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Learn the "bones" of story

Monday, January 25, 2021

How Theme is Your Story's Shadow

Something that has been coming into my conversations lately, is the idea that theme is like your story's shadow. Or perhaps, more accurately, its shadow puppet. 

Setting, characters, and plot are more concrete. They are (more or less) physical. But theme comes out of them when an outside intelligence (writer or reader) shines light on them. This casts a shadow to form a shape, or a puppet.

Learning about and writing theme can be difficult, in part, because you can't hold and mold a shadow itself. 

You have to shift what casts the shadow. 

To create the right shadow puppet, you have to rearrange the hands--the story elements--the right way. 

And if you cast an incoherent blob on the wall and claim it makes a cat, it's not going to be effective.

This is the equivalent of a writer trying to slap on a thematic argument through "telling," when the story itself doesn't "show" or back up the argument. This usually manifests in a character being philosophical or preachy somewhere in the story--trying to force a meaningful discussion on a topic that is irrelevant enough to be un-meaningful.

On the other hand, a professional-level writer may understand how to arrange the characters and plot in a beautiful, coherent way, so that it casts an elaborate shadow--even if the writer never looks beyond the story. 

This is why you can sometimes find powerful, thematic literature, written by someone who doesn't know how theme works. Just this last week, I was listening to a hugely successful writer talk for hours about his approach to writing, without even addressing theme. Yet I've seen his work used by others when discussing theme. 

He surely knows all about rearranging the hands appropriately, so when anyone intelligent comes to look, they shine the light on them to find the thematic shadow. It doesn't matter so much that he doesn't understand theme. He understands the underlying principles that make up the theme. 

For the rest of us, we need some help. And understanding theme before we get to a professional level, will help us reach that level faster. Furthermore, I have sometimes wondered how much better a successful writer would be, if they did properly understand theme. I mean, imagine if their stories were even more impactful! 

In order to cast a great thematic shadow, we need to understand its physical counterparts.

Here are the critical pieces:

1. Your protagonist's dominating qualities, worldview, and/or lifestyle

Your protagonist has dominating qualities. She might be a survivalist like Katniss. Innocent like Frodo. Miserly like Scrooge. Overly protective and codependent like Marlin in Finding Nemo. Or something else. One, if not multiple, of these qualities tap into the theme. 

2. Your protagonist's arc

How your protagonist changes or remains the same because of the plot, regarding those qualities, conveys a value of those qualities. Scrooge gives up his miserly ways to live a better life. This implies that being miserly can hold one back from a better life. 

What a character wants versus what a character needs can also play into this.

3. Antagonistic force

Because the antagonist is opposing the protagonist, the antagonist is also challenging the protagonist's dominating qualities. The antagonist either leads to the protagonist changing those qualities or at least tests the protagonist's commitment to those qualities. At some point, in some way, the antagonist is usually thematically opposite of the protagonist. 

4. How that antagonistic force is resolved

At the climax, the protagonist and antagonistic force go head to head. It's what makes the climax, the climax. 

Who wins and how, conveys a teaching about those qualities and worldviews. Katniss must defeat the antagonistic force by proving she will do more than simply save herself and survive (which is what they expect). She must be willing to risk dying to save Peeta and beat the Games.

To defeat death, Scrooge must be willing to let go of his miserly ways and realize real wealth comes from relationships and helping others. 

In the denouement, those who gain something greater (and this may only be internal), are those who have the "correct" view, while those who are punished have the "wrong" view. The "correct" view is the theme. 

Here are the supporting pieces:

1. Influence Character

I actually debate where to put this one, because I think it's more important than the other supporting pieces, but not as important as the critical pieces. 

The Influence Character is important because they influence or impact the protagonist. The Influence Character and protagonist are connected in some way, but they usually have different methods or views when it comes to dealing with life. These differences tap into the theme. 

Most of the time, the Influence Character has a worldview that the protagonist comes to understand and adopt--a worldview that is "correct." This embodies the theme. However, in some stories, this will be reversed. (And there can be variations.)

2. Supporting Cast

Ideally, the supporting characters will also be feeding into the theme, by providing different perspectives related to the protagonist's and/or antagonists dominating qualities and worldviews. For example, in Arrival--which centers on the theme topic of communication--the protagonist must interact with characters who don't understand, respect, or fully value language. In Moana, each of the side characters has a different view on identity--Tamatoa says identity comes from your appearance, while Moana's father argues identity comes from your place on the island. 

3. Secondary Plots

Often secondary plots will mirror or foil the main conflict, which means they mirror or foil the thematic argument. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the thematic argument is that what one chooses is more important than what one is--as demonstrated by the fact that Harry, who lacks a pure bloodline and "should" have been in Slytherin, is able to defeat the Heir of Slytherin with the Gryffindor sword. This proves that Harry's choices (to be in Gryffindor) are more important than what he is--since he defeats the antagonistic force who is arguing that one's value is based on what one is (a pureblood).

In addition to the primary plot, the thematic argument is explored in the other conflicts: Hermione being bullied for being a Mudblood, despite being the best at magic; Nearly-Headless Nick attempting repeatedly to join the Headless Hunt, who argues he doesn't qualify; Hagrid being a scapegoat for being half-giant; Dobby being forced to serve the Malfoys because he's a house-elf; Filch trying to learn magic as a squib. 

The critical pieces are the "bones" of the shadow puppet. The supporting points provide the "flesh" (they add breadth, density, or depth to the shadow).

Because the critical pieces are the bones, they inherently make the shadow puppet when the light shines on them. You can't cast a shadow that doesn't match the bones. This is why every story you write says something about life, even if you don't want it to. 

And this is why some writers accidentally say something in their themes, that they didn't mean to. For example, if Katniss killed Peeta to win the Games--and was rewarded for that--then the argument may be that survival at all costs, including killing a friend, is the correct way to live. A completely different thematic statement. 

This is why trying to slap on an irrelevant theme through some character monologuing, doesn't ring true. Because the bones said the theme was something different. The bones showed the theme was something different. 

You can never cast a shadow that doesn't match the bones. 

The supporting pieces aren't as vital, so they give you more wiggle room. Still, a shadow is usually easier to see when it has some depth. 

The supporting pieces may simply, ultimately reinforce the main argument, which may make the theme more straightforward. For example, Hermione being bullied for being a Muggleborn, when she's actually the best in her class, simply reinforces the idea that what we choose (to study hard) is more important than what we are (Muggleborn). Notice, however, that this doesn't necessarily make the journey "easy." After all, feelings were hurt, and tears were shed. 

On the other hand, the supporting pieces may contrast the main argument, which may make the theme more complex. In Zootopia, Judy dreams of being a bunny cop to prove to everyone that you can be anything you want. However, when we meet Nick, he shares the idea that a baby fox wants to grow up to be an elephant. This is an impossibility. No matter what, a fox can't be an elephant. 

This means that the idea that we "can be anything," is actually more nuanced and complex. It needs some refining. In the right context, we "can be anything." There are certain limitations. . . . Although, maybe these days, one might argue that a fox could identify as an elephant--but that's a different argument outside that story's. 

(Also, just a note on a technicality, the idea that "we can be anything" is actually a secondary theme of the story, not the primary theme (which is about bias), but the principle holds true regardless. Someday I'll talk about secondary themes.)

Because the supporting pieces can reinforce or contrast the critical pieces, you can write all kinds of things in those spots. However, it can be helpful and beneficial to know what you are doing so you can create the best shadow puppet shape you want. 

It also helps you evaluate how one idea may fit better in your story than another and keeps you from arguing something you didn't intend. Just as an example, if I did want to argue that indeed "we can be anything," then I may not want to include Nick's elephant idea, and if I did, I'd want to refute it by showing a fox could be an elephant when he grew up. 

What's not a good idea is to put in a bunch of stuff that is irrelevant to the theme. Suppose J. K. Rowling decided to include the secondary plot of Ron's relationship with Lavender Brown in Chamber of Secrets instead of Half-blood Prince. It waters down and takes away from the theme, because it has little to do with what someone chooses or what someone is. It needs to stay in Half-blood Prince, which explores one's inability/ability to love, along with counterfeit love.

However, with that said, one may argue you can take that plotline and rework it to highlight Ron's choices and maybe argue that Lavendar only likes him because of what he is--a keeper on the quidditch team. That would make that plotline more supportive of the theme. And it may be that by the time the story is publish-ready, it has naturally come to that point. 

Needless to say, you can flesh out the bones all kinds of ways. And I'm sure I will talk some more about that in the future. 

For now, just remember that in order to convey theme, you need to shift the "physical" pieces, so that when someone shines light on them, they can see the right shadow. The critical pieces definitively make up the theme, and the supporting pieces reinforce or add complexity to it. While it is possible to write a great story without understanding theme, it's probably better to use it to your advantage. 


QueryLetter.com Writing Contest Winner--Several months ago I mentioned a blurb contest that QueryLetter.com was holding. They have now selected the winner: Julia Kiger. You can read her blurb and the other top nine on Query Letter.

Free Summit--If you missed out on listening to me talk about theme yesterday (and want to hear me 😉), the video of my interview is still up today--but today only. Sign up for the writing summit to get free access to it (and to the rest of this week's sessions).


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