Valjean cold, but the Bishop shows him mercy.

Because there are more characters in the cast and most of the key players should be interacting with the theme topic in some way, you may have more going on than direct opposites. You may have the theme topic represented by three or even four extremes (In the Hunger Games, for example, it's often Katniss vs. Peeta vs. Gale). Or maybe it's illustrated less in character and more in conflict (although, those seem to go hand-in-hand most of the time).

But the point is that early on, the audience is swinging between extremes.

It's the audience that experiences the pendulum, not necessarily the characters.

Now, what naturally happens in real life (and hopefully in the story), is that before we've gained wisdom on the topic, we do swing between extremes. This is the equivalent of a little kid who is trying to "test the boundaries"--it's not because they are a bad kid! It's because they are trying to figure out where the boundaries are. The same thing happens with us.

So near the beginning of the story, the theme topic may seem to be illustrated in extremes, to the audience. (Don't forget, this is the audience's experience!)

But as the characters have different experiences with the theme topic, they explore it, and we show to the audience that the theme topic is actually multi-faceted and rather complicated when it comes into contact with the "real" world.

Again, as I talked about in those two other posts, imagine this process as learning to discern white from black and then gray.

The starting of the story may seem more back and white, because of these extremes.

But as the characters struggle with the theme topic through the middle, we are struggling to come to a better understanding of it ourselves.

Naturally, we start seeing gray.

And more of it.

And still . . .

Our ability to discern is becoming more fine-tuned. It's less about wide-ranging extremes, but more about subtle differences.

To show this a different way, this happens:

Until eventually we reach that critical moment where the true thematic statement is discovered (often as an epiphany by the protagonist).

This is the moment of wisdom.

Which we then must take and validate through the climax of the story.

In some stories, the true thematic statement may not be accurate of either of the original character pairings. For example, Hamilton tries to control his legacy by never throwing away an opportunity, while Burr tries to control his by saying no to any opportunity that doesn't seem safe. But the true thematic statement is that, actually, in the end, none of us have full control over how we are remembered. Because neither character fully grasps and utilizes this information after plot point 2/The Ordeal, it creates a tragedy in the climax.

Once we validate the true thematic statement, we impart wisdom to the audience, enabling them to better navigate this thing called the human experience.

I still feel the thematic thread follows the typical basic story structure. But maybe now, I'd draw it like this.

The climax being the thematic climax, which, in most stories, will happen around plot point 2 or The Ordeal. But again, it can happen during the ending.

So what can we take away from this?

- Look for character pairings (or groupings) where the theme topic is rendered in extreme, opposing perspectives.

- Illustrate extreme oppositions early on.

- Through the middle, question and test extreme perspectives to help with discernment and refinement. Any characters who embody an extreme perspective will be asked/invited/confronted with things that buck against that worldview, that misbelief. Characters with less extreme perspectives will share and show that perspective to the main players.

- Prove the thematic statement true by the end of the climax, and validate it thereafter.

Keep in mind that everything in this post is a guideline and tool meant to help you and your story. There are successful stories that don't follow this, of course. But, knowing this may prove helpful to you.

Related Posts:
How to Write Your Story's Theme
How Theme and False Theme Affect Your Protagonist (Amanda Rawson Hill) 
How to Add Dimension to Your Story's Theme  
Exactly Why Failure is Key to Exceptional Success 
How to Develop Discernment and Wisdom


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