Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Truth is Out There

By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 24, 2016

 

As writers we want a big theme. A theme with power and scale.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. The truth is out there -- on at least six levels.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. The truth is out there — on at least six levels.

But, even more, we want a theme with depth, a theme that has level after level of meaning.

The theme in Jurassic World, we said last week, is “Don’t mess with Mother Nature.” Let’s examine how deep that theme goes. How many levels does it work on?

On the surface, on Level #1, what Jurassic’s theme means is “Don’t resurrect and genetically mutate creatures with very large teeth and extremely aggressive carnivorous instincts—and, if you do, pen them up very, very securely.”

Level #2 of the same theme is “Arrogance produces calamity.” Pride goeth before the fall, or, as the ancient Greeks would’ve said, “Hubris produces Nemesis.”

This second level takes the theme significantly beyond dinosaurs and theme parks. It could be speaking of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It could have resonance with global climate change and mankind’s contribution to it.

Level #3 goes even deeper. On the spiritual level, “Don’t mess with Mother Nature” becomes, “There exists a proper relationship between the human and the divine. Heed, O Man, and transgress not.”

Readers and audiences feel these levels, even if they can’t articulate them. Even if they’re completely unconscious of these layers of meaning, the audience senses the depth of the material (yes, even in a dino flick) and this adds to the emotional wallop of the story.

Worldwide, the four Jurassic Park movies have made $3.5 billion. Yeah, the rush of watching dinosaurs on a rampage may account for 90% of that. But depth of theme is contributing too. It helps.

Consider another runaway hit: The X-Files.

What is The X-Files about? We could say it’s about the search for extraterrestrial invaders, or about the relationship between Scully and Mulder. That would be the subject, but it’s not the theme.

The theme is conspiracy—and paranoia spawned by the fear of conspiracy. The ad line says it all:

 

The Truth is Out There.

 

That theme is much bigger than the content of the X-Files show or movies, and it resonates for the viewer at a far deeper level.

Level #1 is personal. It’s Mulder’s (David Duchovny) individual paranoia and belief in conspiracy. His sister vanished when he was a child. He’s convinced she was abducted by aliens, but he can’t get anyone in authority to believe him or to take his conviction seriously.

Level #2 is the political. Aliens have indeed landed (or crashed) on Earth many times. The government has evidence of this but, for its own nefarious reasons, is keeping it secret from the public.

Now we’re getting into juicy paranoia and conspiracy. Let’s go deeper.

Level #3 is the darker political. Beyond its knowledge of UFO crashes and alien apprehensions, the government is covering up all kinds of evil truths and events. Who killed Kennedy? Why did we go to war in Vietnam? What forces lurk behind the Wall Street cabal?

Level #4: Authority in all forms is hiding stuff from us. Our parents. Our schools. Our institutions. The world is not as we have been told it is (it’s worse … and we’re getting screwed by it big-time!)—and no one in authority will break silence to confirm this.

This sounds nuts, I know. But why are survivalists stocking up on beef jerky and .762 ammo? Why did gun-toting ranchers occupy Malheur Reserve in Oregon? In Texas the governor put the State Guard on alert just this past summer, fearing that an army training exercise was really a cover for the Feds to take over the state. On the left, the paranoia runs just as deep. Doesn’t the Trilateral Commission secretly control the universe? Or is that Fox News and the “vast right-wing conspiracy?”

Let’s dig even deeper.

Level #5: Our very conception of reality has been manipulated to render us passive and to control us. You and I are like the characters in 1984 or The Matrix. Unseen overlords have created an artificial environment and convinced us that it is real. They are duping us and exploiting us for their own profit.

Level #6: Life itself, by its very nature, is an illusion. More than that, built in to the nature of consciousness are factors invisible to us whose sole purpose is to make us believe in the reality of this surface illusion. A man has a dream in which he is a butterfly. Is he a man dreaming he’s a butterfly—or a butterfly dreaming he’s a man?

The truth is indeed out there, but we can’t get to it. “Help!”

But wait, there’s more!

The X-Files has a second prominent ad line:

I Want To Believe

Implicit in this line is Level #7: the Truth that is “out there” is indeed being hidden from us by corrupt, evil forces but, brothers and sisters, what if we could actually find out that truth? It could change our lives! Save our lives! You bet we want to believe!

The surface interpretation of Level #7 is, “We want to believe in UFOs and aliens, that they’ve visited the Earth and that we are not alone. Perhaps contact with their advanced intelligence will bring blessings to mankind.”

Beyond that (Level #8) is, “We want to believe that some higher power/consciousness exists and that we can contact it.” We want to believe because that truth, if it were true, would reassure us that our lives were not limited to the vain, petty, self-interested issues that consume our daily worlds. We want to believe in something greater, wiser, more significant—something that will give our lives true meaning.

How potent is this level? It’s the basis for every religion since animism and sun worship. No wonder people follow the adventures of Scully and Mulder. Their quest is resonating on at least eight levels.

The X-Files, if you’ve ever watched it, is not that great a show. But the theme is so big and it resonates at so many levels that millions of viewers became hopelessly addicted. They couldn’t live without it.

With all due respect to David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson (and hats off to Chris Carter, who created the show), this is the power of theme.

The bigger the theme, the more forceful the story’s impact. And the deeper the theme (that is, the more levels on which it resonates), the more it will get its hooks into the audience and the more powerfully it will bind them to the characters and to the story.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

24 Responses to “The Truth is Out There”

  1. Den
    February 24, 2016 at 5:39 am

    Powerful article Steve. Fortuitously I started rewatching the X-files last week. I like the show, although you are right it is not a great show.

  2. February 24, 2016 at 6:23 am

    YES, I believe THE TRUTH is out there. Been in SEARCH of “it” for quite some time for “the story” to be written and told. Cannot be written until within myself I know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the TRUTH. FEEL, at times, there can be a good conspiracy going on.

  3. Patrick Maher
    February 24, 2016 at 7:23 am

    So it’s bigger than duckies and horsies, then?

    So, genuine question, Steve, ‘What is the difference between THEME and story threads or story through-lines?’

    • February 24, 2016 at 8:13 am

      Patrick,

      I’m (obviously) not Steve but I thought I’d take a stab at this question.

      The way I understand it is theme is like a deep truth, a belief or mantra. Something that could be on a bumper sticker.

      A story thread is something that consistently appears in a story to illustrate a theme. It can be a repeating visual (red objects in The Sixth Sense) or it can be a type of thing that happens over and over to a character (racist treatment, consistent rejection, odd windfalls). It could even be a repetitive phrase. Usually they are clues that help the character change and grow toward the theme.

      • February 24, 2016 at 9:30 am

        I’d alter this slightly:

        The way I understand it is theme is like a deep truth, or a compelling lie. A belief or mantra that could be printed on a bumper sticker or get you arrested, murdered, or sent to hell.

      • February 24, 2016 at 9:51 am

        I couldn’t have said it better, Erika. Thanks!

      • Patrick Maher
        February 24, 2016 at 6:23 pm

        That’s what I thought too. Which is why I asked the question after reading this piece.

  4. Mary Doyle
    February 24, 2016 at 8:33 am

    I never thought of theme as having multiple levels before – you’ve given me much to think about. Great illustration with the X-Files. Although I was never much of a fan, all of those layers are there. As always, thanks!

  5. Ellen O
    February 24, 2016 at 9:21 am

    Thanks for this! The levels were just the example I needed to grasp this concept and use it! They’re underlying, always there… I was making them overt and it takes away the power of discovery and all that flows from that. One always trusts a fact or idea they figure out for themselves over anything fed to them, no matter how reliable the source! That’s why everyone always has to SEE the dead body.
    (not that I have one.)

    • February 25, 2016 at 8:20 pm

      I really love that idea – that you trust an idea you figure out yourself more than the one that is fed to you. And good writers want to lead the reader into figuring it out w/o making it obvious. Can’t help but think of Inception!

  6. February 24, 2016 at 9:23 am

    As my reading got me close to the end of this blog post, I thought to myself:

    “He’s just described the reason for the success of Christianity…”

    And then I read: “How potent is this level? It’s the basis for every religion since animism and sun worship.”

    Well, at least I know great minds think alike….

    Or something like that.

    Interesting thing I read this week:
    Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1975)
    The Inciting Incident and the Resolution and the Hook are all in the very beginning of the book:

    The Protagonist is brutally murdered.
    Unless your story takes place in Heaven (Lovely Bones) it’s hard to start a story by brutally murdering your protagonist.
    But this book pulls it off.

    Theme of the book (imho):

    Death is preferable to a loveless life.

    It’s a tragic but powerful (and well written) story.

  7. J Thomas
    February 24, 2016 at 10:24 am

    Steve,

    I realize that I’ve been fumbling around in the dark until this series on Theme. I suddenly feel inarticulate. It makes sense when you say it but when I try to do it myself, I’m not so sure.

    I watched the Americanization of Emily because of this. My attempts to glean the theme seem to be clumsy or cliched or trite.

    You can tell Chayefsky had his theme down. The dialougue is sharp, and flies. It drives the film.

    My efforts at identifing the theme seem too simple, but maybe they’re supposed to be.

    Just read the wiki entry and it mentions the theme (a lot for a wiki entry).

    You sent me back to the drawing board. I’m going to have to do some themespotting. My yoda writing master think make me, you did.

    So there are three films I’ve noticed that get repeated on television. And everytime I see them I stop and watch.

    -The Shawshank Redemption (theme supplied in title)
    -Hunt For Red October
    -Rio Bravo

    What is that makes these films repeatedly watchable? It must be the theme.

    So here’s a question, how does genre relate to theme? I’m thinking of westerns and horror films.

    • LarryP
      February 24, 2016 at 11:20 am

      “I watched the Americanization of Emily because of this. My attempts to glean the theme seem to be clumsy or cliched or trite.” My favorite Chayefsky, and one of my favorite movies of all time. J (if that’s your real initial), as Steve, and anyone else who has written about theme, has said more than once, the statement of a theme can be cliche or trite — it’s the treatment of the theme that must be fresh.

      “So here’s a question, how does genre relate to theme? I’m thinking of westerns and horror films.” I’ll give my two cents: I don’t think it does. Think of the two themes Steve mentioned in this post; either one could be the theme of a Western or a horror story. As could the themes of the four movies you mentioned.

      • J Thomas
        February 24, 2016 at 2:45 pm

        Thanks Mr P(if that’s your real initial),

        I guess I was overthinking it a bit. A theme by definition is a bit of a bumpersticker or shorthand.

        But I might be inclined to say that in a great film, the two are independent, while in a mediocre work, themes are genre bound.

        So are John Ford and Steven King talking about the same things? How do they each deal with the theme of revenge? Hmmm, something to ponder. (Carrie, The Searchers)

        Yes that wiki entry was interesting. Chayefsky’s such a strong writer, his influence can be felt there. There is another blogger discussing this topic. I don’t know if it’s proper to include a link away from Steve’s blog. It called “A Lesson From Paddy Chayefsky”. The writer mentions the theme of Altered States.

  8. LarryP
    February 24, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    The Americanization of Emily highlights the difference, almost the independence, of plot and theme. The movie is based on a novel, but, as the Wikipedia entry points out, the two versions have very different themes, even though they share many plot points and scenes.

  9. Max
    February 24, 2016 at 1:53 pm

    Steven! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Not just for this post, but for everything your books are doing to my brain. I’m almost done with Gates of Fire, and I listen to “Do the Work” about every other day.

    When I think of Theme, I think of the motif/theme of a piece of music, like the head of a jazz tune. You can venture out as far as you want to play and improvise as long as you keep coming back to the theme/head/melody etc.

    Have a great day and keep cool up there…hot and windy today1 😉

  10. February 24, 2016 at 4:49 pm

    Well.
    Now I know why certain sci-fi sequels to certain James Cameron movies leave me feeling like I just ate a bunch of empty calories. I didn’t have the words until now.

  11. February 24, 2016 at 11:08 pm

    Hello Sir
    Each time I think I have the theme the reverse, or contrary shows up eg: You are prisoner to that which you carry within. versus: Within you is the power to set you free. Both are true. They mean the same thing. You are the one at the wheel, the ‘One-and-Only’ who carries the responsibility/attitude of your life. But how do I choose? Between them is the protagonists arch, between them is the bridge of a life. And the builder of this bridge (in this story) is the antagonist.
    Is there a practical answer here that I’m not seeing?
    Please can you advise.
    Thank you always and forever
    P.S.
    I wonder what the muses’ blog sounds like

  12. Brian
    February 25, 2016 at 5:40 am

    Ok, I’ll admit it…we love the X-Files!!!
    After I read or listen to anything by Sam Harris, or any other very articulate atheist…I totally feel like Mulder.

    I remember making the choice to believe in my version of God/afterlife/spirituality when I was in my early 20s. I just decided it feels better to believe, and I’m done with the argument in my head. I’d prefer to believe that this all has meaning and purpose more than chemical reactions.

    At the gym last week I saw a guy wearing a shirt: MULDER & SCULLY 2016!
    I laughed out loud and took a picture. I’d upload it if I knew how…
    Have a great week.
    bsn

  13. Dave Newton
    February 25, 2016 at 8:25 am

    Excellent. Right up there with your sharpest insights.

  14. February 26, 2016 at 10:33 am

    This animist sun-worshipper thanks you! Very illuminating and will certainly help deepen my understanding of and relationship with my current project.

  15. Marvin Waschke
    February 29, 2016 at 11:11 am

    A few columns back, I commented that I would like to know how to stress theme without becoming moralizing. I found an answer in this column. A theme that is coherent and connected on several levels goes beyond moralizing. Obvious no doubt, but a new thought to me.

  16. Moshe
    March 7, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    Why is “Level #1 is personal.” a theme?

  17. Rich Wells
    March 10, 2016 at 10:30 am

    So what is an example of a counter-theme?
    If a theme is, perhaps say, to stop avoiding life and become assertive, what would be the counter?