18 April 2008

“The Theme Is Your Spine”

Yesterday I quoted a remark by comics novelist Alan Moore on how a powerful plot works. In the same essay that passage came from, Writing for Comics, Moore also insisted: "A plot isn't the main point of the story or the story's main reason for existing. It is something that is there more to enhance the central idea of the story and the characters who will be involved in it."

And earlier, "A good starting point would perhaps be the aspect that lies at the very heart of any creative process: the idea. The idea is what the story is about; not the plot of the story, or the unfolding of events within that story, but what the story is essentially about."

That reminder is echoed in another book called Writing for Comics, by Peter David--another scripter who's achieved a great deal of respect in adventure comics, if not the outright adulation that Moore can inspire. Using different terminology, David offered similar advice:

Furthermore, you need to have a solid grasp of your theme. If ideas and conflict are the skeleton of your story, the theme is your spine. I define theme as that aspect of the human condition upon which your story offers commentary. Ideally everything that transpires in your story should somehow connect to your theme. It sounds simplistic, I know, but you must have a clear idea of your theme, and whence the conflict stems, before you embark upon telling your story. Without that, your story will be unfocused and vague.
While books about writing fiction in prose forms also discuss "the theme" or "the central idea," I rarely see such emphasis on that quality as a necessary early step in storytelling. Rather, many novelists argue that their themes develop as they write, and are in any event far more interesting to English teachers than to working writers. Novel-writing advice books often stress characters as the starting-point.

I think there are several reasons why these two writers put so much emphasis on theme in their advice to people wanting to enter the comics field.
  • First, in the superhero comics where David and Moore did their most visible work, characters have often been defined by other writers decades before, and are owned by corporations rather than individual creators. David, for instance, is admired for writing a long, successful run of The Incredible Hulk, about a character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1962. While it's important in writing such comics to understand the central characters, what drives them, and what they represent, the writer isn't called on so often to invent them. (I'll say more on Moore's use of established characters at some future point.)
  • Moore and David also work in a field that requires stories to have action that can be illustrated. Commercial comics have long thrived on plot-driven stories with twist endings. In sum, anyone trying to write mainstream comics probably already knows that plots are required; that's where they'd start. They'd need help with remembering to think about why a plot matters. I also wonder if such plotting has always come easily to Moore and David--hence their success. Writers who are excellent at scene-setting, or character-building, or style, might need more of a push on plots and less on those aspects of storytelling.
  • Perhaps most important, Moore and David have probably seen a lot of stories, both unpublished and published, that are all plot and action with no central idea or theme. ("What if Wolverine fought Superman? Wouldn't that be neat!" "Why would they fight? What would be that story's central idea? What would it say about the human condition?" "Um, I dunno. But wouldn't it be neat!") Moore and David might have emphasized this step for beginning writers not because it's the first thing they do when they write, but because it's what they see others not doing enough.

No comments: