Sunday, March 15, 2009

Stephen Duncan on Theme

Duncan (2006) identifies five types of story conflict themes:
"1. Man versus Man
2. Man versus Nature
3. Man versus Self
4. Man versus Society
5. Man versus Fate" (p. 26-27).
In individual movies the screen writer "puts a face" on the abstract titles. Nature = Jaws.

"The next step is to find the one word that is the theme of the story. Then, find a cliche that best articulates your one-word theme" (p. 27, Duncan's emphasis).

Duncan gives the following example from Shrek: "Tolerance: Don't judge a book by its cover." [Very relevant example for this particular research blog.]

"Every single scene in these films explores the one-word theme in some way, whether it is a pure exploration, antithesis, or an unusual facet of it" (p. 27).

Duncan also identifies some common sources for themes (in cliche form): the Bible (e.g., from Ten Commandments, "Thou shalt not kill.").

According Duncan a writer can establish a theme in two ways in a script (i.e., physical and metaphysical). The "physical central question" is: Does the protag accomplish the task (e.g., catch the killer). The "metaphysical central question" takes the form of "spiritual, humanistic, universal" question (Can true love conquer all?) or a "hypothesis"/"thesis". Example from Chinatown: Main character says early on "Only a rich man can get away with murder" (p. 28). What does Duncan mean here? I'm not sure I understand the distinction made here between the metaphysical question and the hypothesis. A hypothesis can be easily be turned into a question. Violence begets violence. Will more violence continue. ???

According to Duncan a writer can also establish a theme by using the "moral imperative" approach. The protag and associated characters must accomplish a task because it is the right thing to do, for the greater good, etc.

Duncan says the theme should be established within the first 10 pages of a typical film script by "using a thematic device" (p. 53).

Howard: Theme vs. Thesis

According to Howard (2004) a story's theme is "the aspect of the 'human dilemma' that it will explore (p. 131). Two examples he gives are jealousy and ambition. We could also add hate as an example. He stresses that there are no verbs or value judgments in a theme as he defines it.

Howard makes a distinction between a theme and a thesis. "Once a verb is added, once value judgments are hung onto a theme, then it becomes a thesis that the story is obligedto prove." (p. 131, emphasis mine).

In an earlier post (
Theme According to Epstein) we covered the example "Hate kills". Note the verb and the value judgment here. Human dilemma + verb = value judgment.

Howard seems to preach against this verb/value judgment approach to theme. "This is a deadly, story-killing mistake. it skews the story away from art or entertainment and puts it squarely in the realm of propaganda.... A story saddled with the chore of proving a thesis relegates all its characters to 'positions.' Their words and actions are subordinate to the author's goal of proving this thesis to be true." (p. 131).

Howard does admit that there must be a resolution to the story (hate kills, greed destroys a community), a writer does eventually make a statement, but the "statement should be buried in the action, in the moment of the resolution. It is there to be discovered..." (p. 132).

Finding Theme and Exploring the Theme with Howard

Howard (2004) suggests that a script writer should first do some writing and try to discover the theme in the early drafts by asking some questions: "what kind of change does your protagonist go through? What part of his life or being is challenged or threatened or transformed? How have you thought of ending the story? How do you want us to feel at the end of the story? Will it have a happy ending, a sad or tragic ending, or a bittersweet ending?..." (p. 132-133).

Note in this approach you don't start with a theme (or worse yet a thesis). The theme is discovered by the writer after some writing. So, you can't (according to Howard) start the writing process without a theme (or worse yet a thesis) in mind? Why not? Is it a waste of time to eventually discover the theme?

Howard also points out that other characters should relate to the protagonist in terms of the theme (p. 132, 421). If the story is about ambition and perhaps the protagonist lacks it. The antagonist would be very ambitious (perhaps an over-achieving sister). The protagonist's friends ("reflective characters") may "pull" or "push" him in different directions. So, other characters explore the theme (or reflect the theme) in their connection to the protag or in a subplot, the protag "carries [the theme] in a bigger way than any of the other characters. That means she has to learn or overcome, is more resistant to change" (p. 421).

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Anthropologists and War

This entry was originally posted on my InterculturalU blog (

Anthropologists and War

Submitted by William Hart PhD on October 14, 2007 - 10:26pm.

Armed with their knowledge of culture, anthropologist are now assisting the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The U.S. military is now sending teams of anthropologists and social scientists out to assist all combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan. The effort has reportedly helped troops improve relations with local populations and avert casualties, while raising a hearty debate among anthropologists over the ethical boundaries of their profession. A look at the so-called Human Terrain Teams and larger questions of how the military is adapting to new expectations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond" (The Dianne Reams Show notes).

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