The Objective Story Theme

The Objective Story theme is an emotional argument that is story wide. Its connection to the Objective Story makes this theme “objective”, not any unemotional feeling that may be implied by the title. To encode the Objective Story theme one must come up with scenes, events, comments, or dialogue that not only pertains to the thematic conflict, but at least imply that this particular issue represents the central imbalance in value standards that affects everyone in the story. In fact, it is often better that the Objective Story theme be encoded through incidental characters or background incidents so that the message is not tainted by association with any other dynamics in the story.

For example, our Main Character is walking down the hall of a ward in a Veteran’s hospital with a doctor who is an incidental character whose purpose in the story is only to provide exposition on a particular point. While they are walking, the doctor, an older man, notes that he is out of breath trying to keep up with our Main Character. He comments, “I can’t keep up with you young guys like I used to.” Moments later, a double amputee wheels across their path, stops, says cheerfully to the Main Character, “As soon as they fix me up, I’m going to be a dancer again!” and wheels off. The doctor then remarks, “He’s been like that since they brought him here.” The Main Character asks, “How long?” The doctor says, “Nineteen sixty-eight.”

What thematic conflict is at work here? The doctor’s comments represent Closure (accepting an end). The patient’s comments reflect Denial (refusing to accept an end). By itself, this short thematic encoding will not make the conflict clear. But as the story continues to unfold, several different encodings will eventually clarify the item they all share in common.

What’s more, in this example, it is clear by the way we presented the conflict, Closure is seen as a better standard of value that Denial. It would be just as easy to have the doctor appear run-down by life and having no hope, while the patient is joyous. In such a case, the message would have been the reverse. The doctor, representing Closure, would be seen to be miserable, and the patient who lives in a dream world of Denial would have happiness.

Theme encoding is an effort of subtle balance. Simply shifting a word or a reaction, even slightly, can completely tip a well balanced argument. That is why many authors prefer more black-and-white thematic statements than a gentle thematic argument. In truth, it is the ability to get away from the binary that brings richness and depth to the emotional content of a story.

One other thing we might notice about our example is that we might evaluate whether Closure or Denial is better by seeing how each camp fared in regard to Hope and Dream. Why Hope and Dream? They are the other two Variations in the same quad as Closure and Denial. We can see that the doctor has no Hope, but the patient still has Dreams. By showing that lack of Hope causes misery and an abundance of Dreaming bring joy, the case is made that the doctor who represents Closure does not achieve as beneficial a result as the patient who represents Denial.

Clearly this thematic message is not true in every situation we might encounter in real life. In the context of our latter example, however, we are saying that for this particular kind of problem (the Objective Story Problem) Denial is a better way to go.

Our next concern is that even with a more balanced argument, it still seems one-sided. The way to alleviate this attribute is to have some thematic moments occur in which Closure turns out to be better than Denial . By so doing, we are admitting to our audience that even for the kind of Objective Story Problem we are dealing with, neither Closure nor Denial is a panacea. As a result, the audience begins to be excitedly drawn toward the end of the story, because only then can it average out all the incidents of Closure and Denial and see which one came out on top and by how much.

Theme encoding requires skill and inspiration. Because it must be approached by feel, rather than by logic, it is hard to learn and hard to teach. But by understanding the nature of the gentle balance that tips the emotional argument in favor of the Range or its counterpoint, one can consciously consider when and where and how to encode the theme, rather than simply winging it and hoping for the best. Knowing the storyform for your theme makes it far easier to draw the audience into feeling as you want them to.

From the Dramatica Theory Book