By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 11, 2017
We said a few posts ago that sometimes we, as writers, have to tart real life up.
Real life is too ordinary.
It’s too interior.
It’s too boring.
We have to heighten the drama, ramp up the stakes. Otherwise readers won’t care.
But how, exactly, do we perform this wizardry?
Do we just dream up wild stuff—sex, violence, zombies—and hurl it into the stew willy-nilly?
How do we know what’s appropriate?
How can we tell when we’ve gone too far?
The answer brings me back to my favorite subject: theme.
The principle is:
We may fictionalize but only on-theme.
I was watching the movie Midnight Special (2016) last night. Have you seen it? It’s good. The film stars Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver. The plot follows a young boy who possesses mysterious powers as he flees apocalyptic cultists and the NSA, protected by his father. I won’t spoil the climax for you except to say that it is wildly fictionalized … and it works completely.
Because the filmmakers fictionalized on-theme.
Midnight Special is about a father’s love for his son and the passage the father must endure to face ultimate separation. That’s the core. That’s what the story’s really about.
An alternative version could have been told very simply: a special young boy gets sick and dies, despite heroic efforts to save him by his father and mother. Perhaps that was the real story from which Midnight Special evolved.
The filmmakers ramped up the tale’s power by making the boy special special special, i.e. possessed of powers that can bring satellites down out of the sky and cause the entire US government to chase him halfway across the country.
We may fictionalize all we want, as long as we stay on-theme.
When Ernest Hemingway gave Jake Barnes, his fictional protagonist in The Sun Also Rises, an emasculating war wound, he was heightening reality indeed. But that heightened reality was 100% on-theme.
The theme of The Sun Also Rises is the soul-devastation that the horrors of WWI wreaked upon Hemingway’s “Lost Generation” contemporaries. Hence the wound.
There’s a storytelling axiom in Hollywood:
If horses can fly, you’ve got a story. If everything can fly, you’ve got a mess.
When we fictionalize on-theme, we heighten the drama legitimately. When we make sh*t up off-theme, we just produce craziness.
The first principle we talked about in this series was
Make the internal external
Or put another way
Make the invisible visible.
We can make ourselves cowboys or princesses or private eyes as long as that external story is on-theme with our real-life internal one.
What was Rocky but Sylvester Stallone’s fictionalized-on-theme rendition of his own struggles as an unknown trying to get noticed in the movie biz?
What was Luke Skywalker’s journey from the evaporator farm on Tatooine to saving the galaxy as a Jedi knight, except George Lucas’ own odyssey from his boyhood in Modesto, California to entertainment immortality? For that matter, what was American Grafitti?
Fictionalize as much as you want, but keep it on-theme.