Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Working on 'theme'

Once I’d finished delving into my characters, it was time to think about theme. I’ve been reading a few books on the subject recently (as I’ve been discussing in the comments section of the last post) as I’m starting to see how theme is the glue that holds the story into a cohesive whole. This is not to say that my books so far haven’t had themes, because I think a theme grows out of the author’s viewpoint and the characters’ journeys. But I want to have a bit more conscious input on my theme, rather than feeling it’s a fuzzy entity somewhere out there in the ether that I occasionally manage to grab onto and pin down.

Currently I’m reading Inside Story: The Power Of The Transformational Arc by Dara Marks, and the last book I found really interesting on the subject was The Moral Premise by Stanley D. Williams. I wrote a post about the book for the Pink Heart Society last year, so for a slightly more in depth look, with an example from Titanic, go here.

By 'moral' premise Williams doesn't mean something preachy or judgemental, merely that what others have referred to as the 'theme' or the 'controlling idea' of the story taps into universal values - things like friendship, courage, honour, freedom, generosity or unconditional love - qualities we'd all like to see more of in our world and in our lives.

The moral premise is not just closely linked to the 'inner story'; it is the inner story - what your book is really about. I had already worked out before I read The Moral Premise that the theme of a successful story was closely tied to the protagonist's emotional journey, but this book helped me collect my thoughts on this matter, expanded on them, and filled in some of the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.

So...what is the Moral Premise?

Stan Williams simply says it is a statement of truth about the protagonist's psychological predicament (what I think of as inner conflict).

This truth is often presented to a protagonist in various ways throughout His or her story, but there is usually one moment when it is most clear - what Williams calls the 'moment of grace'. At this point, the main character has a choice to make. They can either accept the truth presented to them - which will normally lead to change for the better, meaning a happy ending, or they can reject that truth and suffer the consequences!

So…how does this have any bearing for the ballerina and the action man?

For the last book, and now this one, I followed a set of steps outlined in ‘The Moral Premise’ to help me tap into my theme and make sure I was keeping things consistent.

1. Determine the controlling virtue of your story.

I was asked to write a story based on a fairy tale, and I chose Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. I wanted protagonists from two very different worlds and a heroine with a longing to escape hers and live in his – hence my frustrated ballerina. After I thought hard about my heroine (see here for my character-mining expedition for Allegra), I realised that what Allegra really needed was to take charge of her own life. She needed to feel free.

‘The Little Mermaid’ – controlling virtue: freedom

  • Freedom to choose one's own destiny
  • Freedom to speak and express one's opinion

2. Determine the controlling vice of your story.

This is always going to be the flipside of the virtue – what character flaw/negative issue my protagonist is dealing with. But I wanted to be specific about it. Allegra feels trapped and helpless, but she allows herself to be controlled, especially by her father.

‘The Little Mermaid’ – controlling vice: captivity/suppression

  • Not being in control of one's life.
  • Suppressing emotion and ideas.
  • Staying silent instead of speaking out.

3. Define the moral premise of your story:

A double-sided statement on the truth of the protagonist’s psychological predicament. The moral premise of The Little Mermaid is:

Allowing oneself to be held captive, by oneself or others, leads to frustration and isolation. Embracing freedom, and all that means, leads to creativity, connection and love.

But this post is getting a little long, so I’ll stop here and elaborate on how I apply this to the structure of the story in another post!


Janet said...

That's so interesting.
Thank you so much for doing these posts.

As a romance has 2 main characters, do we concentrate on the character who has the bigger arc, to help us pinpoint the moral premise?

Or do we make a statement that includes both characters'lessons to learn? (Like the premise you gave for The Little mermaid)

Cara Cooper said...

Hi Fiona and Janet (Janet, promise I'm not stalking you having dropped in here via M&B subcare but Fiona's blog has been such an interesting way of looking at things and it's really helping me with my current draft!) Looking at your other example, Fiona, of the film Titanic it seems that the moral premise can, if you want, belong mainly to one character. In Titanic, Leonardo di Caprio's character was largely the agent of the heroine's achievement of her moral premise. I do also think she had the bigger character arc, a bigger journey than him. I guess both characters can have their own moral premise as long as those can work alongside each other to bring both character to a resolution of their inner conflicts.

Janet said...

"I guess both characters can have their own moral premise as long as those can work alongside each other to bring both character to a resolution of their inner conflicts."

Thanks Cara --that's what I thought.

Jack in Titanic didn't seem to have an arc--he freed Rose and was a catalyst for her to grow emotionally so th theme was Rose's lesson learned

I'm guessing that M&B editors want the H and h to both have clear arcs (similar sized ones?) --which makes me wonder which character carries what Dara Marks call the thematic perspective --the author's statement about the theme.

I suppose that for the story to have a point, we need to focus on only one character's lesson.

My mind's going round in circles :)