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Monday, December 21, 2020

Writing Your Anti-thematic Statement

 

Most of us have heard of the thematic statement--the argument or point the story is making about life. But every thematic statement has an opposing worldview. The anti-thematic statement. When we understand what the anti-thematic statement is and how it functions, we can craft better themes. Which means we can craft better plots. And craft better characters. Because all three interweave as the holy trinity of writing 😉.

 

What is the Anti-thematic Statement?


The thematic statement is the truth the story is arguing. 

Disney's Frozen: We must be open to be loved authentically (that might mean we get hurt, but some love is worth the hurt).

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling: Love is the most powerful force in the world.

M. Night Shyamalan's Glass: We must believe we are extraordinary, so we can do the extraordinary. 

(Yes, I'm using Glass. Yes, I know a lot of people don't like it because it broke plot rules, but that doesn't mean its thematic components don't work.)

But for every argument, there is an opposing argument. For every truth, there is a lie. This is the anti-thematic statement, which is a type of false thematic statement. (I like to use "anti-thematic statement" in this case, because we are talking about the direct opposite of the thematic statement, specifically.)

Here are the anti-thematic statements of the same stories.

Disney's Frozen: We must be closed off and isolated from others to be authentic and safe, otherwise there is hurt, including hurting loved ones.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling: Hatred is the most powerful force in the world (alternatively, love is the weakest). 

M. Night Shyamalan's Glass: You must believe you are ordinary, because you must only do the ordinary.

Every story makes a statement about life. The anti-thematic statement is the opposite of that. 

 

Why the Anti-thematic Statement Matters


The thematic statement is proven true at the end of the story, and it can only really be proven true, if it's challenged and tested through the middle. Just as the protagonist and antagonist are in conflict, so are the thematic and anti-thematic statements. They're two different worldviews that are opponents. They can't both succeed.

And just as the protagonist is made stronger by a powerful antagonist, the true thematic statement is made stronger by a powerful anti-thematic statement. 

We wouldn't want a story where the protagonist is already amazing at everything and never faces significant resistance. It'd be boring (and annoying).

Likewise, we wouldn't enjoy a story where the thematic statement is treated as a given and faced with no real challenges. It'd be preachy (and annoying). 

An argument isn't really an argument if no one is disagreeing. 

Perhaps the most common mistake when it comes to handling theme, is when the author takes the thematic statement and swings it around everywhere from beginning, to middle, to end, without any legitimate resistance. It makes the theme feel flat, and it makes the story feel a little more like propaganda. 

Just as the protagonist's triumph (or final failure) must come after a struggle or a cost, so must the thematic statement. 

There are multiple ways to round out a theme, but one great way is to flesh out the anti-thematic statement. 

 

Where it Fits

Many of us struggle just to grasp and place the true thematic statement, let alone the anti-thematic statement. Never fear, there are several places where it usually manifests. 

 

Within the Protagonist

The majority of protagonists are what I call "positive change protagonists." This means that the protagonist starts with a weakness, flaw, or misbelief--he or she starts out with an inaccurate or incomplete worldview. Through Because of the story, he or she will do a 180 flip (more or less), overcoming this flaw or misbelief, and become someone better with a clearer perspective.

The flaw or misbelief, and how it changes, is inherently linked to theme--because it's one of the ingredients that makes theme, theme. (It's sorta like how cheese makes a cheese sandwich.) At the climax, the protagonist proves the thematic statement true through revelation and/or action (more on that in the future).

If the protagonist did a positive 180 flip, this means that their weakness, flaw, or misbelief in the beginning, taps into the anti-thematic statement. Let's look:

Frozen: After the childhood accident with Anna, Elsa becomes isolated and closed off from her and all others--she doesn't believe it is safe to be authentic around them--and she wants to protect loved ones from who she is. (Anti-thematic statement.)

Harry Potter: Harry is hated by his aunt and uncle and cousin, who essentially exercise full power over him. (Anti-thematic statement.)

If you are writing a negative change protagonist--someone who becomes a worse version of themselves at the end--this is reversed. The protagonist ends on the anti-thematic statement, as he changes negatively.

If you are writing a protagonist that more or less is the same from beginning to end, you are writing a steadfast protagonist

A positive steadfast protagonist will be true to the thematic statement at the beginning and at the end. Some stay true to it the entire time. However, these days, steadfast protagonists usually waver, wander, and doubt through the middle of the story. This means if the anti-thematic statement does manifest in a positive steadfast protagonist, it will manifest in them in the middle. Let's see:

In Glass, David Dunn is a positive steadfast protagonist. He believes he is extraordinary and can do extraordinary things. But through the middle, he wavers and starts to give in to the anti-thematic statement--maybe he's actually ordinary (or mentally ill even). In the end, though, he returns to the truth.

A negative steadfast protagonist will be the reverse. He will believe the anti-thematic statement at the beginning and at the end. He might consider the true thematic statement in the middle. 

Worth noting is that in most stories, a character who has a key relationship with the protagonist (the Influence Character) will be opposite the protagonist's type. For example, in Frozen, Elsa is a positive change protagonist, while Anna is a positive steadfast character. (And honestly, for Frozen, I think you could argue they are dual protagonists.) You can learn more about that concept and Influence Characters in my article on them.


Within a Thematic Opponent

A thematic opponent is someone who is at odds with the protagonist thematically. In Glass, Dr. Ellie Staple insists David Dunn is ordinary and (more or less) only does ordinary things. She is a thematic opponent. 

With a change protagonist, this can be a little trickier, because the protagonist is changing. 

In the beginning of Frozen, Anna is Elsa's thematic opponent. Anna argues we should be open to everyone (and especially to love).

But at the end, Hans is their thematic opponent. He shows that if we are open to others, we'll get hurt. He also believes in being closed off and insincere--no one knows the real him.

So--as you can see--there may be multiple thematic opponents within a story. One of them usually embodies the anti-thematic statement.

If the antagonist is a character, the antagonist will almost always be a thematic opponent by the end, and will almost always embody or implement the anti-thematic statement. 

In Glass, Dr. Ellie Staple is the true antagonist; she's also the character who voices and acts on the anti-thematic statement. 

In Harry Potter, Voldemort embodies the anti-thematic statement. He's full of hatred and rules by fear--he doesn't even have the capacity to properly understand love. 

In Frozen, Hans, as we already stated, is closed off and inauthentic.

Remember: The anti-thematic statement may be present in more than one character. The Dursleys' hatred and abuse of Harry also tap into it. 

If the antagonist isn't a character, usually another character will voice or illustrate the anti-thematic statement. And even if the antagonist isn't a character, often the antagonist may still represent the anti-thematic statement in some way. 

. . . unless you are writing about a negative change or negative steadfast protagonist, in which case, it will likely be flipped--in the end the protagonist embodies the anti-thematic statement while the antagonist embodies the true thematic statement. (If that makes your head spin, feel free to move on.)

Just know that usually a character voices or illustrates the anti-thematic statement.


Within a Society

Most stories take place within a society. Most stories will have groups of characters who act as a collective. In a well-structured story, theme will be present within this level. This means that the anti-thematic statement may fit within a collective, or someone who represents a collective. 

In Frozen, the castle doors are open in honor of the coronation. People from different societies come to attend the event. Some of the characters present the view that this is a happy occasion as a chance to get to know Elsa, Anna, and their kingdom. Others, however, see it as an opportunity to infiltrate and take advantage of the sisters and their kingdom--this is the anti-thematic statement.

In Glass, we learn that Dr. Ellie Staple is part of a larger collective--a society that is working to stamp out the belief that there could be real superheroes (people who are "extraordinary"). Their goal is to convince the world that people are ordinary. 

In Harry Potter, you could argue that the Dursleys represent a collective of the anti-thematic statement. But within the Wizarding World, we learn that Voldemort has his own followers--people who still share his beliefs. 

Check the societal conflicts within your own story. Is the anti-thematic statement there? If not, could it be added?


How it Functions 

 

Now that we know where it fits, it's time to discuss how it functions through the story. 

 

In the Beginning

In the beginning, usually the thematic statement and anti-thematic statement are both introduced--this may be "told" or it may be "shown." Remember, the thematic statement and anti-thematic statement are in conflict in the story, similar to how the protagonist and antagonist are. 

Usually in the setup, about halfway through the beginning, the protagonist will encounter a worldview that is directly opposite of his. Whether your protagonist starts on the true thematic statement or the anti-thematic statement, this will still happen. Let's look:

In the beginning of Frozen, Elsa believes the anti-thematic statement is true--she needs to be closed off. Anna, her thematic opponent, expresses how excited she is to have the castle doors open.

In the beginning of Harry Potter, Harry is unloved and powerless, but he's surrounded by the Dursleys, who love Dudley so much, it's ridiculous. Harry virtually gets no presents on his birthday, while Dudley gets over thirty. Harry is also introduced to the idea of power, when he makes the glass disappear at the zoo. 

In Glass, David Dunn's son, Joseph, expresses concern that David needs to slow down, play it safe, and take some time off from being a vigilante. While not antagonistic by any means, Joseph voices the idea that David isn't as extraordinary as he's acting. 

Remember that the two thematic statements aren't necessarily set characters. They're lifestyle arguments. We just need them introduced and meeting.

 

In the Middle (Part 1)

By the end of the beginning, the protagonist has encountered a new problem or a new opportunity (which is what the story will mainly be about). He or she transitions to either a new place or a new state of being (this is sometimes called the "Special World"). 

The protagonist will have his or her worldview challenged, but will hold onto, voice, or act on his or her initial worldview. Let's check:

In Frozen, Elsa's powers go out of control at the coronation celebration. Everyone sees what she is. She holds tighter to the anti-thematic statement by running away and building a kingdom of ice-olation, where she can be alone and be herself (and hurt no one).

In Harry Potter, Harry learns he's actually a wizard and that his parents were particularly good at magic. He can hardly believe it. Hagrid takes him to the Wizarding World where everyone knows him, talks about him, and where even strangers come up to shake his hand--all adoring him (because he apparently was powerful enough to destroy Voldemort). Harry voices he doesn't understand why he's special and expresses fears that he won't know anything at school--he'll be the worst in his class. (Snape then plays into the anti-thematic statement.)

In Glass, David Dunn encounters someone who is, shockingly, as strong as he is--he's not the only one with super strength. Ellie takes him and The Horde to a mental institution, where she tells them they aren't extraordinary at all--they're mentally ill. Everything they've ever done can be explained away with science. David and The Horde don't really believe her. 

Usually halfway through the story, at the midpoint, the protagonist will get a glimpse--a half-understanding--of the validity of the opposing worldview.

 

In the Middle (Part 2)

Just as the protagonist and antagonist fight more aggressively after the midpoint, so do the two thematic statements.

In Frozen, Anna pleads with Elsa to come home, but Elsa accidentally freezes her. On top of that, Elsa's already frozen the whole kingdom, because of what she is. The anti-thematic statement seems correct--being openly authentic causes pain. Anna, however, holds true to the thematic statement; she's not ready to quit yet. Soon after, Elsa is attacked by men, because of her magic, and taken prisoner. Anna needs an act of true love to heal her.

In Harry Potter, we learn that dark forces are trying to take the Sorcerer's Stone--the trio suspect it's Snape, who seems to hate Harry in particular. They later learn Voldemort could use the Stone to come back to power--which would unleash the anti-thematic statement. Although he's not invincible, Harry, armed with his new best friends and magic skills, isn't willing to standby and let dark wizards succeed.

In Glass, David Dunn struggles with doubt about his identity. Dr. Ellie Staple has argued again and again that he's ordinary and can back it up with evidence. She even moves forward with a prefrontal lobotomy on Elijah, which is meant to "cure" him. Elijah, however, has outsmarted her himself, and vehemently argues that both David and The Horde are extraordinary like him.

As the stakes get higher, each thematic statement seems to hold validity. Anna needs to be healed by love, but she was hurt by someone she loves. Snape seems to be a bully to Harry, and obviously the prospect of Voldemort is even worse, but having Ron and Hermione by his side empowers Harry. Both Ellie and Elijah present valid arguments against and for extraordinariness. 

Remember, the thematic statements aren't always perfectly embodied in a character--they are arguments in conflict, so they may "attack" from different places. 

 

In the End

After one last turn (often in which it seems the anti-thematic statement is the winner), the story heads to the climax where thematic statement and anti-thematic statement duke it out to get to the truth

Sometimes in the last quarter, the anti-thematic statement will turn into an uglier version of itself--it may reveal itself to be more deceptive, more grotesque, or more perverted than we could have anticipated. 

Likewise, the true thematic statement may take on a new, profound form--something richer than we could have guessed.

In any case, it shines all the brighter and puts the beast to rest. Let's see this in action.

In Frozen, an injured Anna is taken to Prince Hans, who reveals he doesn't love her--he's been pretending all along. He's not just closed off from people like Elsa was, he's intentionally insincere. He's not just distant from loved ones--he pretends to love others when he doesn't (something uglier). It seems Elsa's worldview was right--being open leads to pain. 

Elsa manages to escape her prison, but Hans pursues her, intent to kill her. Anna struggles through the blizzard, looking for Kristoff to save her. In a defining moment, she chooses to save Elsa instead--putting Elsa's needs ahead of hers, and showing that she's so open, she's willing to intentionally hurt herself to love another (something richer). This leads Elsa to realize how to melt the snow--by allowing love to flow (being open). 

In Harry Potter, Harry encounters Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest. Scar aching, Harry is so scared, he can't even move--but luckily a centaur comes and saves him. It seems that Voldemort, and fear itself, are too powerful. 

After learning that Voldemort wants the Stone to return to full strength, Harry and his friends go through the trapdoor, where he eventually faces Quirrell and Voldemort. But somehow, magically, Harry is able to burn Quirrell and survive. Harry learns his mother's loving sacrifice armed him with some of the most powerful magic in the world--which enabled his victory. 

In Glass, Ellie has argued her case enough that David now believes he's ordinary. Elijah tells David his criminal plan, egging David on to believe they are both extraordinary. In order to save lives, David must stop Elijah and The Horde, which means doing the extraordinary. David escapes his room and goes head to head with The Horde, but Ellie calls in reinforcement. 

As David touches Ellie, it is revealed that Ellie doesn't actually believe he's ordinary at all--she's part of a secret organization that specializes in convincing superheroes they are ordinary, and killing any of them who refuse to believe it. It's an uglier version of the anti-thematic statement: You must believe you are ordinary, because you must only do the ordinary.

But despite Ellie's great success in stamping out the superheroes, their footage is leaked to people all over the world--allowing everyone to know that some among them are extraordinary (something richer).

In the negative protagonist types, the protagonist will fail because he or she never embraces the true thematic statement. 

Usually during the climax, the protagonist will have a thematic epiphany and take a thematic action (though not always in that order). If you are writing a positive change protagonist (like most people), the epiphany is the protagonist fully realizing and shifting to the true thematic statement. The action is a manifestation of the true thematic statement. I want to explain this more, but I think I'll leave it for its own future post. 


How to Develop it

If you know your story's thematic statement, you can figure out its opposing statement. If you don't yet know your story's thematic statement, see if you can at least figure out the theme topic. The theme topic will have an opposite.

Frozen: Open vs. Closed off

Harry Potter: Love vs. Hate(or Fear)

Glass: Extraordinary vs. Ordinary

This will at least give you an opposing value you can explore, until you get the statements worked out. 

Some stories will include the anti-thematic statement, but it's argued weakly. This is the equivalent of having a wimpy antagonist. As a writer, you need to fairly argue and show the anti-thematic statement. In the example stories I used, at several points in the story, the anti-thematic statement seemed to be the truth. It seemed valid. 

Some say a plot is only as good as its villain--because the villain is what pushes the hero to become better. Likewise, one might say that a theme is only as good as its anti-thematic statement--because it's what pushes the thematic statement to argue harder. 

This means you need to honestly explore the opposing worldview, as if you are in favor of it. Why would someone believe the opposite? What proof is there of it being correct? What is the strongest case you can make on its behalf? What benefits does it offer? How does it help people? What are its half-truths? These are some questions you may want to ask. You'll want to put the answers into the characters and plot. 

 

How Theme Rounds Out


As I've talked about before, complexity comes from smashing together opposites and exploring the gray areas there. By crafting a strong anti-thematic statement, you immediately make your theme more complex. 

But there are various shades of gray. 

Just as theme topics have opposites, theme topics have contraries. Contraries are topics that fit between the opposites

Between being open or closed off, you have people who are reserved or set apart.

Between love and hate, you have indifference or tolerance.

Between extraordinary and ordinary, you have special or unusual.

These topics can be added to characters and plot to further round theme out. 


Variations

All of the story examples I chose today have, what you might call, optimistic thematic statements. They're uplifting. But you can just as well have a . . . pessimistic thematic statement that is true. The kind of story that makes you sadder but wiser. Like maybe the argument that it's impossible to ever fully know someone. Or that societal corruption is inevitable. Or that human beings will never be satisfied. All those can be true too. 

In some stories, the winner of the thematic argument is ambiguous, because the ending is ambiguous. This means that the ending is left to the reader's interpretation, and they get to decide which side of the argument is correct. An example of this is A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins, where the outcome of the climax is unclear, so one could argue between two different interpretations.

Arcs and thematic opponents may sometimes have variations. For example, in Hamilton, Hamilton, Burr, and Washington are all thematic opponents. Hamilton and Burr swap worldviews, but because both views are incorrect, we get a tragic ending. Washington's was right all along. (Though Hamilton does come to recognize that as he dies.)

The most important thing, is to have two opposing arguments being made convincingly.

Announcement: I am participating in a free, online writing summit next month 😁, where I will be interviewed (coincidentally) about crafting theme. Writing Your First (or Next) Book! is an online event happening Jan. 18th - 29th, where you can learn from 20+ writers and influencers. It's totally free, but you need to sign up on their page. Hope you check it out!



2 comments:

  1. I LOVE this post. I'm still struggling to grasp theme and work with it for my WIP and this is helping a lot. Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Amanda! Great! Theme is so tricky. I think in part because it's difficult for many people to teach it and in part because it's not something we can put our "hands" on directly. It's almost like a shadow cast by the characters and plot. We have to shift characters and plot to manipulate the shadow.

      I know I still have more to learn about theme, but I'm so glad this helped you!

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