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The Theme Pyramid


In putting together a wholly new approach to creative writing, fiction and literature, I have tried not to invent an entirely new nomenclature for the subject. Where possible, I have used ordinary words which communicate independently, without necessarily requiring any knowledge of the wider framework of the subject - so, for example, the word ‘vacuum’ conveys something to the reader quite apart from its specialist meaning in relation to what makes up character or a plot. The reader should understand from ‘vacuum’ that I mean something which has an inner emptiness which pulls in or sucks towards itself the things surrounding it. And that is enough of an understanding to grasp what I mean in relation to fiction: a vacuum is a gap, or hole, or loss, or threat, which drives characters and plots into motion.

But the subject as a whole has probably grown to a point where it needs a distinct name. It isn’t just a ‘new approach to writing’, but a systematic overview of what occurs inside fiction, usually out of the conscious sight of the reader, though easily viewed and understood once brought out into the light, as it were. I’m going to use the word ‘fictivity’, from the root word ‘fictive’, which has its origin in the early 17th century and which comes from the French fictif, -ive or medieval Latin fictivus, from the Latin fingere ‘contrive, form’. In other words, fictivity embraces and includes things formed by the mind or imagination, usually in written form.

Once the basic principles of fictivity are grasped, it is certainly possible to view and apply them in different ways. The analogy that comes to mind is that of music: once a composer comprehends the layout of a limited number of musical notes and chords, he or she can develop endless ways of combining them, and use many varieties of conveying a composition to an audience - a symphony through an orchestra, or a simple tune through a single instrument, or a choir singing, all use the same fundamentals.

One of the observations made by fictivity is that the most successful or powerful works of fiction are underpinned or guided by a central theme or governing idea. This could be reduced mechanistically to a phrase or sentence or even occasionally a single word and passed across to a reader in a highly analytical way, without resort to the imagination at all - thus, for example, the message or theme of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, that ‘Racism is evil’, could simply be stated and conveyed to an audience without writing a novel at all. But human beings have developed a form of communication called ‘fiction’ through which they tell each other the same things, over and over again, disguised in various ways. We seem to like it that way. The best fiction is such that the disguise cannot be separated from the message without losing a great deal - the dancer and the dance are one. However, though the way in which a story is told and what the story is conveying are bound together by great authors, it is possible using the principles of fictivity to see exactly how that binding takes place. Studied closely enough, that process can be replicated, and other great works of fiction created; at the very least, the very best of the works of literature that exist can be better understood and appreciated, once one has some idea of how they were put together.

With that in mind, please have a look at the diagram above. This shows one possible way of looking at a piece of fiction.

At the top of the pyramid is the central idea or theme of the work. These themes are often almost identical: many books exist, for example, which tell us that ‘Pride leads to a fall’ or that ‘Love triumphs in the end’. So common are some themes that one of the main tasks of the author its hide the theme so well under so many layers so that the reader will read the tale without suspecting that he or she is being told the same thing that has been told many times before. The innate truths of human nature - that pride leads to an individual’s downfall, that sacrifice for the sake of another is a virtue, that blindness to our vices produces disaster, and so on - are what they are: the best authors recognise this and do not try to be ‘original’ at this level. The main surge of creativity comes once we step down the pyramid to the level of plot.

All successful plots, even the most convoluted or understated, can be encapsulated in two poles, in the same way that there is always a spectrum in anything. The most finely shaded portrait has nevertheless a dark and a light; the most subtly composed music always uses the same range of notes and will have a high and low extreme. In a fictitious plot, it is the same: though, for example, Jane Austen’s Emma seems to lack the poles of protagonist and antagonist common to most stories, there is nevertheless a polarity of behaviour present. For the majority of stories, these extremes are embodied in what we call a ‘protagonist’ and an ‘antagonist’, even though the core ideas which drive both are usually ‘off-stage’. For example, in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Frodo personifies the selfless and sacrificial ideal that Tolkien is attempting to convey, even while the power behind that ideal is suggested also by Gandalf and the hidden agencies at work ‘behind the scenes’ in the tale, while the chief antagonist, Sauron, remains unseen directly throughout; in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker similarly portrays the hero willing to believe in goodness despite the odds, and that idea is also implicit in the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the mystical Force, while for many of the films the Emperor as an antagonist is a remote and unseen player. The job of the protagonist is to captivate our attention to the degree that we are pulled along through the tale by him or her, and one of the ways that they do this is by being living embodiments of the theme of the story, even though we don’t consciously spot that in most cases. The job of the antagonist is to magnify the vacuums in any story and thus create the motion of the protagonist towards a resolution.

Putting these embodiments in opposition in any tale is what creates the outline of the plot. Though many plots are in fact more or less identical, the reader usually chooses not to recognise that and to ‘go with the flow’. Readers are human beings and do not like to be simply told the author’s message point blank: they prefer to have the whole of their minds engaged, not simply the analytical part. Thus they accept that, although they are at the cinema to watch the latest movie, the underlying plot and its message will be much the same as the last movie they saw. The point is that the trappings, the outward colour and shape of the thing, will be different. We treat stories as we treat food sometimes - the flavours and basic nutrients of food will be basically the same no matter what we eat, but new combinations attract us.

Below the basic plot and opposition of the protagonist and antagonist which the plot represents, are the other tools used by successful authors to communicate the central idea of the work. These are the secondary characters, namely the Wise Old Figure, the Comic Companion, the Emerging Warrior, the Female Companion and the Shadow Protagonist. Depending on both the story and the type of effect that the author wants to create, these secondary figures are presented in various stages of development: thus, in Macbeth, Lady Macbeth plays a major part in the action, while in Hamlet, Ophelia has a less central (though similar) role. In Comedies, almost all these archetypes are treated lightly; in Tragedies, the Emerging Warrior often takes the place of the protagonist except that he is submerging, going down rather than ascending. Fictivity views all characters as devices, used by an author (or not) in the same way that a composer uses a set of harmonies or a group of instruments in a symphony to create specific effects which lend to the overall power of the piece as a whole.

Down from the characters are the actual episodes or scenes which are viewed by the reader or audience. At this level, the abstract notions described above take on concrete shape and are put together in a sequence which leads towards some kind of resolution. Character archetypes outlined above either appear in a scene or not, and in the hands of a master author, just as with a composer, their appearance or absence is controlled and designed to affect the reader or audience in a particular way, scene by scene. Here also we find great authors masterfully guiding our attention with different kinds of vacuums: linear ones to create momentum, mystery ones to engender adhesion to events, or moral ones to add meaning and encourage engagement.

At the sentence and word level, we have the writer’s style: how he or she is using each sentence, each word, to convey the central idea at the top of the pyramid. And of course immediately below that, we have the reader or audience, because the words and sentences are the ‘interface’ between the inner and outer worlds of a novel or screenplay, leading our attention on, through the chapters and scenes, into the hearts of the characters, and in the end all the way up to the governing idea.

Other diagrams could be (and have been and will be) composed - but this Theme Pyramid puts together one way in which the new subject of fictivity enables us to see into the heart of stories as though we were ‘X-raying’ them.


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