What do Sherlock Holmes, Star Wars, A Christmas Carol, and Charlotte’s Web have in common?
They are all stories I discuss in my newest book to explore the presence of seven inescapable themes, found in whole or in part in every story of every medium from books to movies. I believe these themes are inescapable, not because our culture imposes them upon creators, but because they reflect our deepest longings. We would really like to believe this is real: this longing for meaning, for plot and design and divine appointment, for redemption, for justice. I have come to believe the good news that our desire for meaning arises from the truth that there is meaning. There is a story behind the universe which makes it all makes sense.
Every story we write, draw, compose, or perform is a seeking after that one true story of the universe. This is why the themes continue to pop up in story after story.
If that sounds interesting to you, you will probably enjoy my new book (Seven Themes You Can’t Escape) which is available now on Amazon. You might enjoy even more taking advantage of two special deals this weekend only. (From Saturday June 4- Monday June 6)
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The book arose out of a game that my church, my family and my friends began to play based on these themes. It’s a way to get a fresh look at your favorite–and even not-so-favorite– stories in movies, books, plays and so on.
IN fact, I decided writing the book wasn’t enough. We needed a place for the readers (or really anyone) to explore these questions together. So, if you want to join our discussions before or after you read the book, come join us at www.facebook.com/groups/seventhemes.
Right now, we’re having a sort of Single Elimination tournament on favorite Christ Figures where members of the group vote on who they want to win. Right now we’re in the Sweet Sixteen and the current games are Buffy the Vampire Slayer vs Phil Coulson (from Shield) and Captain America V the Scarlet Pimpernel.
So do you want to help decide the fate of Buffy or Phil Coulson? Just come to the group and request an invite. That’s all it takes.
As an example of the kinds of discussions that can arise from the exercise, my brother sent me these snippets of his family’s conversations. Kevin is my brother. The other names are his kids. David, in the rare case it comes up is me. I present it to you for entertainment value, but also to encourage you that the book is to stimulate conversation and exploration, not to squelch it with all the answers.
“This is what it looks like when some of my kids sit around talking about the seven themes.
- Nathan: Is there a theme related to the “Big Bad”? The super-villain?
- Bekah, about writing: How should any of this affect an author?
- Prophecy and origins
We wondered about other possible themes. Our two favorite at this point are prophecy and origins.
Prophecy means that something is fated to happen, and the story is largely driven by the unexpected ways in which events conspire to bring it about. This occurs in Greek plays (Oedipus), religious stories, fantasies with prophecy, and time travel stories. It also occurs in stories in which the first chapter / scene tells what is going to happen and the rest of the story flashes back to explain why. Sometimes the presence of strong foreshadowing is enough to give the story a prophecy vibe. Memento is a particularly interesting way of playing with this.
In certain genres, everyone knows how the story will end – for example, in rom-coms, the guy and the girl will get together – does that count as prophecy? (Example in which it probably does: Serendipity.)
Bekah: Some stories deliberately break the genre’s expectations. Are those against prophecy somehow? (Lesser noticed examples of genre-expectation breaking: One-Hour Photo, Matchstick Men.)
Nathan: A story that deliberately breaks a genre expectation can’t usually get away with it unless it calls attention to the fact that it is breaking it. I don’t know if that has anything to do with prophecy!
Bekah: A lot of stories seem to be about the fact that we are not fated, that we are free (recall the last scene of Back to the Future III). Do those have anything to do whether there is really a prophesy theme?
Nathan: There seem to be two types of prophesy focus. One is the question of whether we are free or fated. The other is a more practical desire to know the future.
Nathan, again: The themes have a lot to do with human desire. The Christ Figure theme has a lot to do with the desire to be special. That why most Christ Figures are the protagonist. Also, they often have a kind of blank slate personality – that allows the reader to identify with them more easily. With prophesy, we simultaneously, and somewhat paradoxically, want to know the future and to be able to choose our future for ourselves.
We talked it over with David, and he wondered if prophecy should be absorbed in something else, like Providence.
Origins means that we get an origin story that explains why the world is the way it is and helps us interpret it. It includes superhero origin stories, but also Greek myths (Pandora’s box), the Just-So Stories of Rudyard Kipling, and prequels.
Nathan: Notice how prequels often don’t turn out to be very good (Star Wars I: Phantom Menace), but still everyone wants them. Again, the theme has something to do with what people want. Also, note how origins stories are found across all cultures. Most ancient myths from various cultures seem to be either morality tales or origins stories.
- Bekah thinks the substitutionary love theme is a lot more specific than all the others, and wonders whether it is really at the same level of universality as they are. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem very special in stories. It seems like any good person in a story will be willing to do it, and it says more about them if they don’t do it than that they do. If someone you didn’t expect to do it does it, it’s more about redemption than about the act of substitutionary love itself.
- Nathan on Brandon Sanderson and the Christ Figure
The fantasy author Brandon Sanderson plays with the Christ Figure theme in some really interesting ways.
- In one series, the premise is that the world is apparently under the rule of a former Christ Figure from long ago, but he has now become corrupt.
- In one, the person everyone thought was the Christ Figure turns out to be an impostor. (The original one was killed.)
- In one book, there is a group of people with special powers who are considered gods by almost everyone else, living among the common people. He spends a lot of time looking at how society is structured as a result.
- In another, he explores the same situation but after it has fallen apart. In both he has three types of characters: ordinary people, the “gods”, and ordinary people who do not believe in the gods.
- Another series looks at what happens if the people with the Christ Figure powers are evil.
- In one series, the Christ Figure powers are extremely unlikely to be helpful (e.g., always being late!) In the same one, the Christ Figures are all a little bit eccentric – which is putting it mildly.
- One time, the Christ Figure is specifically the one who is not a part of the group of people with special powers.
In general, he is always careful to give logical reasons for the Christ Figures to have the powers they do.
Hannah: I really hate sequels.
Kevin: Well, I guess sequels aren’t always very original. They sort of rely on the original story, and that probably makes them weaker.
Hannah: No, it’s not just that. It’s that they ruin the original story.
Kevin: Can’t you just ignore the sequel, if you don’t like it? It doesn’t have to ruin the original story for you.
Hannah: But it does. Just knowing it’s out there makes the original story worse.
David: Sequels put the lie to the end of the story (“everyone lived happily ever after”).
Bekah: I disagree. The endings of stories aren’t nearly so fragile, and the end of a story doesn’t mean nothing else happens to the characters ever again.
Seth: If the first story deals with the biggest crisis ever, then a sequel that tries to one-up the drama ends up undercutting it. An example of one that didn’t make that mistake is Red II (a Bruce Willis movie).
Someone else: What about trilogies?
Hannah: A single story written in multiple parts is not what I mean by a sequel. I mean writing a sequel that takes place after the original story has really ended.
Kevin: There must be a way to write a sequel by embracing the very weakness of a sequel and making it part of the point. Maybe a sequel that deliberately subverts the original story.
Hannah: I don’t think so.
Nathan and Bekah: We don’t hate sequels.
Nathan: Stories that are heavily focused on world-building support sequels well, because it makes sense to keep exploring what else happens with the world.
Examples of subversive sequels: the second half of Into the Woods (not really a sequel), Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim, which was a sequel to Henry Fool, and deliberately turned everything the first movie did upside down. (I haven’t seen the third one, Ned Rifle, yet, so I don’t know how it changes things.)
It might be interesting to work out how sequels work to help or hurt each of the seven themes.
- Nathan on video games
Video game stories are a little different from normal stories. The seven themes tend to be made a part of the game-play mechanics more than of the story.
For example, the player nearly always has to be the Christ Figure, because he is the one who affects everything. That’s so unavoidable that perhaps it shouldn’t be considered a theme so much as an inevitable consequence of how games work.
Similarly, in cooperative games, fellowship is part of the mechanics, and maybe shouldn’t be considered a theme.
Alternate worlds is a common theme in video games. Not only are there often sci-fi or fantasy roots for the story, but using alternate worlds allows game-makers to reuse parts of the game in a new context, so that they can get a lot more variety without having to rebuild everything from scratch.
Justice is a big theme, in a way – but it’s usually a kind of hand-waving to explain which characters are the bad guys and why you’re supposed to shoot them.
Resurrection is really common, but once again, mainly due to game mechanics. You want the player to be able to try again if he fails, without having to start all the way over.
There aren’t many examples of substitutionary love, because you can’t have the player sacrificing himself! There are a few games that have this happen as one possible ending, and some games in which you control multiple characters in which this happens to one of them.
Neither are there very many good examples of redemption, because it is so hard to build a satisfying emotional arc for the player’s character. (Seth adds: In some games, when you die you lose all your experience, and when you gain it back it feels like redemption. Nathan: Yes, that’s true. You often increase in power, but rarely change in character. It’s also awkward to have a character say, “I’ve become a better person by killing thousands of soldiers!”)
Games have difficulty telling certain kinds of character arc stories in a significant way. Even when the player chooses what the character does, the player’s motivations won’t match up with the character’s motivations. Therefore, even where the themes are part of a story, and not just there for the sake of mechanics, the stories told tend to be different from traditional non-game stories.
Video games are actually better than traditional media at some types of stories, though. They do origin stories really well. The exploration mode of the game lets them give lots of information about the way the world is built in a way that keeps the player engaged in the game. In books and movies it’s hard to do that kind of thing without losing the interest of the reader or the viewer.
When this kind of thing is done well, the mechanics and the story blend well, and neither feels artificially imposed on the other.
Prophecy works well, too, because it gives the player guidance into where to go.
Seth adds: You do get fellowship in games where you are the only one playing, but you have to do a lot of switching between characters to use all the abilities they have.
Nathan: This works really well for games, because the two ways to build up fellowship moments are banter and working together, and video games do both of those really well. The ones that do this most are often Japanese games. Fellowship is also a particularly important theme in Japanese anime and manga. Is it a cultural thing?
Hannah, our Broadway musical aficionado: Do the most important and intense thematic moments in musicals tend to happen during songs? You’d think so, because songs are such a perfect medium for expressing grand ideas. But it doesn’t necessarily seem to hold true.
Bekah: Maybe because most songs are stand-still. They don’t have much progression.”