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Theme Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

Exposing the narrative elements of a story.

Great writers write without caveats. They don't backtrack, and they don't leave their purpose up to interpretation. Compelled to say something about our world and the experience of living in it, Authors take to characters and plot to state unapologetically: This is how I see the world.

And narrative structure is the carrier wave of that message.

Author and Intention

Some contend that the meaning of a story lies in the experience, that what one says bears little on the final appreciation of their work:

I was realizing the other day that there's an intrinsic incompatibility between reader-response theory, which establishes the story as the product of the reader's experience reading the story rather than anything to do with authorial intention or objective textual interpretation, and Dramatica which posits an objective, observable storyform existing in a kind of metaphysical plane beneath the text.

The Dramatica theory of story sees a functioning narrative as a model of a single human mind trying to resolve conflict. I'm not sure I would refer to this model, and Dramatica's storyform, as "metaphysical" in nature. The theory is not trying to explain a philosophical view of reality ("Evil does not exist"), but rather, theorizes the process one engages in while arriving at those types of conclusions.

Maybe I should've said "epistemological" instead.

While knowledge, justification, rationalization, truth, and belief factor into the Dramatica model, they are not treated as objects of Subject Matter the way epistemology treats them.

Reading this made me realize I'm really not sure what definition you apply to the term "subject matter" in a story. I'm sure we'd both agree that in a film like Moneyball, baseball is subject matter, but whereas to me the theme of the film is being open to new methods vs. being stuck in tradition, I get the sense you'd call that subject matter, too. In Skyfall, spying is subject matter, but for me "the old ways of human beings vs. the new ways of technology" is theme, whereas you've indicated it's subject matter.

Being open to new methods vs. being stuck in tradition is equivalent to baseball when assigning relative value to a narrative. Both are Subject Matter because you haven't said anything meaningful about those things. You've only indicated the topic of conversation within your writing.

Theme is more than focus—it's meaning.

While part of the confusion here lies in simple semantics, clarification of purpose is everything when constructing a story.

We need to differentiate between something as general as "old vs. new" with Theme because there is an infinite number of ways to explore "old vs. new." It becomes the Subject Matter of the argument because there is no indication of perspective or point-of-view. "Old vs. new" is the topic of our conversation.

The Hegelian Dialectic sees ideas in conflict (Thesis and Anti-thesis) as indicators of story structure. A Synthesis related to the topic of conversation is all that is needed to resolve the dispute. This "synthesis" is the meaning of the story under Hegelian rule.

The Dramatica theory of story goes deeper to describe the nature of those ideas and the meaning behind the eventual synthesis. With this approach, an Author gives up talking around what motivates them to write and instead, addresses the true nature of their story's conflict.

The Storytelling Layer

This differential between what we talk about and what we want to say about what we're talking about is the basis for the same story showing up repeatedly under different pretenses. While there is only one way to construct a solid argument given a point-of-view, there are an infinite amount of ways to illustrate the specifics of that argument.

The Lion King, Black Panther, and Mad Max: Fury Road all make the same argument: Give up running away, and you can reclaim a throne. Technically, Max isn't about a throne per se, but it's the same basic concept: winning something back by giving up the motivation to run.

You might think The Lion King about Responsibility, or Loyalty, Family, or Carrying on a Tradition. But are the Authors leaving the interpretations of those issues up to the audience? Or are they explicitly proving something, that if you do this, you're going to get that?

Do they possess a point-of-view?

When you begin to understand the intent of the Authors to make an argument, you recognize their shift towards one side within that discussion. The particulars of that side fall away as you look to what drives their point-of-view. Is it "old vs. new" that drives Skyfall? Or is it that the old is no longer good enough within the context of the new? Is it "Family" that operates The Lion King, or is it running away from your family that proves to be the real problem?

Isn't running away the same core problem in Black Panther and Mad Max: Fury Road?

Finding the Premise of a story is a process of extracting the narrative Elements from Subject Matter, of seeing beyond Storytelling to Storyform.

The Purpose of Structure

The Subject Matter of a story falls into the category of Storytelling. Story Structure is a part of Storyforming. That's why The Lion King, Black Panther, and Mad Max: Fury Road can be vastly different in terms of Storytelling, yet still make the same argument. Their narrative structure is identical.

So for me it feels like "subject matter" becomes far too broad a term – but I may not be catching your meaning correctly.

Subject Matter is more than setting in Dramatica--it's the life force that breathes humanity into the narrative Elements. After all, who wants to read a story about Avoidance, or Non-accurate?

A story is a function of Storytelling and Storyform. No meaning exists without the latter. No connection with the audience exists without the former.

To some extent, I think you've been alluding to this for years when you say that many writers will intuitively come up with a coherent storyform. That may be true, because for me, "subject matter" (e.g., "What purpose is the value of idealism in a world where it's been proven to fail over and over") is everything to me. It's the whole point of getting out of bed and writing.

I get that, but I assume you have an answer to that question. If not, then the last thing you need is narrative structure. Structure exists to convey meaning. If you don't know that meaning or have zero intent to provide a sense of things, then you're not building a narrative argument. You don't have a Premise.

If you do know the answer to your question, then you have a Premise, and you'll need a structure to make that argument. You need to prove to me, for example, that idealism sets one up to fail--assuming, of course, that that is your point-of-view. You could be coming at it from a different angle, in which case the context would shift--along with the structure.

Creating a Context for Your Audience

I can think of several examples where an idealistic mindset saved the world from tyranny, WWII, for instance. But even then, there would be many who would not agree with me. To prove that the naive idealism of the mid-20th century was a good thing, I would need to provide a consistent context. I would need a story where idealism results in triumph (Hacksaw Ridge, Saving Private Ryan, etc.).

When you don't provide that consistent context, you risk losing your audience.

Two Stories, Same Subject Matter

Clint Eastwood made two movies with the same Subject Matter--Duty, Honor, Sacrifice--and even the same setting--Iwo Jima. One film was successful in its portrayal (Letters from Iwo Jima), the other was not (Flags of Our Fathers). While the former kept a consistent context from beginning to end, the latter bounced around from one viewpoint to the next with no real common ground on which to base a solid argument (Premise).

Flags is almost unwatchable. You can't make heads or tails of what the author is trying to say about Duty, Honor, or Sacrifice. And even if you could, the point-of-view is all over the place. Its uneven formation invites criticism, making it easy for anyone to poke holes in the argument.

You can't do that with Letters from Iwo Jima.

One Author wrote Letters--Iris Yamashita. And that film scores a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Flags was written by two Authors separately--and scores a paltry 73% in comparison.

Eastwood felt so compelled to get out of the bed in 2005 that he made two movies about the very same thing. The question is, which one achieved what he set out to say, and more importantly--which one will audiences remember when he can no longer get out of bed?