I’ve been enjoying Brian McDonald’s latest book, The Golden Theme. He has a real gift for looking past all the visible trappings of a story and seeing the invisible machinations the author set in motion. The ‘invisible ink’ as he’d say.
When we’re watching the latest summer blockbuster, it’s easy to be seduced by the great action, the beautiful people and the lovely explosions. I enjoy those as much as the next guy, but they alone don’t satisfy. The really great storytellers like Spielberg and Cameron know that you have to also have a theme. Something the movie has to teach us.
We’re hard wired to tell and receive stories. From the days of “I wouldn’t eat those red berries. I knew this guy who died from them,” stories are a great way to share important information. And not just survival wisdom. We also need social wisdom, like the lessons in parables. The boy who cried wolf has been around a very long time, because it tells us an important lesson. If you lie often, you won’t be believed, even when you tell the truth. Learning lessons like these help a society function and grow. And so like most useful things, they persist.
One of the things most movies lack today is a theme. Now theme doesn’t mean genre or plot. Theme is a truth that we can take away. It’s a lesson we can learn for ourselves, even while we sit in a dark room watching a screen. We can learn it, because we watch the hero learn it. And when we follow him on his journey, we also get the benefit he does.
Pilots do this when they sit together and trade stories of bad experiences they had in the air. When they sit in a hangar and tell the story to other pilots, and explain what they did to survive, everyone learns from one person’s experience. They call it “hangar flying”.
Good stories can do the same. We can be entertained, but also be learning something important from the character’s struggles. Usually the theme is something that our hero doesn’t know at first, but must learn before he can succeed.
At the beginning of Star Wars, Luke is not hero material. He hasn’t got the confidence in his own abilities to leave the farm, let alone start an adventure. He actually has to be forced to leave by circumstances. When his family is killed by stormtroopers, his decision has been made for him. But through the trials he endures, he is a changed man. Hurtling along the surface of the Death Star, he turns off his computers and uses his own abilities to deal the final blow.
We come away entertained, but also inspired. If he can rise above his circumstances and achieve greatness, then maybe we can too. Now compare the first Star Wars to the most recent ones. Despite the budgets, they don’t satisfy. Lucas forgot how to inspire us.
People enjoy a good diversion, but they love a good story. And among other things, that means having a solid theme.
In Live Rounds, I have a hero named Ronin. He was a man of violence, familiar and comfortable with it. Until one day, his wife is kidnapped, and he responds the only way he knows how, with force. But this impulsiveness gets his wife killed, and he turns away from that life. He reinvents himself. But he’s also lost something vital. The knowledge that sometimes we must do bad things to protect those we love.
Sound like a lesson to be learned? Yep.
So my story has him leading a team of bounty hunters who get in over their heads. And while he’s a natural leader, he’s lost that will to kill. Until he regains it, he puts those around him at risk. So the whole story is a funnel that is pushing Ronin to the point where he needs to make that choice again. And by being there with him along the journey, we get to learn this wisdom too.
Without the messy complications of homicide.