This week’s purpose is to break down Theme and Form into its most basic definitions:
Theme is: what to say.
Form is: how to say it.
Lets explore Theme a bit. In the interest of brevity (something I’m a big fan of), this is by no means a complete definition. This is not a scholarly treatment, just basic tenants.
There are three basic questions to ask when trying to determine a theme in a story. These are not the only questions one can ask, but these will generally get you there.
1. What is it about?
Your answer should never mention plot or plot points (events). If your answer is, “it’s about a man who goes to the store and buys a dragon,” then you are telling us the events in the story, not what its about. More than likely, the story is about, “the search for the fantastic in every day mundane activities,” or “the consequences of wishing the fantastic existed in our reality”. Something along those lines.
2. What is the major conflict?
What happens in the story that makes it a story? When our guy buys a dragon, does the dragon then burn down his apartment by accident? Is the conflict between man and nature or man and society? More importantly as it relates to theme, how is the conflict resolved? Or is it? This is not to be confused with conflict as an element of form (we’ll see that later). It’s only to help us determine the theme or themes in the story.
3. What character or characters change the most? Or refuse to? This is related to the idea of anagnorisis. Does the character come to a realization about their relationship to the universe? Or do they refuse to? What do they learn? Or refuse to learn? If you can answer why our guy felt motivated to buy a dragon and what he learned as a result of the consequences of buying a dragon, then you may be closer to discovering the theme of the story.
On to Form, or more specifically, Elements of Form.
The elements of form are:
1. Plot- the logical arrangement of the sequence of events
2. Character- the doers of the action
3. Setting- where and when
4. Tone- the author’s attitude toward the subject matter as it can be inferred
5. Conflict- the struggle between opposing forces
6. Point of View- the vantage point from which the tale is being told
Those are very, very brief definitions that can be fleshed out later. What’s important to note is that each of these are a vital part of storytelling that contributes to the whole. Except in vary rare, experimental cases, a story must have all six of these. Sometimes one or more of these elements may be hidden and give the impression that it’s missing, but it’s in there. Also, one of these elements can be dominant, overshadowing the rest to become the focus of the story. There can be arguments made to place any one of these above the others in importance, but they are all needed.
The elements of form are what authors use to tell a story. They are the building blocks, the nuts and bolts.
Next time we’ll get into how all this interrelates to get you the aesthetic reaction you’re looking for.