Generating Meaning in a Narrative without Inducing Gagging

Photo: SplitShire/https://www.splitshire.com/licence/

Meaning or drivel?

When writing narratives, whether fiction or screenplays, do you struggle with clearly incorporating larger truths in a way that avoids being too obvious? How do you relay a universal underlying message without coming across either didactic or sappy and sentimental?

That’s a very important balance to find.

The lesson from the plot

Theme arises from plot: traditionally, we see the protagonist overcome her flaw in order to properly integrate her wants and needs. Perhaps the wants are misguided, selfish, gullible or maybe they’re valid but she’s resisting honoring them.

True needs often discovered through encounters with the antagonist and/or a catalyst character over the course of the story. Once she understands those needs and is forced to face where she is stuck, taking her down to her lowest point in the Crisis, she must be reborn through deep change, as hard as that is. Only then can she rise to the occasion and move forward on a linear path to battle the antagonist victoriously.

Of course, not all stories follow that pattern, especially if they are Literary, but it’s the most common plot skeleton. The theme is dramatized when we see what the protagonist learns what allows her to succeed. The theme rarely needs to be stated directly by the narrator.

When it is, it should not be on-the-nose. Please.

Show don’t tell the theme — usually

The readers or audience can figure it out while watching the action unfold. We like to come to our own conclusions. That’s how life is: we don’t have creatures sitting on our shoulders interpreting everything for us. Show us, rather than telling us. Dramatize through action rather than explaining with expository prose.

However, if your protagonist says a memorable, succinct, powerful short sentence that sums it up, particularly in a Genre story, that can be a successful rallying cry for the theme. In the best of all worlds, audience members will say it to each other later at appropriate occasions, because the phrase took hold in their imagination.

Ideally, the phrasing of the theme sounds like the beloved character would really say it, with her cadence and taking into consideration her background. She could be eccentric in a way that leads to that phrase being particularly colorful. We can hear her say it in our minds, and her voice is unique. She’s a full-bodied character compelling enough that we root for her to figure out that phrase and act upon it, and when she wins her battle by doing so, we celebrate.

The catalyst character could say the phrase early in the narrative, well before the protagonist has come to understand it.

It’s possible the protagonist could say the theme when she is in the throes of the Middle of the plot, getting an idea of what she needs to do, but unclear on how to do it and how much transformation, sacrifice and tough decisions that process will require.

She could say the theme when she learns her lesson at the end of the Crisis or when she moves into the Climax.

Or she could make a painting, graffiti, petite point or song that incorporates it. She could scratch the phrase on her cell, get it tattooed or write it as the last item in her quirky To Do list on her fridge. She could name her horse after it.

Yeah, we’ve heard it before

Themes tend to sound pretty stupid, honestly. They’re usually common sense platitudes that everyone has heard a hundred times. Be true to yourself, for example. But people still have trouble being themselves, in spite of hearing that affirmation.

However, if you suspensefully dramatize the high stakes of the theme, your readers/audience experience a character going through the problems from not being herself. When your readers feel her gloriously GETTING that message all the way down to her core, vicarious change can come for them. They’re inspired to — be themselves.

Theme isn’t enough

For readers to care, though, the suspense must be strong, particularly in Genre narratives: it is a combination of hope that she will achieve her needs and fear that she will not. We have to feel some connection to her to root for her success. We feel the pain of her being stuck where she is if she doesn’t shake things up. And we see how terrible the future will end up if she doesn’t fulfill the theme.

We can feel these things because we see the one-of-a-kind surprising, fresh details of her life, like the setting around her, how she handles the props, how the weather feels to her, how her body reacts to the emotions, what her posture, gestures and expressions resonate with in ourselves. Our senses are engaged.

Transformation or not

If your protagonist knows the message already when going into the story, she may not really be your protagonist. The protagonist is the character who changes most in regards to the theme, and the transformation happens through encounters with the antagonist who thwarts her goals in just the right way to draw that understanding out of her.

In a Literary narrative, the protagonist can be given chances to learn the theme, but fails, turning it into a Tragedy. If you’re making a movie like that, prepare to fund it yourself, but if you do, it might win a Festival. Commercial fiction and feature films tend to be more upbeat currently.

Awfulness

What makes us feel disgusted over smarmy, preachy messages of meaning?

Audacious statements

Well, for one thing, the messages are stated without being proven. Normally narratives are not associated with proving a thesis — that’s what essays do. But if there’s a theme that’s implied or stated, the narrator can’t just say it without backing it up. The story can’t just happen without proving it fully and then a character says a great theme. It will fall flat. And it will make readers argue with the writer.

Unrealistic

We have to see exactly what goes wrong if the theme isn’t adhered to in a character’s life and it has to be logical. There has to be truly no way out of the mess. And we have to see what goes right: again, logic rules.

It can’t be too easy, utopian, or naive. She has to really struggle for that epiphany. It can’t be handed to her. She can’t accept it at first, but the events that occur, one after another in narrative format, not expository, not speeches, convince her in a visceral way.

Preachy

The worst thing that kills enjoyment of a narrative is if it’s so theme-driven that the characters feel like illustrations of points rather than flesh and blood humans with their own quirks that come through the subtext of their dialogue. Illustrative characters don’t make for entertainment. No one enjoys being preached at, especially to learn a platitude, when trying to have a good time reading a narrative. About believable characters. Seriously. Just don’t do that.

Make the characters unique as they tease and one-up each other, preen, try to gain attention, fumble over words, talk about other things like normal people do rather than always speaking in organized, erudite paragraphs that sound like prepared speeches.

Presumptive, arrogant parroting of popular opinions on hot topics

Sometimes it’s obvious from the beginning that the writer is creating an abstract story as an illustration, rather than arising from realistic fleshed out characters, to teach us something that’s a controversial hot topic, and often that comes across as arrogant and presumptive.

Maybe we already know far more about it than the writer! And maybe there are no quirky details to make it unique and immersive, but it remains generic, like a sterile fable to teach us a lesson as if we were children.

It’s fine to write about things you haven’t personally experienced, but if the writer is experiencing outrage about something he watched on the news for a minute and now feels a moral imperative to preach about it, that’s not a great idea.

Maybe the writer got those ideas through watching a popular new station and did no research, has no experience with it, didn’t consider other sides to it and is hyped up about it because the newscaster said to be and his peers are all getting emotional about it at parties. Then, he wrote about it to teach the unenlightened people a lesson on how they should think, or else they’re evil. Gag.

I trust you’ll write wonderfully believable stories now, with realistic, fully fleshed out characters, with nuanced suggestions of themes arising from encounters with antagonists. Yay!

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Tantra Bensko

Tantra Bensko

Gold-medal-winning psychological suspense novelist, writing Instructor, manuscript editor living in Berkeley.