A Misfiring Buick in Toledo

buickOn Objection Two aka The Heisenberg’s Matrices Objection

This objection turns on the idea that life is random or:

Nothing happens for a reason.

But wait… isn’t that a… theme. It’s even 10 words or less. If it’s not already copyrighted, inlaid overtop bright and complementary colors in pretty fonts on the back of a misfiring Buick in Toledo somewhere, than it ought to be.

In other words, I take it that Objection 2 is self-refuting.

Since Objection One turns out to be more substantial, let’s take a few extra sentences to be sure that we have fully dismissed the claim that a story can exist without a theme. We will do this for the sake of a rigorous logical completeness… which is inspired by the ferocity with which I have seen the proponents of Mr. Wilson’s claim support Mr. Wilson’s claim. We will go to this extra trouble because it is true [somewhat tautologically] if there are good, successful movies without a theme, then one does not need to focus on theme in order to write a good, successful movie. I will be wrong before I even begin.

We will finish this part of our inquiry by taking a [somewhat] closer look at the movie Tremors (3) [in a balancing act of detail that will (hopefully) make the points that need making without having to ask a studio for permission].

In almost the first five minutes of Tremors Earl berates Val for “not having a plan”, and for “never taking the long view”. The need to have a plan, make a plan, or change the plan is discussed on pages: 7, 12, 15, 16, 19, 30, 39, 45, 50, 63, 67, 74, 76, 77, 80, and 100. In league with this rising tide of incriminating evidence, here is my take on the theme of Tremors:

You can’t succeed in life without a plan.

Generalized even further, I would say the authors are commenting on the resourcefulness of humans in the face of insurmountable odds. I maintain that the authors are commenting on this resourcefulness whether they intended to comment on it or not.

If I am making anything of a contribution to the understanding of Story Composition in this section of our discussion, the italicized part of that last statement sums it up. Nutshell tested for brevity, I am saying that stories that work do so because a unifying theme undergirds all the plot points. I am saying this in spite of the fact that there may be a few well known and successful authors who maintain that this was not the case in one of their works.

Let’s look at a generic story from a completely mechanistic perspective for a moment, and see if we can prove once and for all that a good story is going to end up with a succinct theme whether or not the author is consciously a part of its construction.

Parsing plot for its components (4) , we see

1. Characters
2. Events
3. Settings

Even more basically then we’ve stated it before:

A story is what happens to a person (or person-like thing) in a specified place.

I break it down this simplistically because I believe there is value in seeing these components in relief. If a story really is those three things, then

Theme is just a dressy word for the particular causal chain that ties the first event in your story to the last event in your story.

And what is important to realize is that every story has a specific causal chain that connects its first event to its last. If it didn’t, no one would watch/read it. The result of this is the [already] recurringly stated conclusion that: your story has a theme whether you want it to have one or not. The best thing you can do as a writer is to understand and manipulate that fact.

Without a doubt, every member of an audience calls a story good if and only if she can identify with that particular causal chain that connects the first event to the last—in other words, if she can identify with your theme.

I believe this is because the point of Story is to approximate the human experience of life. We go to the movies because we want to see ourselves inside the characters on the screen. Not only do we want to be the characters we see, but we also want to watch them experience events in a way that we can understand.

Let me take a step back for a minute because I feel that I am skirting close to the idea that screenplays must be constructed from a didactic perspective. That is unqualifiedly NOT what I’m saying. Screenplays don’t have to have “a lesson” but they do have to have a point. Even that is not quite what I mean. Let me try one more time:

Lurking somewhere in the spiraling DNA of your story, there has to be at least one omniscient perspective.

My idea here is that when you unpack the term theme, omniscient perspective falls out on the floor. A theme is no more than the full view of your story if you could see it all at one time. Call it an infinite case of déjà vu, and call it a day.

Movies feel lacking when this perspective is lacking.

At the end of a really good movie, you always have the feeling that you have seen a possible world in its entirety. This feeling happens in movies that run the gamut from Back to the Future to American Beauty, and the feeling itself is the reason mass quantities of people think those movies are good movies. (5)

Whenever we say that we think we’ve seen a good movie, what we mean is that [we think] we understood it from an omniscient perspective.

I take it as granted that your job as a writer is to inhabit this perspective as you’re writing. Doing this ensures that this perspective (above all others) is privileged and therefore easily identified by the audience at the time of your choosing . If you write from this perspective throughout, then your reveals will carry the power you want them to carry.

What I am suggesting is that you should approach the writing of your script as though you were the character with the omniscient perspective because you lived the story yourself… and now you are giving a literal transcription of what took place to an audience of people who are identical to your former [before the story happened] self. The feeling you want to create, in this multitude of one, is that there is no way the story could have happened other than the way it did.

Each event hinges on the event before and determines the one after.

Algorithm 1 (The Primacy of Theme)

1. Decide what you want to say.
2. State it in 10 words or less.
3. Understand that your theme is the unique causal chain that completes your story.
4. Think of this unique causal chain as an omniscient perspective on your entire story.


3 It might also help if I recommend that you watch Tremors or, even better from my perspective, read the script. I can’t deny that I was amazed that “a monster movie” was as well written as this script was.

4 We’ll be thinking about this in different terms than the standard Aristotelian triangle.

5 If we visualize this idea as an observer looking at two events from a far enough distance to see the points as a line segment, then perhaps we can preserve a little Aristotelian flavor in our schematic after all.


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