Archive for the ‘Theme’ Category
Dear Ray Harvey: Well, it took me five months but I finally finished reading More and More unto the Perfect Day and I wish to compliment you! Though it is a challenging and not easy read, it is rewarding and gives much food for thought to say the least. Your story reminded me a little (sometimes) of David Lynch, and I believe I remember you once answered a question about David Lynch, don’t I? Do you still have that?
– John Kronk
Dear John Kronk: Thank you! If you liked my book, please tell your friends about it: if your friends like it, get new friends.
The following is probably the post you’re referring to:
Dear Sir: Who’s the better filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino or David Lynch?
– P. Durango
Dear P. Durango: Are you kidding? But there’s no comparison. That’s like asking me: who of those two has better hair?
As a filmmaker, David Lynch possesses innumerable shortcomings, foremost of which is the fact that he’s an obscurantist extraordinaire — and this is no small thing.
The symbolic in art, you see, must never supersede the literal — or to put that another way, the symbolic meaning must always remain secondary to the literal meaning, and the literal must hold up on its own without reference to the symbolic. When an artist makes the symbolic meaning the tail that wags the dog, as David Lynch so often does, she defaults on art’s primary function: making the abstract concrete.
Yet for all this, David Lynch is not only the better filmmaker: he’s better by light years.
Quentin Tarantino barely makes it above average. He makes good B movies.
It’s true that Tarantino can tell a story (at times, not consistently). This isn’t really his problem. His problem is that he lacks any sort of real depth.
If theme is the meaning that a story’s events add up to — and it is — then Tarantino’s movies are almost all themeless because they add up to nothing. They’re action movies, which, even as action movies go, are often boring and wildly gratuitous. (Inglorious Basterds was a notable exception.)
Tarantino’s dialogue at its best is good, but it, too, is inconsistent. Pulp Fiction, slightly campy now, remains by far his best movie.
Reservoir Dogs? You can see certain skills at work there, in flashes, despite its wobbly plot. But there’s no getting around the fact that Quentin Tarantino could never in a million years create Wild at Heart and Sailor Ripley, let alone the John Merrick that David Lynch gave us in his awesome version of the Elephant Man — John Merrick dancing alone in his room with tophat and cane, the pure poignancy of which scene is unforgettable.
Tarantino has yet to match Pulp Fiction. It seems to me now that he never will.
Pulp Fiction spawned a thousand imitators — and for good reason: it was funny and it was original. And yet its appeal has dated a little: many scenes still hold up and are as fresh today as they were fifteen years ago. But an almost equal number (i.e. “The Bonnie Situation”) have grown stale and are unconvincing. Time has sunk them.
The David Lynch of Twin Peaks and the David Lynch of Blue Velvet has a depth and intelligence that Tarantino cannot match. Wild at Heart, which is half a decade older than Pulp Fiction, has proven more durable by far.
Just incidentally, Quentin Tarantino’s “The Man From Hollywood” (his Four Rooms contribution) was taken from a Roald Dahl short story called “The Gambler,” and if you want to see where Tarantino got his idea for the ending of Reservoir Dogs, please watch this movie, which was based on the novel by Lawrence Block.
A real story cannot exist without some sort of conflict.
If, though, you don’t have a specific message, you must then begin your story by thinking up a good central conflict. And by “good,” I mean a conflict that’s important enough to hold people’s interest.
(If, for example, you’re hungry for cookies but you’ll only allow yourself one cookie, and then you find in your cookie jar two peanut butter and two sugar, there is here a certain conflict that you must resolve — i.e. you must choose between those two things — but it isn’t the kind of conflict upon which a story can be built. Why? Because the choices aren’t strong enough to be of lasting interest. To be of lasting interest, the conflict must be of certain importance to many people. That last thing is known as universality. Universality is important because stories must appeal to a range of people.)
Often, new writers ask if they should decide their theme first, or their plot first. The answer is, it doesn’t matter. Either method is okay.
The method you’re most comfortable with is a personal preference. Sometimes, in a fit of inspiration, you get an idea for a theme, and you must then figure out how to dramatize that theme, the act of which is called plotting.
Or sometimes you get a good idea for a story — a real clash of desires — and you must then, if you’re philosophically inclined, figure out a way to convey a universal message which that conflict represents (for example, honesty in the case of the movie Quiz Show, which I thought was a unique and excellent idea).
If you don’t have a universal message — i.e. a theme — that’s okay too. Your story will then be a plot story without an added level of depth. Soap operas and most commercial fiction, as I’ve also said, are examples of this.
The hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold is one of the most famous (and played-out) Situations there is: Pretty Woman, with Richard Gere and Juilia Roberts, used it.
Leaving Las Vegas, with Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue, also used it, though that story gave it a distinctly dystopic twist.
The reason the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold is such a popular Situation is that it has a built-in conflict — a woman who betrays a certain respectability and then falls in love — and also because it’s inherently sexual, which is one of the most universal desires there is.
Here are some less common Situations:
The Situation of Crime and Punishment is this: a man who believes that great people are above conventional morality commits a crime and is then condemned by his own moral sense.
The Situation of Madame Bovary is this: a small-town French girl, bored by her petty bourgeois marriage, engages in numerous adulteries and dies as a result.
The Situation of the movie Amadeus is: a marginally gifted musical composer named Antonio Salieri grows increasingly consumed by his jealousy over Wolfang Amadeus Mozart’s prodigious musical talents and so plots and carries out Mozart’s murder.
The Situation of House of Leaves is: a mysterious house that’s bigger inside than outside, containing endless unlit hallways, is explored by the family who’ve just moved in — explored until it almost kills them. (This Situation is symbolic of their marriage.)
If you’ve ever read a book or watched a movie where the characters do little more than engage in long, philosophical discussions, then you’ve seen an example of a plot that doesn’t support its theme — which is to say, a theme that is not well integrated into the plot. This is a flaw in the storytelling, and the basic standard of measurement for that is this: how complex are the events of your story, and are they complicated enough to support the philosophy that you’re putting into the mouths of your characters — without, mind you, taking readers out of the framework of the story?
The main point here is that theme, if it exists, must be integrated into your plot. This means, among other things, that when you’re searching for a good Situation — i.e. a good central conflict — you must find a Situation complex enough around which a whole story can be built, and which will support your theme.
Characterization is a presentation of the personality of the people who populate a story.
Characterization is primarily a depiction of motivation and motive. The reader must understand what makes the characters act in the way that those characters do.
It’s been said that one of the truest tests of good literature is when you can discuss the characters as if those characters are actual people: when you can psychologize over them, talk about their strengths, their gifts, their shortcomings, their personalities, their deeds, all as if these people are real.
To create such a character — which is to say, to create a truly convincing character — the writer must first understand what motivates the people he or she is creating. By that I mean, the writer must have a fully formed idea of what the character’s premises and personality are. After which, by means of the plot (i.e. the action, which includes each passage of dialogue), you proceed to present the character’s motives and (in turn) their personalities.
Know what motivates your characters.
One of Shakespeare’s greatest living admirers (and arguably the world’s best-read human being), the critic Harold Bloom (not to be confused, as he so often is, with that hack Howard Bloom), honestly believes that in creating so many convincing characters, Shakespeare went far in creating our modern-day conception of humanity itself. It is an incredible statement, and yet I, for one, won’t argue it. In Harold Bloom’s own words:
“Shakespeare, who at the least changed our ways of presenting human nature, if not human nature itself, does not portray himself anywhere in his plays.”
Even more interestingly, perhaps, Mr. Bloom goes on to say this:
If I could question any dead author, it would be Shakespeare, and I would not waste my seconds by asking the identity of the Dark Lady or the precisely nuanced elements of homoeroticism in the relationship with Southhampton (or another). Naively, I would blurt out: did it comfort you to have fashioned woman and men more real than living men and women? (Harold Bloom, Genius, p. 18).
There are 32 ways to write a story, and I’ve used every one, but there’s only one plot: things are not what they seem.
- Jim Thompson.
Anthony Burgess was even more stringent: he put the number of possible plots at about five.
So what distinguishes one plot from another? Or, to put that question more specifically, if two writers write the same plot, how if at all will those stories differ?
In fact, no two stories can be written exactly alike, and one of the reasons for this is the writer’s style. (“The most interesting story is always the story of the writer’s style,” said Nabokov.)
Styles are more diverse than fingerprints, and how the writer tells a story discloses exactly how that writer thinks.
Stories consist of several elements, the most fundamental of which is plot — plot being the skeleton upon which the rest of the story (characters, theme, descriptions) all hang — and ultimately what determines the differences in stories, even those with similar plots, is the depth of style, the depth of theme, and the seriousness of the approach.
Literature, for example, is distinguished from popular fiction by the seriousness of its themes and by how well the writer not only grasps but also conveys those themes.
In essence, literature conveys the importance of human life.
Plot is the means by which this is done.
There can be good plots with shallow themes (certain soap operas, for instance), and there can be good themes with poor plots (like the novel Light Years, by James Salter). But in either case, a theme cannot be clearly or convincingly conveyed without a good plot and a strong writing style.