Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Believing in Happily Ever After Part 2: The Power of Theme-Plot Integration

Now we launch into some very advanced writing lessons aimed specifically at Science Fiction Romance writers and Paranormal Romance writers.  But anyone who ventures into worldbuilding, such as historical writers and mystery writers, will find some valuable inspiration in this series about the Ending called "Happily Ever After."

Here's one of my early posts here on the Happily Ever After ending.


Now this is an advanced writer's exercise.  We're going to employ the skills discussed in depth and detail in previous posts -- search for the tag Tuesday to pull up all my series on writing.

Here are some recent posts leading into this current discussion which also list posts from a while ago that laid down the foundation skills we're using here. 

The Big Love Sci-Fi series ran 8 parts from 6/21/2011 to 8/9/2011 and danced around the edges of this topic.

We discussed such dicey topics as Sex Without Borders, How Big Can Love Be in Science Fiction, the Mystery-Detective Romance, Modesty the Scrimmage Line of big Love, and then 3 parts on Unconditional Love and Science Fiction.

Here's the link to Part VI which has links to the previous parts of that series:

In Part VI on Unconditional Love and Science Fiction I wrote:
So SF has "proved itself" by having moved the boundaries of reality for many people now living. So they accept this new reality of iPhones and thus most SF no longer seems ridiculous or crazy.
---------end quote------

Here is a news item that reprises the changes in our world due to the internet and computers:


It traces what we who lived through it barely remember except as a relief from frustration - the increasing speed of computers, the internet connections, and web-page loading.  The people who created those innovations thought the unthinkable because people were frustrated and would pay money to be relieved of frustration.

With the demise of Steve Jobs, the internet is now full of historical summaries of the changes wrought by his innovations. (*celestial round of applause to this master, serial-innovator*)  If you never owned a Trash80, go read about Steve Jobs and how he moved us beyond that much lauded machine.  

To change people's everyday reality, first make them fed up with the reality they've got, then offer to sell them a solution to their problems if only they'll change their IDEA of the boundaries of their reality. (buy a new computer; switch phone services).  That is a plot outline, or a war strategy.  There's no way to tell the difference.

My more recent posts that list prior posts to read to catch up on the topic of theme and story-structure are:

8/23/11 Source of the Expository Lump Part 2

8/30/2011 Astrology Just For Writers, Part 10, Pluto The School of Hard Knocks
9/13/11 Verisimilitude Vs. Reality Part 2 Master Theme Structure (on point of view shifting)

9/20/11 Verisimilitude Vs. Reality Part 3  The Game, The Stakes, The Template
10/4/11 Believing In Happily Ever After: Part 1 Stephen King on Potter Vs. Twilight

We've been working on the puzzle of  why the Happily Ever After Romance ending is too implausible for suspension-of-disbelief even by veteran science fiction/fantasy readers, and why Love Conquers All seems idiotic to the general public even though they verbally espouse that solemn belief. 

The essence of the problem seems to be that the Romance Genre simply assumes, without discussion, without challenge, without characters who espouse various sides of a heated debate on these topics, that all readers likewise assume these elements of fiction are actually built-in aspects of our everyday reality.

It's not that the HEA building block elements aren't true, or that they are rejected automatically by the scorning public, but that the writer does not argue the point, does not even know there's a point to be argued with the reader.

Arguing those unconscious assumptions in dramatic form was Marion Zimmer Bradley's greatest talent -- and it was a talent.  She didn't do it with conscious, deliberate intention.  It was simply how she presented her stories.

I studied under her tutelage for years, dissected her writing techniques since I was a teen, and I am just not as good at it as she is.  I have to do it consciously, so maybe I can demonstrate how you can teach yourself to do this.

Marion Zimmer Bradley never argued these two assumptions, The HEA and Love Conquers All, that I know of.  Scholars may dig something up that would demonstrate that's not true, but at the moment I can't point you to an example of exactly how to construct this argument.  I've never seen it done successfully - but I'm hoping some reader of this blog will comment with a link to a novel where this argument is laid out with stark clarity and convincing impact.

So let's delve into how to use theme to generate a plot that is part and parcel of this seminal argument.

Here's a perfect example to study because it's a TV show, ultimately very shallow, and very easy to dissect.

The TV show, LEVERAGE, TNT Sundays 8PM these days. 

You can find it on iTunes or Amazon. 
Leverage - all seasons

I've discussed Leverage previously.

I've watched a lot of Leverage episodes.  It's a typical TV Series, but has a story-arc with the lives and inner conflicts of the ongoing characters and their soap-opera style relationships.  It's not Romance, or even Intimate Adventure.  It's way too "dark" for that - the leader of the team is an unrepentant drunk, the team has a thief, a hacker, Muscle who solves problems with punches, and a grifter who plays the femme fatale with aplomb.

But the show is easy to dissect and understand for theme.  Not all good TV shows are this easy to dissect.  

As I've said in the series of posts noted above, theme is the part of the story where you say what you want to say.

It's the part where you put your opinion.  It's the part which carries the reason you want to write the story which ought to be the same as the reason the reader wants to read the story.  It's the part where, if you encode the theme-statement soon enough (1st page; 1st line in a novel) you can prevent people who will hate your novel from reading it. 

But to be truly effective, to evince an emotional response from your chosen readership, to sucker-punch the reader in a part of the mind/emotion complex that blocks you from "moving the boundaries of the reader's reality" so they can grasp the foundation principle Love Conquers All, your theme must be hidden from the reader's awareness.  Your theme must be "coded" -- usually in symbolism, which is one of the techniques we've discussed in previous posts.

See this post on icons and symbols:

The best place to hide anything is in plain sight.

That's what Leverage does to make it worth studying.  It hides its theme in plain sight, yet very much "off the nose" - a screenwriting term we'll return to in future posts. 

As a TV show Leverage is very similar to A-Team or It Takes A Thief, or today's White Collar that I rave about so much, or even Burn Notice.


That blog entry is about how to craft a "show don't tell" opening.

Leverage has a "Tell Don't Show" opening that sets out the premise starkly, and explicity states the theme in such a way that the real message is "off the nose" (i.e. in subtext).

The opening voice-over is:
"The Rich And Powerful take what they want.  We steal it back for you."

And then Leverage proceeds to explicate that theme (Class Warfare is Innate, or The End Justifies The Means,  Might Makes Right, or maybe Robin Hood Was Right) with relentless precision, scene after scene, show after show with never a foot placed wrong.  The TV Series Leverage is a beautiful thing to behold! 

Note the opening does not say "some rich people take what they want" or "we'll steal only if we have to and then make it right with the Law" -- it says all rich people take anything they want (listen to the tone of voice in that voice-over) regardless of how it harms not-rich people, and you are not-rich so you need us powerful/ruthless folks as Leverage to take back what is rightfully yours regardless of the ethics or morals of stealing.

The subtext is that if you're not-rich, it's someone else's fault, usually a rich person's fault.  Listen to the tone of voice, and read into it what you choose - but I hear that there is no way to solve the problem of being an impecunious victim of wealthy power abusers that is within the law, no way to get that wealthy except by breaking the law.  The law keeps you trapped in the ranks of the downtrodden.  If you're not rich, the law is not your friend.  (very hard to dispute, I will admit). 

It says we, the Leverage Team, violate the law, and any rules of morality that get in the way, to defend the helpless from the mighty. 

It says Might (riches) makes Evil and anything you do to battle Evil is Right. (again, very hard to dispute; but this blog piece is about using writing techniques to say what you want to say, not to evaluate what others have said, only how well they've said it.  Respond to the Leverage theme in a piece of fiction!  That's being part of the conversation among fiction writers.) 

The TV Series Leverage says Law must not prevail because it's always against the helpless.  A government of Laws is bad. (Law is made by the rich who buy politicians.)

A show broadcast in July had a rich man who was hated by his associates throw a party with a staged murder that the guests were to solve.  But someone murdered the host instead (for real), and left the head of The Leverage Team as the only witness and therefore the only suspect.  A policeman, hired to monitor events at the party, who was involved with the rich man's daughter, turned out to be the murderer at the instigation of the daughter.  THEME: Police are bad guys; Crooks are good guys.  People with power or money or both are always bad-guys.  Always. 

The absolutes in that summary of what this episode says come from a lack of a Good Guy/Gal who is rich, or a Bad Guy who is poor and downtrodden.  There are no counter-examples among the characters to muddy the thematic picture (make it "deeper" or more "realistic") which is another reason this is a great show to study. 

One thing I do like about the Leverage Series is the Conflict illustrated by the emotional responses of the characters who are essentially criminals at heart.  The leader of The Team was seriously disturbed when his team seemed to think that maybe he had in fact murdered the rich guy at the party.  That characterization provides you with the "argument" I'm talking about here.

Right inside the plot (rich guy murdered before eyes of Team Leader is a PLOT ELEMENT, and technically forms the part of the plot called a "complication") is the argument statement "well, since the crooks want their friends to believe in them, the crooks must be good guys."   The good guys are doing bad things, but it's okay because they're good guys.   

White Collar and Burn Notice state their premise up front in the opening.  Burn Notice says:  "When you're burned, you've got nothing" etc.  But the way each of these shows state the premise does not ram the theme down your throat the way Leverage does.

EXERCISE: State the premise of your most recent Work In Progress just that briefly.  

Leverage is "dark" and though the explicit violence shown on screen isn't any more emphatic than White Collar or Burn Notice, the way Leverage slams the theme into your face in the opening, then hammers it into your brain scene after scene, is a kind of subversive violence worth studying.  Few shows are quite as easy to dissect and understand, just because of how elegantly they employ this technique.

Caution: I'm not advocating that Romance Writers should use this "Leverage" technique to ram the Romance themes down the public's throat.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  But there's a lot to be learned very easily by studying the theme-plot integration of this simplistic TV show, Leverage.  The study will reveal how to construct a more subtle and complex piece of fiction.

But even a subtle and complex Romance work must have such a thematic statement of the premise to become marketable as "Mass Market."

Now, you will notice that Leverage is on TNT while White Collar and Burn Notice (and a raft of other shows I love) are on USA (character's welcome). 

Yet Leverage has "characters" who are deep, complex, gradually revealed season after season, and who are, perhaps against their wills, maintaining relationships. 

The relationships they maintain are basically within the Team, outside interests fleeting. 

I see Leverage as "dark" because the Team members are portrayed as not having a shot at Happily Ever After, or if they ever did, they blew it.

White Collar and Burn Notice show heroic (if shady) characters striving toward an HEA.  They have long range goals they believe will vanquish their frustrations and stabilize their lives into an HEA.

Leverage depicts a Team that sticks together because it's their only hope at a Happily For Now situation.

If you've been watching Leverage, you probably don't see it as "serious" as I do.  It's offered as, and taken as, "light entertainment" and "just for fun."  It's a "what if" story.  But for some people in the audience, people who see themselves as being mowed down by the powerful who take what they want (in today's economic climate, that's a huge number of people), Leverage (like A-Team before it) is an "if only." 

Superman in the 1940's was an "if only" for a lot of people with unsolvable problems.  The theme song of Smallville features the phrase spoken loudly and intelligibly over the music, "Rescue me." (a prime Romance theme).

In difficult times, people can have the stuffings knocked out of them by forces of government, law, wealth, big business, anything that their individual strength can't affect.  So fiction of this type thrives.  Leverage says hire thugs to do your dirty work, and it's okay if you're actually righteous yourself. 

The people the Leverage team works for are always in "the right" from the audience's point of view, the generally accepted morality of today.  The people the Leverage team goes up against are equally starkly and absolutely in the "wrong" according to the morality of today.  The Leverage team itself is shades of gray, very dark gray. 

This is nothing like the TV show Forever Knight where the Evil (vampire detective) was trying to "atone for sins." 

Superman was the benevolent Power, the image of what a human being could and should be, honorable, unimpeachable, un-bribable.  The Leverage team has their own sense of Honor. 

In Part 3 next week, we'll get a little deeper into the thematic structure of Leverage and how it "leverages" its audience's world into a story.

Do search your own Work In Progress to reshape it around a premise statement that encodes or symbolizes your own theme, and make it as clear and concise as these TV show examples.  This statement is the opening sentence of your query letter to agent or editor.  It defines your target audience and what payload you deliver to that audience.  The definition of the audience will determine whether the rest of your query letter will be read -- or not -- and what publishers might consider publishing the work, for which imprints that publisher handles.  

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

No comments:

Post a Comment