Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Thematic Image Systems

I seem to be stuck on the first half of the second act. I keep thinking of elements I want to discuss in depth before I move on to the second half story elements (like PLAN, CENTRAL QUESTION...)

Well, but it's important. It's still a hazy theory, but just as the Act I has a specific purpose of SET UP, I am really thinking that Act II:1 has the specific character of defining what KIND of story you're telling.

And that means that it's a lot about THEME.

I’d just like to say up front that I’m not here to define theme, today...

Oh, is that cheating?

Well, okay, if you insist. Theme is what the story is about. On a deeper level than the plot details. The big meaning. Usually a moral meaning.

Hmm. See why I don’t want to define it?

Well, how about defining by example?

I’ve heard, often, “Huck Finn is about the inhumanity of racism.”

Uh... I don't know about you, but for me, that's too soft and vague.

Also have heard a lot that the theme of Romeo and Juliet is “Great love defies even death.” Except that – in the end, they’re dead, right? So how exactly is the love defying death? Risking death and losing, maybe. Inspiring people after death, maybe.

Okay, how about this? “A man is never truly alone who has friends” is a great statement of the theme of It’s A Wonderful Life. (And stated overtly in the end of that movie.)

The trouble is, I personally think it’s closer to the soul of that movie to say that it’s the little, ordinary actions we do every day that add up to true heroism.

So defining theme has always seemed like a slippery process to me. Different people can pull vastly different interpretations of the theme of a story from the same story. And even if you can cleverly distill the meaning of a story into one sentence… admit it, you’re not REALLY covering everything that the story is about, are you?

I think it’s more useful to think of theme as layers of meaning. To think of theme not as a sentence, but as a whole image system.

And that’s where it gets really fun to start working with theme – when it’s not just some pedantic sentence, but a whole world of interrelated meanings, that resonate on levels that you’re not even aware of, sometimes, but that stay with you and bring you back to certain stories over and over and over again.

(Think of some of the dreams you have - maybe – where there will be double and triple puns, visual and verbal).

There are all kinds of ways to work theme into a story. The most obvious is the PLOT. Every plot is also a statement of theme.

It’s A Wonderful Life is a great, great example of plot reflecting theme. George Bailey’s desire in the beginning of the film is to be a hero, to do big, important things. Throughout the story, that desire seems to be thwarted at every turn by the ordinariness of his life. And yet, every single encounter George Bailey has is an example of a small, ordinary goodness, a right choice that George makes, that in the end, when we and he see the town as it would have been if he had never existed, lets us understand that it IS those little things that make for true heroism.

Presumed Innocent is an interesting book for plot reflecting theme. I love how that book (and the very good film made of it) depicts the horrifying randomness of the legal system – that justice can turn on the assignment of a judge, on the outcome of a political race, on the loyalties of a witness – or on the very, very clever defendant himself. To me it’s a brilliant exploration of what justice really is, or isn’t, or can never be.

And here's a brilliant example of a plot twist conveying theme: with Lecter’s escape, The Silence of the Lambs drives home the point that we can win a battle with evil, but never the entire war.

DIALOGUE is another way to reflect theme.

I watched The Matrix this week (am FINALLY doing a breakdown on it which I will start posting in the next few days) and was very amused to note this blatantly thematic dialogue in Sequence 1. I’ve bolded all the thematic references:


From The Matrix, written by Larry & Andy Wachowski

In Neo's apartment. He is asleep at his computer, with headphones on. On his computer screen, we see he is running a search on a man named Morpheus. Suddenly on his computer screen appear the words 'Wake up, Neo.' He sits up, and stares at his computer screen.

Neo : What?

On the computer, now appears 'The Matrix has you...'

Neo : What the hell?

On the computer, now appears 'Follow the white rabbit...'

Neo : Follow the white rabbit?

He presses the 'esc' key repeatedly, no effect. the computer comes up with one last message : 'Knock knock, Neo.' There is a loud knock at his door, and he jumps. He stares at the door, and then back at his computer screen. it's now blank.

Neo : .....Who is it?

Choi : It's Choi.

Neo : Yeah...yeah...you're two hours late.

Choi : I know, it's her fault.

Choi gestures towards DuJour.

Neo : You got the money?

Choi : Two grand.

Neo :Hold on.

Neo goes into his apartment, shuts the door, and opens a book, takes out a CD rom and goes back to the door, handing the CD to Choi.

Choi : Hallelujah. You're my saviour, man. My own personal Jesus Christ.

Neo :You get caught using that...

Choi : Yeah, I know. This never happened, you don't exist.

Neo : Right.

Choi : Something wrong, man? You look a little whiter than usual.

Neo : My computer....it..you ever have that feeling where you don't know if you're awake or still dreaming?

Choi : Mm, all the time. It's called Mescaline. It's the only way

to fly. Hey, it sounds to me like you need to unplug, man.


The Matrix is all about waking up, about what reality is, and about Neo as the potential savior of the world, which has been enslaved by a virtual reality program. And escaping. And going down the rabbit hole.

Well, that above is maybe a four minute scene, and look how blatant the themes are. It spells out the entire story. And yet it works on the surface level as well, an audience isn’t stopping to think, "Oh, there’s a theme, and there’s a theme, and yet another theme."

(If there’s anything I learned from screenwriting it’s that you can JUST SAY IT. And it generally works better if you just do.)

Another hugely effective and important way to convey theme is through VISUAL STORYTELLING. Whether you’re writing a book or a film, it’s useful to do specific passes through your story, thinking of yourself as a production designer whose specific function is to create the look of the story – AND – reflect the themes of the story in those visuals.

As I've said here before, no one does image systems better than Thomas Harris. The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are serial killer novels, but Harris elevates that overworked genre to art, in no small part due to his image systems.

In Silence, Harris borrows heavily from myth and especially fairy tales, choosing elements that create a deeper meaning for his plots, and achieves the sense of a mythic battle between good and evil. You’ve got the labyrinth/Minotaur. You’ve got a monster in a cage, a troll holding a girl in a pit (and that girl is a princess, remember – her mother is American royalty, a senator). You’ve got a twist on the “lowly peasant boy rescues the princess with the help of supernatural allies” fairy tale – Clarice is the lowly peasant who enlists the help of (one might also say apprentices to) Lecter’s wizardlike perceptions to rescue the princess. You have a twisted wizard in his cave who is trying to turn himself into a woman.

There’s a theme running through Silence of monstrousness. Before Harris got all Freudian with Lecter, to the detriment of the character, IMO, he presented this character as a living embodiment of evil – an aberration of nature, right down to the six fingers on his left hand. In fact, Harris virtually created the Serial Killer as Monster.

So to reflect this inhumanness (and also just creep us out) Harris works the animal imagery, especially insect imagery, with the moths, the spiders and mice in the storage unit, and the entomologists with their insect collections in the museum, the theme of change, larva to butterfly.

In Red Dragon Harris also works the animal imagery to powerful effect. The killer is not a mere man, he’s a beast. When he’s born he’s compared to a bat because of his cleft palate. He kills on a moon cycle, like a werewolf. He uses his grandmother’s false teeth, like a vampire. And let’s not forget – he’s trying to turn into a dragon.

LOCATION is another huge, huge factor in conveying theme. Places have specific meanings, or you the author can create a specific meaning for a place. I’ve said this before, but basements are used so often in horror stories because basements symbolize our subconscious, and all the fears and childhood damage that we hide from ourselves. Characters’ houses or apartments reflect themselves. The way you describe a city gives it a particular meaning – you can emphasize particular qualities that help you tell your story.

So how do you create a visual/thematic image system in your books?

Well, start by becoming more conscious of what thematic systems authors are working with in books and films that YOU love. As I am always saying – make yourself a list (ten is good) of books and films that have particularly effective image systems. Then reread and rewatch some of your favorites, paying close attention to how theme is conveyed, in plot, in dialogue, in visuals, in location.

What I do when I start a project, along with outlining, is to keep a list of thematic words that convey what my story is about, to me. For The Harrowing it was words like: Creation, chaos, abyss, fire, forsaken, shattered, shattering, portal, door, gateway, vessel, empty, void, rage, fury, cast off, forgotten, abandoned, alone, rejected, neglected, shards, discarded… pages and pages like that.

For The Price – bargain, price, deal, winter, ice, buried, dormant, resurrection, apple, temptation, tree, garden, labyrinth, Sleeping Beauty, castle, queen, princess, prince, king, wish, grant, deal, contract, task, hell, purgatory, descent, mirror, Rumpelstiltskin, spiral…

Some words I’ll have from the very beginning because they’re part of my own thematic DNA. But as the word lists grow, so does my understanding of the inherent themes of each particular story.

Do you see how that might start to work? Not only do you get a sense of how the story can look to convey your themes, but you also have a growing list of specific words that you can work with in your prose and dialogue so that you’re constantly hitting those themes on different levels.

At the same time that I’m doing my word lists, I start a collage book, and try to spend some time every week flipping through magazines and pulling photos that resonate with my story. I find Vogue, the Italian fashion mags, Vanity Fair, Premiere, Rolling Stone and of course, National Geographic, particularly good for me. I tape those photos together in a blank artists’ sketchbook (I use tape so I can move the photos around when I feel like it. If you’re more – well, if you’re neater than I am, you can also use plastic sleeves in a three-ring binder). You can create a slideshow of images or a collage in Photoshop (just don't ask me how to do it.) It’s another way of growing an image system. Also, it doesn’t feel like writing so you think you’re getting away with something.

Also, know your world myths and fairy tales! Why make up your own backstory and characters when you can tap into universally powerful archetypes? Remember, there’s no new story under the sun, so being conscious of your antecedents can help you bring out the archetypal power of the characters and themes you’re working with.

So of course my questions today are:

What are some books and films that to you have particularly striking thematic image systems? What are some of your favorite images to work with? What are some ways of conveying theme that I’ve left out?

- Alex


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G.R. Yeates said...

Hi Alex,

As you covered dialogue very well in its thematic usage, I thought I might counterpoint that with silence.

The specific example I'm thinking of is the 'Hush' episode from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A series I will admit that I'm no fan of but this episode really struck me when a friend showed it to me.

Silence is used to show how much we rely upon words to hide as much as express our feelings. Robbed of speech, characters such as Buffy and Xander become more tactile by necessity to show how much they care for their loved ones. Buffy hugs Riley and Xander goes for Spike when he thinks that he's feeding on Anya. Both relationships benefit as a consequence. The relationship between Willow and Tara is also established during the silence. So we see the story is thematically looking at how silence can act to bring people together.

In addition, the silence that the Gentlemen bring with them demonstrates how isolated we can become from each other.

As a couple of the lines in the episode's Elm Street-style rhyme go 'Can't even shout/Can't even cry....can't call to mom/can't say a word/you're gonna die screaming but you won't be heard.' That threat of anonymous death and being truly alone in having that experience is, I think, very disturbing.

Being robbed of the power to call for help, especially from one's mother, the primary nurturing influence in our lives, illustrates how silence can tragically separate one from humanity.

One particularly powerful scene that demonstrates this theme being the first murder committed by the Gentlemen where the silence emphasises the victim's isolation in a room full of non-human creatures intent on his death.

There we go, I hope that was vaguely coherent and on topic.


Swinefever said...

Hey Alex

I just wanted to say thank you.

I found your blog about 3 or 4 months ago and I've since scoured it from top to bottom. It's fantastic and so full of beautiful, crystal clear advice - I love it.

So, thank you.



Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Greg, that's fascinating, I haven't seen that episode, but will have to look for it. I'm a big fan of physical expression over talking.

Totally agree about Elm Street, that was a terrifying layer of it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Rob - it's always so good to hear. People seem to forget that a little feedback goes a long way.

Manreet said...

Thanks Alex, for the precision of your advice. I am currently working on a thriller and your blog serves as a valuable tutorial whenever I am stuck. Great work, lady! Cheers

Anonymous said...

Alex, you are so brilliant!

I've always been trying to get my head around the meaning of theme. But all the explanations were either too vague or too fixed to really help me understand and work with it. But now: This idea, that theme is actually a layer of meanings - that just gave me the "lightbulb-moment" of the month!

I've got one nagging question, though. When it comes to image-systems (in a novel): As you pointed out, for instance, the brilliant Matrix is all about waking up. And escaping. And what reality is. And about Neo as the potential Saviour. And... That just seems like a lot and also (on my first glance) not extremely stringently related image systems, too.

So, my question would be: How many themes in a novel or a movie are too many? Does that even exist?

Thanks so much for posts like this. I would be a much, much more struggeling writer without them.