Touch them using theme.
Theme unifies a work’s plot and character arcs in a relevant way for them (the audience). If a work is popular you’ll find at it’s heart a theme any and every audience can relate to, no matter the subject matter. With these 7 steps to engaging the audience any work can be popular too. In step #3, by touching the audience’s humanity the relevance of the story’s theme relates to anyone’s life.
I see theme as the dirty secret in a work. You can’t escape its presence, but you don’t openly talk about it or see it directly either. Theme should writhe and coil in your belly. It unfolds from your center, slipping and sliding through your limbs until it makes its way to the tips of your toes and fingers. Redemption. Hope. Imprisonment. Freedom. Corruption. Integrity. These are all ideas explored in The Shawshank Redemption. To me none of these work as a theme. Motivation, motifs, or character arcs, yes, but not as a unifying idea carried through the entire work. Caught up in the story being set in prison, I missed the theme until now – my favorite of all themes too – survival. Unjustly thrust into a new world, without the proper tools to survive, proven powerless day after day, Andy Dufresne is expected to survive.
Discussing with my writing partner how this applies to why this movie is so popular, she put forth her own suggestion – humanity. There is this sort of buddy movie feel to the story as Andy makes friends along the way. They give him purpose to survive in a purposeless situation. He comes to see they are in the very same struggle to survive as he is, but without the hope being innocent provides him. As their physical prison becomes more acceptable to them, a prison of the mind slowly erodes what humanity they have left. Brooks dies as a result of this erosion. Andy risks revealing too much and getting caught to give Red a chance to save himself from the same fate. The lesson for Andy, you survive not by thinking about yourself, but by helping others retain their humanity.
A prison was the perfect setting to explore the movie’s themes. Andy didn’t go to jail though because he committed a crime. He went to jail for a whole host of bad choices. We could certainly imagine our own choices and might very well find ourselves wanting in Andy’s place. In a position where he’s forced to accept the consequences of his actions he decides no more reacting to bad situations…it’s time to take the power of change in his own hands. The audience’s ability to put themselves in Andy’s place spoke to their own humanity and so made the movie popular. The moral of The Shawshank Redemption being: theme works when it touches an audience’s humanity.
Love is a thing every person on the planet seeks. It’s a part of our humanity, it’s a need that eclipses the physical when a person finds it true. The hidden benefit to love as a theme is the audience wants to be sucked into the story before their mind can overrule their heart. You guessed it, I’m talking about The Twilight Saga. A writer wants to be able to develop their expanding ideas in a place where there is ground already primed for the seeds of their story. Woven in some way into every single work ever written, the theme of love is a very utilized seed. So much so they take easily but if not cultivated will wither into stink weeds. Plant them in the wrong type of ground and you get a thing so sweet it sickens the audience. Clichés are like stones, they get in the way of the flow of the story and stress the audience’s belief barrier.
So what was the right type of ground for the Twilight Saga? A book series. A trust forms because the audience is with Bella before she meets Edward. Even if you don’t want to root for the couple you are won over by Bella’s inner conflict. Because nothing is withheld about her budding feelings, we know them to be true, which touches our own humanity and ideas of love. Another format doesn’t allow for this trust or partnership to develop and instead the story can come across as yet another cliché. In the writing of her story Stephanie Meyers wasn’t seeking to enthrall anyone but herself. She sought out a story she could relate to about the things she loved: the vampire and werewolf worlds. A very classic world that hearkened to a Romeo and Juliet type of slant for her story. This type of ground is primed for a heroine torn between two loves from two different world.
All sorts of clichés pit the theme of love. You can see fragments of these stones in both Edward and Jacob. Meyers smashed all the clichés of love by combining, combining, combining. You know the classic rule about combining characters if you can…the same is true for clichés. Edward is indeed Bella’s first love, he’s a dangerous vampire who desires her blood and rather rich beyond anything. Jacob is a quasi third point in a love triangle and only came about when Edward left Bella. He becomes her best friend, being so different from Edward she could lose herself in his way of life. Whichever of Bella’s loves you were rooting for, doesn’t really matter. The Twilight Saga touched readers humanity by taking them on a love filled journey through a crazy supernatural world.
The 60′s were a time of change, of extremes. For many of the young it was an indulgent time: new uninhibited ways were developed simply to be in opposition with their parent’s mores. For the advertising world all sorts of products we take for granted now were being branded, new needs were being ferreted out and met, and the art of advertising was in the process of being explored. Of course, I’m taking about Mad Men. In today’s day and age, society has been taught consumerism and selfishness, we’ve become a hodge podge of sameness with political correctness ruling our every action. It’s understandable we are unhappy. Don Draper though lives in a time where cool people are simply cooler. He’s in the prime of his life, it’s an enigma he’s so darn unhappy.
The theme of Mad Men took me a long time to ferret out. In fact, without the realization that all popular works have themes around humanity I wouldn’t have. I toyed with the idea it’s about identity. Identity certainly plays a part in Don Draper’s character arc. He struggles with a self-hatred that remains hidden even to himself as he protects his psyche with a decided lack of self-awareness. He’s deluded himself that by forming a new self around Don Draper’s life that Dick Whitman is dead and he’s happy. That’s the key though neither Don nor Dick are happy. In fact they both insist on being unhappy. As you can see my argument is just as strong for identity as the theme, as it is for my real choice – unhappiness.
The element I admire the most about Mad Men is the way it excels at layers. It’s what makes the setup of each character arc so compelling in the moment as well as in the payoff. It’s what makes the point of view twist through the secondary character’s views of Don so powerful. These layers need something that draws them together though, that blends them into one work. Identity doesn’t do this. Don is exploring his unhappiness through his identity. Any connections you make to other characters are a stretch. Pete is exploring his unhappiness through his love life. Peggy her work life. Roger, this season, his sex life. Joan is a little more complex, she explores hers through acceptance, first by her husband then the partners at the office. None of them really achieve happiness, only a delusion that they may be so…what does that say about our own unhappiness?
I wanna be popular too you say…and you can be. Touch them using theme. As a powerful unifying topic within a work, theme helps them (the audience) to understand the relevance of a writer’s story in their own lives. An audience chooses a work for rather trivial reasons: an hour of levity, a particular actor or a rather intriguing premise. As a writer we want the audience to come out the other end of their experience touched beyond the trivial. Whether its courage in the face of injustice, hope as two lovers can finally be together or a bit of persistence despite the reality of unhappiness, it doesn’t matter. Tie your theme into the audience’s humanity, choose the right setting to explore your theme and deliver your story in a way the theme will shine brightest.
As a writer, take the third step in your own work to engage the audience: touch them using theme. Continue reading how with these 7 steps to engaging the audience any work can be popular too.