Running Review 5: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, Part 5
Brooks's third element of storytelling is theme.
According to Brooks, there is a Theme Continuum, with themeless sitcom (Seinfeld) at one end, outright propaganda (C.S. Lewis) at the other, and exploration (John Irving: The Cider House Rules) dead centre.
Brook's analysis is blurred by his prejudices (sitcoms are not always themeless; they are often propagandist, in fact), but if we put aside his examples, we can see the continuum in evidence all around us, including in our own work.
Theme, however, is hard to avoid and it's really more a matter of effectiveness than of presence. As Brooks says,
the discussion about theme quickly divides into two realms--stories where theme emerges from character, and stories in which the character experience has been crafted to focus on and communicate a specific theme. (p. 122, Location 1914)
Brooks definitely favours the latter approach, because, as he says of several highly successful genre writers,
It's not coincidence that the major players within these niches...do imbue their stories with strong and provocative thematic landscapes. p. 124, Location 1949
It is the power of how they implement theme, rather than narrative eloquence, that defines their success. (p. 123, Location 1942)
Although the ghost of theme will emerge unbidden from strong structure, deep characters, and universal and accessible conceptual landscapes,
To ignore theme is to leave its role in the reader experience to chance. To plan for it and proactively care for it as you write is to imbue your stories with the stuff of success, the elusive magic pill agents and editors are looking for. (p. 124, Location 1949)
Of course, Brooks makes the same claim for character and structure. The trick is to let theme blend into the character and story arcs. You're writing a story, not a textbook, after all. A great way to do this is to embed the theme in the hero's inner demons. By way of example,
your story might be about a marriage that is being destroyed by alcoholism. The hero's quest is to save the marriage. His alcoholism is merely an obstacle in his way, springing from an inner demon that we come to understand and with which we empathize.
The outer conflict might be that his wife has filed for divorce and is already seeing someone else, so the clock is ticking. But the inner demon--the stuff of equally gripping drama in a well-told story--is the chokehold that alcohol has on the protagonist as he tries to win her back.
(pp. 126-127, Locations 1982-1993)
Character-driven theme walks two roads: inner and outer. The inner conflict is a barrier to defeating the antagostic force. The story must travel both roads at the same time.
Whatever you do, warns Brooks,
Show, don't tell. Script, don't narrate. Just the right touch on this count is the stuff of a potential best seller. (p. 128, Location 2021)