"Every movie is about identity." - Richard Walter
We previously discussed the two jobs of a good story: keep the audience interested, and change the audience's perception of either themselves or the world. Let's dive into the realm of our thematic tools by looking at that second goal. It's no easy task to give the audience "brand new eyes". What does that even mean, exactly?
“I think we’ve all had that experience of going to see a movie and walking out of an ending and thinking, ‘My God, that ending was so great!’ and you have this sense of euphoria, release, this sense of clarity, and you feel like you’re looking at the world with new eyes.” – Michael Arndt
It's hard to put into words, no doubt. It's a feeling like things make a bit more sense than they did before. It's a therapy of sorts. It's a sense of discovery, euphoria, release, clarity, and identification. The emotion itself is hard to put into words and so it won't be as easy to clearly identify the prerequisites of this goal as it was for keeping the audience interested. But we'll do our best.
First let's ask a basic question: Why do we tell stories? It's another endlessly debatable question but let's list some of the reasons about which there's a general consensus. Stories allow us to:
Rehearse (Prepare and Learn)
Stories act as a means of preparing for future situations, known and unknown. They allow us to learn about how others handled situations that we may encounter in our future.
Our brains are more receptive to information and better at storing information when it comes in story form. For this reason, stories are excellent learning and preparation tools.
"Stories are a way to get the benefit of someone else's experience without having to have the experience oneself." - Brian McDonald
"Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking" - Dr. Rizzolatti
"Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them … Story evolved as a way to explore our own mind and the minds of others, as a sort of dress rehearsal for the future." - Wired for Story
Stories can act as therapy for difficult situations through which we've already lived, or difficult situations through which we're currently living. Stories can be a healing process. They let us know that we're not the only ones who go through these emotions, challenges, and difficulties. Sometimes we just need to know that we're not alone.
Fulfill Our Wishes/Fantasies (Vicarious Living)
Stories allow us to vicariously live out the life of the main character through drama. Many times this main character takes actions that we wish we could take in our own lives and in this way the story becomes a mechanism for wish and fantasy fulfillment. It's entertaining and cathartic.
"Our brain casts us as 'the protagonist' and then edits our experience with cinema-like precision, creating logical interrelations, mapping connections between memories, ideas, and events for future reference" - Wired for Story citing Self Comes to Mind
Examples: James Bond, Superhero Movies, Breaking Bad
Examine, Argue, and Debate a Moral Question (Argue For or Against Change)
Change of our flaws or resoluteness in our righteousness
The lines are blurry between drama and theme in terms of which sphere covers which story purpose, because the truth is they both cover all purposes to various extents at various times. But we can say that the dramatic side of story (concerned with the captivating "here and now" and focused primarily on the scene level) is usually able to successfully fulfill the first three categories. The thematic camp (concerned with the more ethereal subjects of overall theme and meaning) is usually concerned more with accomplishing the last category about debating a moral question (in addition to lending a strong helping hand as a therapeutic tool).
Let's dissect that last category: stories examine, argue, and debate a moral question for the purpose of arguing for or against change. This is fundamentally the thematic purpose of story and it's the central tenet of our "thematic toolbox." And interestingly enough, it's a mark that many stories miss.
What is a moral question? It's a question of "right action." It's a question of "meaning." It's a question of, "What is the best way to live?" "How should you act in this world?" "How should you treat yourself and how should you treat others?" "How should one act to live a fulfilled life?" "How does the world work?" "What's the purpose of this life?" "Why are we here?" A story offers a moral argument in an attempt to answer a moral question. It *also*, just as importantly, offers a counter moral argument, taking the opposite stance on the moral question. There can exist a gradient of answers in between but in a basic form, a story consists of a moral argument *for* an answer to "What is the best way to live?" and a moral argument *against* that same answer (with an implicit or explicit alternative answer). A story is a moral debate in this way.
When a writer tells a story to address a moral question, they are not usually personally ambivalent. Making a moral argument is actually one principle reason that people tell stories. By telling the story, the storyteller usually has a particular moral argument that they want to make. The storyteller has a particular answer to the moral question that they see as the "right" answer. Given that a thematic story must present both sides of a moral argument (rather than just the storyteller's personal view), we can call the side that aligns with the storyteller's personal views the "thesis" or the "*for*" side of the argument. The side that opposes the storyteller's views can be deemed the "antithesis" or the "*against*" side.
By the end of the story, the storyteller will demonstrate or imply that one side is the functionally "winning" (or "*rewarding*") argument (by demonstrating or implying that the exercising of a moral argument through action has resulted in (or would have resulted in) more value than the value resulting from the exercising of the alternate argument). This winning argument (almost always the storyteller's personal view, but not necessarily) can also be called the "theme" of the story. It's the "winning" answer to the moral question. McKee would call it the "controlling idea." As a side note, Brian McDonald argues that the golden theme (or the "winning" moral argument) of all story is: "We're all the same." (The opposing moral argument, of course is, "We're all different.").
K.M. Weiland calls the "right" moral argument the "Truth" and the "wrong" moral argument the "Lie." It's important to realize that although the "right" moral argument is often the "winning" moral argument (in that those that follow the "right" moral argument are rewarded and those that follow the "wrong" moral argument are punished), it's not necessarily always the case. Sometimes those that follow the "wrong" moral argument are rewarded and those that follow the "right" moral argument are punished. Right does not equate to winning and wrong does not equate to losing. The Truth does not always win and the Lie does not always lose. In stories where the character must remain steadfast in the Truth, Michael Arndt calls the "right" moral argument the "underdog values" and the "wrong" moral argument the "dominant values." In essence, these stories consist of the innocent, underdog character versus the corrupt, dominant world (usually embodied in a corrupt, dominant character).
A moral argument can be relatively simple. For instance, the Lie argument might be "crime pays" and the implicit counter Truth argument might be "crime doesn't pay." The Truth argument might be "the community is more important than the individual" and the counter Lie argument might be "the individual should be valued over the community." Or "the community is more important than the individual" might be the Lie argument! It depends on the story you want to tell the moral argument that you want to reward by the end of the story.
In some stories, the Lie is embedded within the psyche of a character (in which case the character has a moral need to change, as John Truby would say). A character who has internalized a Lie might live in a society of Truth. In other stories, the Lie exists within the world or society itself (in which case the world has a moral need to change). A character who must remain steadfast in the Truth (underdog value) may live in a society of the Lie (dominant value).
Remember that the "Truth" is deemed as such by the mere fact that it's the moral argument that the storyteller personally supports (or rather that the storyteller wants to impart to others). Remember also that a good story should argue both sides. Both sides must be given a truly fair opportunity to present the argument that the most well-respected devotee of the viewpoint would espouse.
Let's look at a few of the permutations of how a moral argument can play out over the course of a story (and the subsequent character arcs that may exist). When we talk about "character arcs" we're usually talking about "morality arcs" or "moral argument arcs":
If a character begins with the Truth:
If the character holds onto the Truth and remains steadfast in the face of the Lie:
If the character is rewarded (not just externally, but also internally) for remaining steadfast in the Truth, then one of the story messages becomes "Remain steadfast and resolute in the face of the Lie."
If the character is punished for remaining steadfast in the Truth, then the story message can be seen as one of inconsequential morality or "you won't necessarily be rewarded for your good deeds" or "the good guys don't always win."
If the character abandons the Truth and instead adopts the Lie:
If the character is rewarded (not just externally, but also internally) for adopting the lie, then the story acts as a commentary on the power of the Lie and potentially the state of the story world/society. The character has been corrupted. These are the stories of the anti-hero.
If the character is punished for adopting the Lie, one of the story messages becomes "Remain steadfast in the Truth or this will happen to you." The story becomes a warning.
If a character begins with the Lie:
If the character holds onto the Lie even when confronted with the Truth:
If the character is rewarded (not just externally, but also internally) for failing to adopt the Truth and keeping with the Lie, one of the story's messages becomes something along the lines of "Immorality can pay and sometimes the bad guys win."
If the character is punished for failing to adopt the Truth, one of the story messages becomes "Adopt the Truth or you will suffer." The story becomes a warning--a cautionary tale.
If the character abandons the Lie and adopts the Truth (thus fulfilling their moral need):
If the character is rewarded (not just externally, but also internally) for adopting the Truth, one of the story messages becomes "Adopt the Truth and you will be rewarded."
If the character is punished for adopting the Truth, one of the story messages becomes something along the lines of "You may be punished for adopting morality" or "the world has no meaning."
It's implied that if, for instance, the members of the Lie thematic camp come to adopt the views of the Truth thematic camp that there is no change on the side of the Truth moral argument. However, this is not always the case. Moral arguments don't need to be so black and white. There doesn't *have* to be one moral argument that is "right" and one that is "wrong". It's possible that at the beginning of the story neither side has the actual "right" moral argument. They could *both* be living in different and distinct moral arguments that are both Lies! It's possible that two thematic camps *both* have a revelation and shift to the Truth (which John Truby calls a "double reversal"). Great meaning can be gleaned from the emergence of a Truth as the "middle way" where neither side was correct in their moral argument. It's also possible that there are two separate moral arguments where both sides stay steadfast. They might both stay steadfast in their distinct Lies or they may both stay steadfast in distinct Truths. Offering no change with rewards on both sides or punishments on both sides can make it difficult to glean meaning from the story, however.
When trying to decide whether the character should start with the Lie and adopt the Truth or start with the Truth and remain steadfast (of course these are not the only options), think carefully about which moral argument you want to express from the perspective of the audience (i.e. as the main character) versus the alternate argument which will be expressed as the "other" moral argument (i.e. the argument of the world/society usually embodied by another character). Which side of the argument should be made from the inside (from within ourselves) and which argument should be from the outside (from others)? Do you feel that the majority of the audience already has the Truth and needs to simply remain resolute against all odds? Or does the majority of the audience need to change and find the Truth? Remember, the character arc is a tool of the moral argument and should be treated as such.
When in doubt, prefer the path of including the smallest number of distinct moral arguments. Binary is best for simplicity. It's an instinctual and tribal thought: "Are you on team 1 or team 2?" It can sometimes be hard for the audience to keep track of more than that and especially to identify. You can have supporting themes and supporting moral arguments tackling supporting ideas, of course, but it's most helpful to explore anyone theme from two distinct angles. The same set of events can just as easily be told from the other team's perspective (and the antagonists can become the protagonists, for instance). Everyone thinks they're the good guys.
Characters fall into thematic camps. Each character generally supports one moral argument over the other (i.e. the Truth camp or the Lie camp). But how can we, as audience members, tell which camp a character is in? They could always just outright tell us (although can we believe them?). But that can often make for uninteresting or unengaging storytelling. The alternative is that we can identify a character's thematic camp by judging their actions.
"Values are deep-seated beliefs about what makes a good life." - John Truby. Values *are* moral arguments. The morality that we support is spoken through our value system. And good moral arguments aren't made through talk (although they are clarified and pinpointed through talk. No one can resist a great moral aria). Talk is cheap. Don't focus on needing to convey with complete clarity your exact moral arguments to the audience--just keep them in mind while writing actions and decisions. Moral arguments are made most effectively through a demonstration of one's values and beliefs. And how do we *really* know what a character values? How do we *really* know what they believe? There's only one way to truly know: Crisis.
We know that true values aren't demonstrated through talk and so we may then be tempted to say that values are demonstrated through action. But that's not *quite* the full picture. Values aren't demonstrated through just any action, but rather through action taken when the stakes are high. "True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature." - Robert McKee.
Sometimes writers are afraid of being preachy when making moral arguments in their stories. That's a completely understandable fear. How do you prevent it? Have your characters argue through their actions, not their words. It's not necessary to have a long, soliloquy espousing the virtues of a moral argument in order to make the argument. Moral argument and theme can be demonstrated through action in crisis and structure.
Values are demonstrated, shaped, and solidified in the crucible of crisis. What is a crisis? It's a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives with a distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome. There *must* be the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome (i.e. there must be high stakes) in order for a choice to be a true demonstration of character values. If nothing is at stake, then nothing is lost by doing the right thing. But when doing the right thing is costly, you must decide what you really value and how much you're willing to risk. Risk is a statement of value, and the more one is willing to risk, the more the importance of the value is demonstrated.
A character can claim that their primary value is protecting the downtrodden. And that's easy to claim when offering assistance comes at no cost. But when helping the downtrodden would cause the character to lose their job that's providing just enough money to support their family of 5 children, now the stakes are high. And the character's action in this moment will define their values.
Our morality is spoken by our value system (as evidenced by our actions in moments of high stakes). Our perception of our own values gives rise to our desires and actions in pursuit of those desires. And that pursuit leads to obstacles and sometimes crisis. Crisis then becomes the moment where our values (and our perception of ourselves) are either reaffirmed or eroded. You cannot separate the actor (i.e. the one who desires and takes action) from the moral arguer (i.e. the self-perceived value system and the thematic camp to which one belongs). We act based on how we perceive ourselves and our self-perception changes based on our actions. They're feedback loops of each other. The objective actor and the subjective moral arguer exist in the same body. The belief and the action are part of the same cycle of moral argument. The theme that a character supports is demonstrated by their actions under fire.
Members of each thematic camp (characters and society alike) are invited to shift camps at moments of crisis. The crisis is an opportunity to demonstrate a change of moral argument by virtue of choice/action under fire (where there are high stakes and the distinct possibility of loss). A character that is on the verge of shifting camps and struggling may have a desire consistent with the alternate moral argument and consequently may be ashamed of that desire (and resist taking action on it for fear of falling into the alternate camp). Resistance to change, opportunity, or action is usually born of fear.
We've made clear that action only truly demonstrates and shapes character values when there are high stakes. The importance of stakes in a good screenplay cannot be overstated. Part of the reason for this is that stakes are nearly synonymous with consequences. And as we know, if there are no consequences, actions have no weight. Without stakes, we can't become emotionally invested in action. Without stakes, conflict is meaningless because it can have no effect. Without stakes, there is no consequence of failure. Without consequence of failure, success loses both its glory and its meaning.
Stakes get the audience interested. Stakes get characters committed. Stakes setup the great gamble of a story: "What do you value so much you'll risk it all?" Stakes create suspense. Stakes create emotional involvement. Stakes are at the core of both drama and theme. Stakes create consequences. Stakes create meaning. The value of stakes cannot be overstated. Make sure you have them.
Michael Arndt argues that a good story has 3 distinct sets of stakes: external, internal/emotional, and philosophical. The external stakes indicate what may be lost in the pursuit of the protagonist's external, visible story goal. The internal stakes indicate what may be lost emotionally by the main character if they fail to achieve their emotional/internal/relationship goals. The philosophical stakes indicate what may be lost if the Lie moral argument of the story world dominates the Truth, in the end. Michael argues that many stories are missing this last set of philosophical stakes.
The philosophical stakes are absolutely key to any story hoping to properly explore a moral question. In essence, the moral order of the story world must be at stake (and all the implications of the won/lost moral argument on the story world). The stakes and the final winning moral order in the story world act as a metaphor for the stakes and moral order in the audience's world (our world). Be sure your story explores the moral implications of the dominance of the Lie and the moral implications of the dominance of the Truth. The philosophical and moral future of your story world (and ours) is at stake.
A character desire can be seen as a bet. The character is betting that either they can gain something or they can prevent the loss of something. The thing they're desiring to gain or desiring not to lose is the initial bet (and the initial stakes). Sometimes as the bet continues, the character is asked or forced to raise their bet (to raise the stakes). Each bet has a probability of win/loss (an outlook). That probability can change over time as new information is attained and as actions are taken. The outlook is the probability that the bet will end favorably/unfavorably and thus the stakes will be won/lost. Conflict can modify the current outlook of the bet. Certain actions can force an outcome of the bet and force a decision as to who will win/lose the stakes. A story can be thought of as a bet on the moral order of the story world (with the philosophical stakes equating to the implications of the winning/losing moral order on the story world).
The outlook of the stakes (of the win/loss probability of the bet) are an important measuring stick. The outlook of the stakes are an indicator as to which moral argument is currently "winning." This is actually pretty common sense. As things become more uncertain or gloomy for your side, your moral argument appears to be losing.
So we now know what a moral argument is. We know how to make one through actions and structure. And we also know how to measure which moral argument is "winning" by the outlook of the story stakes. All of this is in service of trying to answer the question of how to give our audience that euphoric moment of clarity and perception at the end of a story. So let's tackle the big question.
What is meaning? Meaning is coming to understand something's true nature. It's coming to understand something's essence or essential nature. It's coming to understand what something *is*. It's about coming to understand identity.
How do we come to understand something's identity? Just in the same way we try to identify an object we can't visually make out: we come at it from different angles. We walk around it and try to view it in three dimensions instead of from a single image. Context is key to understanding.
We come to know something's identity through comparison and relativity. It is only by knowing darkness that we can come to understand light. It is only by knowing dry that we can understand wet. This isn't to say that to know something it must be confronted with its opposite, but rather that to know a *property* of something, that property must be compared with its opposite or absence. We come to understand identity by understanding difference. The phrase, "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone" gets at the core of this identification process. We realize and appreciate properties and characteristics when they're absent in the process of comparison. This process of comparison is about making a connection between two elements and then reconciling the differences and similarities. In that process of reconciliation and synthesis, we find meaning (about the identity of both of the compared elements). Elements are juxtaposed, synthesis and reconciliation occurs, and meaning is gleaned. (This process of the juxtaposition of disparate elements gives rise to both puzzles in a dramatic context and meaning in a thematic context).
We also come to know something's identity by its fruits. That is to say, we come to know the nature of a cause by the effects that it creates. Identity can begin to be defined by seeing something in action and understanding the effects of its action. We can watch something's identity change as its actions and effects change. This process of comparing cause to effect can also be seen as a process of juxtaposition itself. We compare actor to action in order to find a relationship, a connection, a pattern. The relationship then informs us about the nature of the actor (the cause). We want to "make sense" (understand) of "what happened" (effect of action). Meaning comes from comparison and reconciliation.
When we want to "make sense" of something, we're actually seeking meaning in it and understanding of it. You'll notice how closely this process of finding meaning through juxtaposition and reconciliation relates to the central tenet of "figure it out" in the dramatic sphere. In the thematic realm we "make sense" of the juxtaposition. In the dramatic sphere we "figure out" the juxtaposition. But they're the same process of reconciliation and synthesis, and this is one reason why the dramatic and thematic spheres cannot truly be separated.
This comparison of actor and action/reaction is the root of the concept of a character change. Characters react in response to crisis. Their reactions tells about their nature. As a character's response to crisis changes, we understand that the identity of the character is changing, too. As storytellers, we want the audience to relate to and find meaning in the idea that "you can change to the Truth, too" or "you must remain steadfast in the Truth, too." On a basic level, meaning is a product of cause and effect. We often find this in people exclaiming (and many times rationalizing) that the "meaning" behind some event in their past must have been to setup or influence an effect that has just recently occurred.
Comparison between disparate elements can be done by presenting the same thing in different contexts. The larger the number of disparate elements to which we compare something, the better chance at understanding the nature of the "something". We come to a greater understanding of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey by seeing it in different contexts. The more context we are given, the more meaning can be gleaned. In this way, meaning and understanding comes from repetition of the subject in different contexts. Symbols can be given meaning through this technique. We can also give a symbol meaning by showing what it *does*, or more accurately what it *causes* to happen.
Through this process of discovering meaning and understanding, we're trying to come to know identity and essential nature. The essential nature of a bird is to sing. The essential nature of a piano is to be played. The essential nature of a warrior is to be in war. We come to understand this essential nature through comparison and through effects.
We can't truly come to know a moral argument without considering its opposition. To help the audience to extract meaning from a moral argument, we must let them compare the theme with its opposition. Let them truly look at all angles. Let them come to appreciate the meaning of the theme, and how it differs from its alternatives. The final reward and punishment of the story provides meaning and understanding of which moral argument results in which effects (i.e. which rewards). That process of dishing out the prize and punishment is essential for delivering the meaning of the moral arguments (which moral argument is the Truth and which is the Lie in the eye of the storyteller).
We can come to understand a character's morality (and consequently the moral camp to which they belong) by comparing the decisions and actions of the character with those of alternate moralities, or by showing the character's morality in different contexts, or by showing the effects (side effects) of the character exercising their morality.
But at the end of the day, meaning alone is not good enough. It's not enough just for the audience to understand the moral argument. To give us brand new eyes, we must *identify* with the meaning of the moral argument. Only through *identifying* with a *meaningful* moral argument can we have a truly life-changing story.
The next question: What kind of meaning is most poignant? Most stirring? Most impactful? The answer: Meaning that tells us about who we are. Meaning that explores what it means to be human. "Every movie is about identity." - Richard Walter.
We want to relate. We just want to *relate*. We want to identify with the human condition. We want to identify with loneliness, loss, longing, love, hope, dreams, nostalgia, fantasies, fears, strength, weakness, corruption, temptation, and mercy.
We want themes that tell us about who we *are* about why we're here. We want to identify with the way we believe the world works. We want to identify with how humanity works. We want confirmation of our hopes about what we *can* be. We want confirmation of our potential. We want to brush up against and fears and come to believe that we can conquer them. We want forgiveness for the things that we *were* and mercy for the things that we still *are*.
We want to know what we ought to do the get the most out of life. We want to relate to the way life works. We want to relate to the way that life hurts. We want to see ourselves in others. We want to see others in ourselves.
Themes can be about confronting that which is absent within us and being told that we have the ability to change (or what will happen to us if we don't change). Themes can be about recognizing that which is already in us and being told that we have the strength to persist (or warn us of what will happen if we fail to persist).
Who am I? Why am I here? How do I know I'm really here? Why do I put up with what I put up with? How should I live? Life-changing themes are about *us*.
We're aiming for *identification* with a theme. It's a deeper level than empathy as we think of it. It's empathy with the story on a deep, existential level. Whether it's the character, the world, or the situation, it's an existential identification process. We don't all identify with the same themes which makes this an especially subjective endeavor. You won't have the entirety of the audience coming out with brand new eyes. But if you can get a majority, you've done your job.
"Yes! I *feel* this. I *identify* with this. This is *me*. This is *my world*. This is my *life*. I *am* this." "This was my past" or "I was afraid this might have been my past" or "This could have been my past." "This is what I'm going through" or "This could be what I would have gone through (for better or worse)". "I yearn for this for my future" or "I fear this for my future."
Not all themes can carry that emotional weight--certainly not for everyone. There have been movies that have moved me to reconsider how I live my life and yet at the same movie I didn't see more than a shrug from my close friends. The thematic realm is one of morality and subjectivity.
We'll focus on tools for being able to properly make a moral argument in an entertaining, meaningful, empathetic, and moving way. We may not be able to get everyone to identify on a soul-changing level, but we can sure take them for a ride.