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Thread: The Magic Story Pill

  1. LeeNordling Guest

    The Magic Story Pill

    Many moons ago, I promised to come back to this topic, and here we are.

    “Yay,” cries a lone voice from the back.

    Now, a lot of you are probably wondering what I mean when I use the term “thematic storytelling”....

    Blank stares. Not a sign that anybody is wondering anything.

    Simply put, when you understand and successfully apply thematic storytelling, you will always be able to figure out two things: your perfect ending and/or what your story needs to do as it leads up to that ending.

    Every eye widens. Attention is suddenly rapt.

    That’s right, thematic storytelling is The Magic Story Pill.

    A hand rises in back.

    “Yes?” I ask.

    “Are you saying that if we apply thematic storytelling to our stories, we won’t be stuck figuring out the end?”

    “You’ll always have to work at it,” I begin.

    The class moans in unison.

    “But you’ll know what that ending needs to accomplish in order for it to be the right ending.”

    “Oooooooo,” the class says in unison, each mouth making an “O” so small a Cheerio couldn’t fight its way into any of them.

    Once upon a time, I got a job at a publisher who shall not be named.

    We’d just met face to face, were having dinner, talking movies. I love movies. I love discussing what movies are about.

    Anyway, this guy hadn’t seen Saving Private Ryan, and I shared my thoughts about why it was an important film to see.

    I saw it in the theater amidst all the hype of how this was the greatest war movie since Sgt. Sliced Bread.

    I left the theater not as impressed as I wanted to be, but here I was, a year later, had only seen the film once, and I’m telling the story about the struggle this squad had getting to Private Ryan. I’m relating the story of their sacrifice to get this kid back home, and I’m repeating the question the characters raise about the value of many risking their lives to save just one.

    And then I get to the end, where our squad finally gets to Ryan, but at incredible cost. After the last battle, the Tom Hanks character, Captain Miller, is mortally wounded, and Private Ryan is bending over him, realizing that he’d be dead if it weren’t for the sacrifice of these brave men. Miller’s last words to Ryan are, “Earn it.”

    This leads us to the coda and the conclusion of the wraparound story, where an old man, the man we now know is Ryan, is weeping at Miller’s Normandy gravesite, still struggling with whether or not he’s done enough to “earn it.”

    Endings prove the theme.

    Endings explain what the story is about.

    Stories are about what you believe to be true.

    This makes stories, in some fashion, morality plays or moral arguments.

    Your moral argument is your theme.

    To clarify: if you believe something to be true, your story is a theme or moral argument about what you believe to be true.

    A hand rises in back.

    “Yes?” I ask.

    “So, for example, if I believe in ‘love,’ that could be my theme?”

    You can’t have a theme like “love,” because that doesn’t take a position on love.

    You have to take a position. You have to make an empirical statement.”

    For example, you can have a theme like “love conquers all,” because it’s a statement, it takes a position, it states (for this story) what you believe to be true. It’s your moral argument.

    A hand rises in back.

    “Yes?” I ask.

    “Do you mean stories can only be about something that’s moral?” you ask.

    “No, of course not,” I reply. “You can have immoral moral arguments like ‘killing is fun, as long as it hurts the other guy more than it hurts you.’”

    “I like that one,” you say, already writing the story in your head. “But are you saying that stories need to teach something or they’re no good?”

    Absolutely not,” I reply. “Sam Goldwyn of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer once said, ‘If you want to send a message, use Western Union.’

    “He’s still right, at least for not preaching like Barton Fink to the reader or audience.”

    A theme is the glue that holds your story together. That’s its real value.

    If something cuts against the theme then it doesn’t belong in your story, at least not that story with that theme. When you’ve got something that doesn’t fit, you’ve got two choices (and only two choices), cut it out or change your theme to make it fit. If you do this, though, everything else in the story needs to be examined to make sure it still fits, too.

    "Will you give us an example?" you ask.

    "Sure," I say.

    If you have a story about a boy and girl who grow up next to each other, are perfectly suited for each other, have loving parents who approve of the match, get married, have wonderful kids who grow up without dividing the parents, grow old together, and die peacefully while holding hands, this doesn’t exactly prove “love conquers all,” does it?

    It’s more like, “it’s easy to get along when nothing goes wrong.”

    See how stories and themes are developed together, with one supporting the other?

    For that example, I did everything possible to not give our loving couple real-life problems, and then I asked, “What does it mean? What does it say?”

    And that dictated the theme/moral argument.

    Do all the story points support that theme? Yep.

    Is that why I took out the scene where he had an affair with his wife’s sister? Yep, because it didn’t fit.

    Now let’s change it.

    Everything else stays, except the end. They’re near death, the wife turn to the husband and says, “I never loved you.”

    Then he says, “I know, and that’s why I’ve been having an affair with your sister for fifty years.”

    Then they die.

    Now that is a completely different story, all because of the ending.

    Suddenly it’s a story about repressed anger and failed love, about two people going through civilized motions.

    Make some more changes, and suddenly it’s The War of the Roses, the darkly comic story about a couple who die in a battle of wills, him for them to stay together, and her to be rid of him once and for all.

    If your theme is “life is a bowl of cherries” then having a twist ending with the serial killer knocking off our couple doesn’t make a lot of sense, either.

    And that’s how the end proves the theme.

    Often, we don’t know what our stories are about till after we’ve written them.

    A hand rises in back.

    “Yes?” I ask.

    “If that’s the case,” you begin, “then why bother to figure out the theme?”

    Good question.

    Because writing is (for most good writers) rewriting, and once a story’s done, it’s important to figure out what it’s about so that you can, in the next pass, figure out what fits and what doesn’t.

    Do that and do it well, and you’ll be ahead of 95% of the writers out there.

    For those who have the Criterion edition of the film Brazil, check out the great commentary on the TV cut of that film, appropriately called the Love Conquers All version, where the commentary track walks you through a completely different cut of the film that keeps only what fit that particular theme/moral argument.

    The cut is an abomination, but the lesson about editing for theme is brilliant.

    A hand rises in back.

    “Yes?” I ask.

    “What if my story doesn’t have a theme?” you ask.

    “For those of you who think your stories don’t have themes, that just means you haven’t been looking for them…or haven’t yet figured them out.”

    Even if the theme is “good will triumph over evil,” it’ll be there, if your story holds together.

    But if your story is a mish-mash of moral arguments that undercut each other, then it’s a story with competing themes, and there’s some straightening out to do.

    As much as it is ever possible, this is The Magic Story Pill that will help you figure out “what to do next in your story,” figure out “what the end should be,” or identify “what to fix and how to fix it.”

    For this week’s assignment, we’re going to take you out for a thematic test drive.

    I want you to write:

    1. A single statement that reflects your thematic argument;

    2. A paragraph describing the arc of a simple story.

    Let’s use my first story with the couple as an example.

    Theme: It’s easy to get along when nothing goes wrong.

    Story: A boy and girl who grow up next to each other, are perfectly suited for each other, have loving parents who approve of the match, get married, have wonderful kids who grow up without dividing the parents, grow old together, and die peacefully while holding hands.

    Now, you can start with your theme and write the paragraph, or write the paragraph and figure out the theme; it doesn’t matter.

    What does matter is that the two need to work together.

    It does not have to be a “good” story; it just has to be story that proves your theme/moral argument.

    I know some of you are going to try and get creative, but like before, we’ve seen that you too often get caught up in playing and miss the forest for the trees.

    Once again, I plead with you to begin simply.

    The point of this exercise, as always, is to write with intention, so, in math terms, make this 2 + 2 = 4, not 4/5 + 4.578/3.74 = y - 4.638/9.567.

    Let’s begin.

    ***

    Lee Nordling is the owner and founding partner of The Pack (the-pack.biz), a comics-related content provider for the publishing industry. He is also author of “Your Career In the Comics,” an overview of the newspaper comics syndication profession and industry.

    If you wish to contact Lee separately from Comics Pro Prep, please write to him at lee@projectfanboy.
    Last edited by LeeNordling; Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 05:54 PM.



  2. RonaldMontgomery Guest

    Not trying to be cute...!


    Theme: Home and family are true happiness.

    Story: Mad Max is saved by a group of children living in a desert oasis, and he leads them through natural and man-made peril to a flight back to a faraway city the children believe to be their home.



  3. LeeNordling Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by RonaldMontgomery View Post
    Theme: Home and family are true happiness.

    Story: Mad Max is saved by a group of children living in a desert oasis, and he leads them through natural and man-made peril to a flight back to a faraway city the children believe to be their home.
    Ronald's grade:

    FAIL.

    How does this story reflect this theme?

    It seems like a story about a character leading other characters to a place they want to be...but there's nothing about family here, and that being together is better than not being together. There's nothing here for us to take from it that our characters will be truly happy at home, either.

    Now, while some might say the theme for "The Wizard of Oz" is "there's no place like home," I don't think the film proves that theme, either.

    I'd say theme to that film is: "You won't miss home till after you leave it, and then you'll wish you were there again." It's longer, but more consistent with the story.

    Keep trying, Ronald.

    There may not be a lot to write for this assignment, but this is REALLY hard stuff.

    You've done something here that I see from most newbies to thematic writing: you put together two competing items, which are only connected in your mind.

    It's time to do some sewing.

    Look at your story and ask yourself this question: "What statement does my story make?" Hint: look to your ending to prove your theme...and you don't even have an ending yet. Without an ending, you don't have a story; you have an idea for a story that's not yet fully formed.

    --Lee



  4. RonaldMontgomery Guest

    Gotcha.

    I think it has to do with growing up, but I'm going to think about it for a day or so.

    Love that movie, seen it a million times, never thought about theme.



  5. LeeNordling Guest

    Think less, write more, at least about your paragraph.

    Again, this isn't supposed to be a "good" story; it just needs to have a beginning, middle, and end...that pays off on the set-up.

    For example:

    Little Billy rushes out of his boring old house in search of summer adventure, and at first, his encounters with men from the future, genetic monsters, and aliens is kind of fun, and he manages to successfully defeat all of them through sheer determination and boundless energy, until he runs into Little Lily, the cutest seven-year old on the planet, and suddenly his brain turns to mush, he can barely move or speak, until she takes pity on him and leaves. Feeling lucky to have survived the encounter, Little Billy rushes home to his safe, boring house, and he never plans to come out again, at least not till tomorrow.

    Okay, that was written on the fly...without a lot of thought, except to have Little Billy search for adventure, find it and succeed in his efforts against a series of antagonists...until he meets the one creature he's powerless against, a cute little girl, and at this point, it's too much adventure for him, so he retreats to the one place he knows he's safe: his boring old home.

    What's the theme to this story?

    --Lee



  6. danialworks Guest

    Theme:

    A violent and borderline paranoid crew of a human starship learns how to sacrifice for another species in greater need.



    Story:

    Orbiting an ice planet, the crew of the Earth ship Steelheart jealousy and violently defends the single island chain of pure water against all other ships in need... until a broken down, barely spaceworthy vessel of alien refugees needing water not for stockpiles but because they are dying of thirst touches the hearts of the majority of the crew.
    Last edited by danialworks; Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 08:44 PM.



  7. danialworks Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by LeeNordling View Post
    Think less, write more, at least about your paragraph.

    Again, this isn't supposed to be a "good" story; it just needs to have a beginning, middle, and end...that pays off on the set-up.

    For example:

    Little Billy rushes out of his boring old house in search of summer adventure, and at first, his encounters with men from the future, genetic monsters, and aliens is kind of fun, and he manages to successfully defeat all of them through sheer determination and boundless energy, until he runs into Little Lily, the cutest seven-year old on the planet, and suddenly his brain turns to mush, he can barely move or speak, until she takes pity on him and leaves. Feeling lucky to have survived the encounter, Little Billy rushes home to his safe, boring house, and he never plans to come out again, at least not till tomorrow.

    Okay, that was written on the fly...without a lot of thought, except to have Little Billy search for adventure, find it and succeed in his efforts against a series of antagonists...until he meets the one creature he's powerless against, a cute little girl, and at this point, it's too much adventure for him, so he retreats to the one place he knows he's safe: his boring old home.

    What's the theme to this story?

    --Lee
    I am so tempted to say there's no place like home.

    Little Billy learns that a cute little girl can be the most mind boggling adventure of them all.



  8. Rain Guest

    When Thompson's arm is accidentally caught inside a radioactive printing press machine, maiming is badly, he gains the bizarre superpower to make people believe anything he writes. He gets a job at a premier newspaper, and becomes one of the most well-read and respected journalists in history. But when a rival news agency learns he's been fabricating his sensational stories, and present their evidence to the masses, Thompson's career as a journalist is ruined. Thompson is immediately hired as a public relations coordinator for Big Oil, where he ghost writes press releases that are regurgitated across the mass media.

    Theme: There's always work for a good crook.



  9. Rain Guest

    Wasn't happy with my first, so here's attempt No. 2. (With all due respect to Robert E. Howard.)

    Theme: Civilization is often un-civil.

    An unsophisticated barbarian of the wilderness wanders into a bustling city, and immediately begins stealing valuables from the homes of prominent citizens. A fellow thief alerts him to a priceless jewel within the King's supposedly impenetrable castle, with the barbarian making short work of obtaining the prize. Only later does the barbarian learn the other "thief" was a member of the King's court in disguise, seeking to usurp the throne. With the "Jewel of Power" missing, local legend dictates the king is unfit to rule, and must be removed. The barbarian leaves the city behind; a thief dismayed by the deceitfulness of city life and their politicians.



  10. Rain Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by LeeNordling View Post
    Little Billy rushes out of his boring old house in search of summer adventure, and at first, his encounters with men from the future, genetic monsters, and aliens is kind of fun, and he manages to successfully defeat all of them through sheer determination and boundless energy, until he runs into Little Lily, the cutest seven-year old on the planet, and suddenly his brain turns to mush, he can barely move or speak, until she takes pity on him and leaves. Feeling lucky to have survived the encounter, Little Billy rushes home to his safe, boring house, and he never plans to come out again, at least not till tomorrow.

    What's the theme to this story?
    Well, to quote yourself regarding Oz, I'd say, "You won't miss home till after you leave it."



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