C. Neil Davenport. Monday Blog. 11/07/2022
the midst of having coffee with Christopher Dorr, one of my UNCSA grad
professors, a discussion about theme arose and how to look at it in a different
light. Similar to holding a prism at just the right angle to the sun… Take
note: This is the reason why getting together over coffee with an influential
figure is so vital. Discoveries of the most profound nature are unearthed when
two people who are both passionate about storytelling simply sit together and talk.
Nonetheless, the segment of the conversation which struck me was the
alternative way of viewing theme within narrative design.
you have read enough books on screenwriting as I have, you will find they all
start saying the same thing… especially when it comes to this subject. No
matter how you dish it out, a narrative’s theme is basically the writer’s
central unit point of expression, and or argument which is examined throughout
the story. One book goes so far to describe it as a statement posed which is
later adhered. Another book says a theme serves as a story engine that slowly
bends the protagonist’s character arc through a series of milestones, and an
additional text elaborates how it has a hidden agenda build within its context
to convince the audience on a particular perspective, but Chris in all his
wisdom simply took a swig of coffee and said…
“A theme is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question.” Took another sip, “And after the answer is given, then the following question is ‘okay, how?’ which is your story.” Christopher Dorr
mind was blown to say the least. Here I am focused and bogged down on all the
different extremities of a theme and how can it be utilized in the most
efficient way that I forget what it actually is and how it is used.
used numerous examples to demonstrate this new way of looking at theme, but
I’ll speak on two. The first example was contemporary, Netflix’s limited series
The Queen’s Gambit (2020). If you are not familiar, as per IMDb, it is
about an introverted orphan in the 1960s who discovers she is a chess prodigy,
but stardom comes at a price. Watch it. Highly recommend anything by Scott
when you ask me about theme, I think of the subtext, ‘what is under the
iceberg?’ type of stuff. So, I would touch on topics of female empowerment
within a male dominated environment. Then when you ask my brother, someone who
does not have any correlation to the study or practice of storytelling, he
looks at the surface level. So, he would touch on elements of genius and drug
addiction. Neither one of these are wrong, but in Chris’ perspective the theme
of this story is, “Can an orphan find a family?” and the answer is, “Yes,”
which leads to, “How?”
is the moment where I closed my eyes in astonishment.
second example Chris used was more traditional, Francis Ford Coppola’s The
Godfather (1972). As per IMDb, the aging patriarch of an organized crime
dynasty in postwar New York City transfers control of his empire to his
reluctant son. It is a classic, highly recommend.
me, it is about the American Dream, the father-son dynamic, and family. My
brother would remark on entrapment and history. Again, all correct, but let us
use Chris’ perspective.
helpful to note that Michael Corleone, the reluctant son of the aging patriarch
is the protagonist. So, the question is, “Can a son take over his father’s
business?” The answer is, “Yes.” Okay, “How?” It is incredible how the story
unfolds with this use of theme.
I will remark that when this technique of theme is used on both existing
stories and stories that are currently being developed, the ‘How?’ element can
be challenging due to its lack of direction. When you examine the ‘How?’
element of The Queen’s Gambit, to someone who’s never seen it, the
possibilities are endless. How does an orphan find a family through chess? Same
thing goes for The Godfather… But I think that openness helps make this
type of theme fantastic.
think the ‘How?’ element needs to be open and directionless in order to provide
the storyteller a window of creative opportunity to ask, “How does it
actually happen?” Applying this method, I believe helps shape the uniqueness of
the narrative. For example, two different storytellers could take either
question, answer them in their own words, and two different stories could be
Photo by: C. Neil Davenport (2022)