On Stories: Understanding your theme, cautionary tales.

In my last post, I spoke about worldview as the unavoidable lens though which all tales are told.  Among other things, worldview is why anthropologists so love folktales and myths: because they can reveal so much about the culture, society, lifestyles, and overall shared views of a people.  They can reveal how those people viewed the universe and their place in it.

The same can be said for any modern work of fiction (and non-fiction).  Any modern tale will inevitably reflect something about our current culture, society, the world we live in and in particular, the author’s understanding of it all.  But here, to make it a good story, I offer these cautions:

Beware of showing the extremes:  A book, for example, about “how God is an idiot and how a brave soul can dethrone God and set the universe free” tell us more about the blinking atheist who wrote it than about the universe.  (Likewise, much “Christian” fiction does the same in reverse).  Be aware.  Our stories will reflect our perception of reality, but extreme positions don’t help others understand and deal with reality better, they simply reveal the author’s prejudices.

It can be a temptation to take a thought to its extreme limit and tell that story to express this “great truth.”  As often as not, though, I have seen that backfire, where readers find it hard to take anything the author says seriously, if they even bother to finish reading or listening to the story.  It can be a bit like being hit over the head with a sledgehammer. 

Beware of oversimplification:  Likewise, the desire to simplify the story down to protagonist (good guys) and antagonist (bad guys) can be very strong.  My advice:  don’t give into the temptation.  It is the same temptation journalists give into daily:  to present their side of the story brilliantly and to find some blithering doofus to represent the other side. 

The truth is, life is complicated.  As many have said, sometimes the best stories are not even about the struggle between good and evil, but between two goods (or the lesser of two evils).  To be fair, the best stories consider two irreconcilable differences, like Kramer vs Kramer.  This is a messy world, and while the storyteller/storywriter has some compunction to bring order out of chaos, I feel it is best done in a careful way: a way that is “fair and balanced” as one news organization suggests; at least as far as our worldview will allow.

Remember:  The primary purpose in telling a story is to get the audience to pay attention (the reader to keep reading) right to the very end.

In sum.:  Many, if not most stories are told/written without any conscious examination of purpose (theme).  Mark Twain at the beginning of Huckleberry Finn was clear about that:  He said, “Anyone attempting to find a plot will be shot.”  Understand, though, that does not mean the story has no theme.  It may end up the result of muddled thinking, and sadly, many stories that line the bookshelves in the bookstores are exactly that: muddled and confused.  But the best are not.  They speak clearly to the author’s purpose in telling the story, whether the author did so consciously or not. 

Likewise, your story will say something, perhaps something unintended, but it is not a bad thing to consider what it is you are actually saying in the story, and why, and it may even suggest the best way to approach telling the story in the first place.  Something to think about.

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