Tuesday, October 05, 2010

What is Theme?: Thematic Image Systems

I've got the Nanowrimos busy working on brainstorming lists (hopefully) and this dovetails nicely with Visual Storytelling, actually. Before we dive into how specific story elements are conveyed visually we need to talk generally 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. You could write about five billion different stories on that.

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. I had a dream last night, in fact, that had just about every possible act, object, setting and word variation on "counter").

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 rewatched The Matrix a couple of times this year 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 (enlightenment), 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.

And maybe most importantly: Know what your PERSONAL themes are. And that means - yes - Make a list.

In fact the NANOWRIMO ASSIGNMENT for today is: Make a list of your personal THEMES - the ones you vibrate to in other people's stories, and the ones you keep coming back to in your own stories, over and over again.

And - What particular themes do you see working in your WIP?

I'd love to hear some examples of books and films that to you have particularly striking thematic image systems, and your own favorite images to work with.

And by the way - what are some ways of conveying theme that I’ve left out?

- Alex


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Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Alex,

I thought image systems were handled very well in A SIMPLE PLAN. (I didn't read the book, so I don't know how it compares.)

WIP - I have the fire imagery and birth/rebirth imagery. They merge just before the midpoint with the protag and love interest blowing out birthday candles.


Sonja Foust said...

Great post! I did my list/analysis of movies and books on my blog. Will come up with some personal themes someday this week. ;)

Cali-4nia said...

This is great stuff! I just found your blog the other day, and I have to say, I'm hooked! This lesson on Themes was critical for me. I've never really considered the topic as a separate entity from the actual story. I can really see how it pushes the story forward, when combined and polished. The Matrix example was perfect.

I also never thought about a "scrapbook" of images to keep me involved with the theme of a story. I usually write while listening to music, that had the "mood" that I was working towards.

Thank you for all the work you've put into this blog! There are so many great tips here, that will propel my writing to the next level, and I'll be trying your tips with my next screenplay!

Unknown said...

For beginning writers like myself, theme is the easiest thing to forget. Yet it seems to be an absolute necessity for good writing.

Of all the elements we have to consider, character, plot, dialog, setting, and theme, the most obscure is theme.

You did a great job defining it and using examples that not only tell us, but show us how to use it in our writing.


Rachel Harris said...

I just found your blog and am so impressed. My background is also in movies but never really thought about the wonderful ways to tie that passion into my writing passion. Thank you so much for the inspiration!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Stephen, I like that combination of two image systems, cool!

A SIMPLE PLAN is in my Netflix queue - maybe I'll watch that one tonight, thanks!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sonja, you are always so great about DOING THE WORK. Thanks for the mention, and you really make me want to read Peace Like A River.

Nothing I like better than the Heaven and Hell imagery!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Cali-4nia, great to have you here, and so glad to hear it's helpful. Theme and visual imagery is some of my favorite stuff about writing - makes the whole grueling journey worthwhile.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Corey, thanks, and you reminded me that I should say that we don't always know what we're saying until we get to the end of the first draft. Or even the end of the fifth.

I think having an idea of several themes you're working with can really help you get through a first draft and then you have to also look at what the story is telling YOU about what it's saying.

And then you can fine-tune theme in revisions.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Rachel, absolutely, the more passions you can combine, the better! Glad it sparked something for you.

G.R. Yeates said...

Hi Alex,

I think one of my favourite image systems is in Nosferatu, both the original and Herzog's beautiful remake. The way the vampire's nature as parasite/vermin is emphasised by associating him with rats, more so than with bats, by giving him raty-like fingernails and teeth. Also, by telling us that he can only sleep in earth tainted by the Black Death, which then leads onto his association with the grim reaper. His death's head visage which is often underlit to emphasise the skull rather than the face.

I also thought a very effective touch in the remake was the opening montage of calcified mummies. Herzog shows us death i.e. the end, before we have even begun the tale. A suggestion that it is already over because we all know, deep down, what the true end will be. I thought the stylised pale cast of a lot of the actors and actresses faces in the remake was a possible signifier that they were all being shown to us as corpses-to-be.

A dialogue example that stands out to me as an expression of theme would be Dracula's words that 'Time is an abyss, profound as a thousand nights' which, to me, echoes the Biblical passage 'in the midst of life, we are in death.'

Going back to the rats, as they feature in my own work, I've come to think of them as being 'avatars' of theme.

One of my themes is how everything changes and decays. All is in flux thus creating life's many uncertainties. Concepts we hold dear, such as love, hope and redemption, are all overcome by entropy in the end.

I decided to use avatars such as rats to signify this theme because there is that primal gut-level fear that they stir up in people as we associate them almost intuitively with death, disease and rot.


Sylvia said...

I'm just diving into revisions and the timing on this has been perfect for me. Not just the subject - which is fascinating - but also because Silence of the Lambs is the *perfect* book for me to read right now while I'm thinking about tension and making murder realistic. I'm looking forward to re-reading it with a critical eye and now I'll also be watching how Harris plays with theme imagery!