Theme: The Truth Behind the Tale

I once read somewhere (and I do wish I could remember where so I could give proper credit) that we story-writers are in the entertainment industry; that the primary goal of the story-writer is to entertain. While I basically agree with this statement, I think it’s also true that the best stories all have something real to say.

This is where theme comes into play. The term can be a little bit broad sometimes so just to be clear, when I talk about a story’s theme, I am referring to the meaning(s) or dare I say, the message(s) of the story. What fundamental truth(s) are you conveying in your idle fantasy? What aspects of real life are you exploring? And equally as important, how are you conveying that truth?

Let’s look at the easy(ish) bit first: identifying your theme (we’ll come back to how to convey your theme later). Themes can take many forms: it can be a moral lesson (e.g., ‘don’t do drugs, kids’), a particular idea or belief (‘the meaning of life is such-and-such’, ‘God is like this’, ‘socialism/capitalism is destructive in this way’, etc.)  or it can be a general portrait of a particular subject (friendship, poverty, religion, etc.). Depending on how you write, you may have decided on a theme before anything else (that is to say, your initial idea was something like ‘I want to write a story about domestic violence’) or the theme may have come about as a natural byproduct of your story. If it’s the latter, you might be tempted to ask yourself: ‘do I really need to identify my theme(s), since they occurred purely by happenstance after I began writing the story?’.

Answer: yes, you do. After all, whether it was your intention to write a story about lies, sex and/or murder or not, your audience will pick up on these themes if they’re there. And believe me, if you’ve written a half-decent story, there will be at least a couple of naturally occuring themes. It’s unavoidable. Has one of your characters been pursuing a love interest who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings? Then your theme is unrequited love. You may not have intended it, but it’s there, growing wild in the tulip patch that is your story. Depending on how your characters behave, it may also become a story about obsession, harassment or rejection. Therefore, since it’s almost impossible to write a good story without a theme or two popping out of the mix, it’s worthwhile identifying your theme so that you can make it work for you. Themes may be naturally occurring, but they shouldn’t be allowed to grow wild. Once you’ve identified them, you can use them to really enrich your story.

How you convey your theme is something else entirely, and will depend largely on the kind of story you’re writing, but the best advice I can give you is this: avoid sounding preachy. That’s not what people want from a story and it will certainly annoy your reader, even if they agree with you. Don’t misunderstand me, you should be bold in communicating your ideas, but there’s a way to do it and a way not to do it. The chances are your readers came to your book quite comfortable in their own opinions. If you want to change their opinions, you’ll need to do it with tact and subtly. Show them the truth by the events of your story.

In the same way, avoid soapboxing (yes, I just made that term up). This is when you turn your characters into a soapbox from which you casually throw out your opinions on controversial subjects, usually in the form of internal or external dialogue. e.g.:

Pro-abortion soapboxing: There was a small group of nuns standing outside the hospital, clutching pictures of the Madonna and Child. Isobel shook her head. Didn’t these outdated old crones realise that a woman has the right to make decisions about her own body?

Anti-abortion soapboxing: There was a small group of nuns standing outside the hospital, clutching pictures of the Madonna and Child. Isobel shook her head. It saddened and amazed her to think that in this day and age, there was still any need to protest what was clearly the legally sanctioned murder of unborn babies.

Soapboxing won’t only annoy your reader, it will actually undermine your story. Remember stories and characters must develop. A story never ends where it began, because the characters therein must develop (even if that ‘development’ involves a downward spiral of self-destruction). If a character’s strongly-held beliefs are relevant to the story, they ought to be challenged throughout that story (and probably, although not necessarily, altered in some way by the end). Therefore, if you begin with absolute statements (‘such-and-such is evil!‘) you’ve nowhere to go but contradiction or compromise (‘such-and-such isn’t so bad after all’ or ‘I’m not sure what I think about such-and-such now’). You could, of course, end with an absolute statement (‘Jeanie thought such-and-such was okay, but now she knew it was evil!‘) but that is a very lazy way to write. If your audience was truly drawn into Jeanie’s plight throughout the story, they’ve probably already come to the conclusion that such-and-such is evil. They don’t need you to lecture them.

If, on the other hand, your character’s opinions are not not relevant to the overall story, ask yourself why you’ve included them. There may be a legitimate reason to include them (e.g., characterisation), but if it’s nothing more than an opportunity to soapbox, chop it out. Air your controversial opinions on Twitter if you must, but don’t let it ruin your story.

Remember, your audience didn’t come here to learn your opinions. Your audience doesn’t give a rip about your opinions, even if they happen to share them. Instead, focus on telling the story. Make it as true as you can and fill it with believable, sympathetic characters to whom your reader can relate. They’ll start to understand what it’s like to be in that position and will begin to think. And that’s all you can hope to accomplish as a writer: provoke thought. You cannot force someone to believe something. You can only offer them the truth as you see it.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what plucks your eyebrows.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Games Edition

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not played Batman: Arkham OriginsFable IIITenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth AssassinsGolden AxeMetal Gear SolidTime Commando or The Secret of Monkey Island is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

More than two years ago, when I first started Penstricken, I had this big idea that I was going to blog about all forms of story telling: books, films, plays and even computer games. If I’m being honest, however, there has been an accidental but undeniable bias in favour of posts about TV, films and books. When it comes to Super Snappy Speed Reviews, we’ve already done books (twice, in fact), TV shows, films and even Star Trek.

And so, for this edition of Super Snappy Speed Reviews, I’m going to give you seven mini-reviews focusing on the stories found in computer games (mostly retro games, because I’m an old dinosaur like that). As usual, the games I have reviewed here have been selected entirely at random from my own collection of dusty relics and do not necessarily have anything in common apart from the fact that they are all games (although you’ll be lucky if any of them are less than ten years old!). They are not necessarily games that I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. I should also add I am focusing my reviews solely on the quality of the story, not graphics, audio or general game play.

As always, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressionsblitzed, pureed and truncated into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

Batman: Arkham Origins (2013)

Superhero games are often naff. This one is not.

The plot is simple but bold: there’s a price on Batman’s head and everyone from Gotham’s criminal element right through to the City’s corrupt police force intend to collect it while Alfred drives Batman to distraction by acting like a mother hen. The story telling is excellent and well-paced. The characters (and there are plenty of them) are well developed. The dialogue is excellent.

I love this game.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Fable III (2010)

At first, the story of this game seems pretty straight-forward. You’re the brother/sister of a king who has recently begun abusing his power and so you set out to find allies to help you lead a revolution. Suddenly, just when you think it all makes sense and you’ve nearly won the game it turns out that there’s a weird semi-corporeal army of darkness coming to destroy everything and the whole reason the King was being so cruel was to help raise funds to fight in the coming war.

It’s not a bad story. A little simplistic, perhaps and the antagonists who appear at the end of the story feel a bit under-developed but it basically works. My main complaint is that the protagonist never seems to really develop, despite (perhaps even because of) the fact that game largely centres around making moral decisions that will influence your future.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins (2000)

This story is set in feudal Japan and focuses on a small clan of ninja fighting against another ninja clan who have decided they’ve had enough of being stealthy and want to establish a world ruled by ninja.

I’m not sure how historically accurate it is, but I suspect the answer is ‘not very’. The story is quite simple to the point of even being a little bit silly but it is reasonably paced and the dialogue is… meh… okay. Character development is limited but it’s there. One of its big selling points is the fact that the three playable characters allow you to see the story from three unique perspectives (including the perspective of the bad guys).

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Golden Axe (1989)

Death Adder has taken over the kingdom and has kidnapped the King and Princess. He has no redeeming qualities. The good guys are noble and heroic. Also some guy called Alex is murdered by Death Adder before the game begins and is never mentioned again.

That’s pretty much it. No characterisation, plot twists or anything at all really… just a good old fashioned find the bad guy, kill the bad guy, save the kingdom.

My rating: 🌟🌟

Metal Gear Solid (1998)

Most computer games have half-baked or altogether non-existent stories. Metal Gear Solid is not like that. It’s got drama, it’s got conspiracy, it’s got plenty of characterisation and even alternative endings. It’s well paced with a strong balance of action scenes and softer, emotional scenes. Frankly, it often feels more like a movie than a game thanks to the sheer complexity of the plot and characters.

My only gripe with it is that it is a little overwritten and as a result, features quite a bit of info-dumping during some of the video sequences.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Time Commando (1996)

Does anyone else remember this game apart from me? Well… basically it’s a classic ‘slay the dragon/save the princess’ sort of story– but much more ridiculous. Instead of a dragon, we have a computer virus (who resembles a giant fish) which creates a giant time vortex which threatens to consume the entire world. Stanley, the protagonist, very foolishly enters the vortex and battles his way through eight different time zones before finally fighting the virus itself in the strange world of ‘beyond time’.

Not only is this story ridiculous, but the game features ZERO dialogue of any kind (except for ‘oh yeah!’ whenever you find a secret) making it almost impossible to understand the plot without reading the game’s manual.

A fun game to play but the story frankly feels a little unfinished.

My rating: 🌟

The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)

I knew I was going to love this game from the very first moment I turned it on and saw this scrawny, blonde haired wimp politely inform a blind watchman, ‘Hi. My name’s Guybrush Threepwood and I want to be a pirate’.

When it comes to story telling, this game has it all: an unlikely hero driven by a strong motivation to become a pirate; a dastardly ghost-pirate antagonist; a strong, independent love-interest who turns out to be anything but a damsel in distress and buckets of humour. Even the supporting characters are vibrant, distinctive and hard not to love.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what bashes your buttons.

Until next time!

Fiction: Reality Refined

There are two kinds of story in this world. Those that are not at all true to life and therefore are completely unsatisfactory, and those that create the illusion of being true to life but, in fact, are not. Very few stories (even those meticulously and faithfully based on true events) accurately reflect real life once they’ve been structured in a way which allows them to be communicated, because real life is far too much of a jumble for that to be possible.

‘But wait just a minute here,’ I hear you cry. ‘I read a book/watched a film/attended a play/played a game just the other day there and it was the truest darn thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life!’

Well of course it’s true that if you’re writing a story, you’ll want it to be true to life in the sense that it must accurately reflect the human experience. A skilled author can (and should) attempt to communicate far more fundamental truths than this about life and death, war and peace, society, philosophy, religion or whatever it might be in their stories. And of course, stories based on true events must remain faithful to history. No one is denying any of that.

However, in real life, events are disjointed and random. Things happen for no reason. Reality must therefore be refined in order to turn it into a digestible and entertaining story. For instance, you might be writing a novel (based on the true story) about your holiday to France where you met your future wife and fought to win the respect of her disapproving father. Now while you were there, you also bumped into Mr. Donald, your former maths teacher. It turns out he’s there to attend the Fête de la Musique because (to your surprise) he’s ridiculously enthusiastic about music and will travel far and wide to attend music festivals all over the world. You make polite conversation about this for twenty minutes and then go your separate ways. You put the event out of your mind. Life goes on. It never comes up again. All that you have learned about Mr. Donald, his passion for music or that there is an all-day music festival that happens in Paris every June neither harms or benefits you in any way, at any point in your life, ever.

So… when you come to write the novel about how you went on holiday, met a girl and won the respect of her father, you’re not going to include that event, are you? Because in all story telling, everything happens for a reason. Meaningless events only serve to break up the flow, rhythm and pace of the story. Have you ever been watching a film and noticed that nobody ever says goodbye to anybody else, even on the telephone? Or that nobody ever walks into a room and forgets what they went there for, or forgets what they were about to say. And no one ever needs to go to the toilet, unless there’s a mad axe murderer in there already poised and waiting to kill them. This isn’t true to life at all! In real life, people always forget things, usually do say goodbye on the phone and, more often than not, have uneventful visits to the bathroom.

Not only that, but in all good stories (even those based on true events) there is a clear and identifiable structure, sometimes called the ‘story arc’ or ‘narrative arc’ (a simple definition and description is available here) and all the events in your story should contribute in some way towards its construction. This is not true to life, but it is good story telling. In real life, you meet new people all the time. They enter your life, do or say so many things and then leave your life, often without ceremony. Many different events happen all at once and are often never fully resolved. Good story telling isn’t like that. In good story telling, A leads to B which leads to C and in the end, all the loose ends are tied up. They might not necessarily all live happily ever after, but the story comes to a neat end. Our questions are answered and we are happy to assume that life goes on (at least for the survivors).

If all of this is teaching your granny to suck eggs, let me draw your attention to one more point: dialogue. In dialogue, you walk a fine line between creating a distinctive and believable voice which tells you something about the character and constructing your dialogue in a way which allows your narrative to flow.

It may be difficult to do because we’re all so used to verbal communication, but next time you’re having a verbal conversation with someone, listen to the words they use. Don’t just listen to their meaning. Pay careful attention to every utterance. You will notice that, more often than not, the rules of grammar go out the window. New sentences are often begun before the previous one is finished. People interrupt and talk over one another. Sometimes misunderstandings will derail a conversation (‘Do you like coffee?’ ‘Oh yes I’d love one, thank you!’). Words are often misused (for instance, when people say ‘pacific’ instead of ‘specific’). Sentences are often punctuated by non-sensible utterances (‘erm…’, ‘uhh…’). The list goes on.

Seriously, I encourage you to try it someday. Make a precise transcript of a real-life conversation in exactly the order it is spoken and read it back to yourself. You will marvel at the fact human beings are able to communicate at all when you see just how muddled up our verbal communication is.

In fiction, however, your dialogue can’t be like that. You can add dialects, accents and perhaps even the odd bit of bad grammar to your heart’s content but the flow of the conversation still has to be clear for the reader. Dialogue, just like the rest of your narrative, has a purpose. It drives the story on, and therefore it must accomplish its ends. Still, it must sound believable. You as the author, therefore, walk a fine line between making it sound so implausibly perfect that your characters seem wooden and so realistically imperfect that it reads like meaningless waffle and drags your story’s pace down to a crawl.

Not only that, but you also have to beware of making the content of a conversation sound too contrived. It can be all too tempting to use dialogue as a place to info-dump. E.g., ‘I visited my sister, Andrea McLaren, 24, who lives just around the corner from the butchers on Western Road’.

Real people don’t talk like that. If Andrea’s full name, age and address are important, they need to be worked in with subtlety and believably. There are many techniques you can use to lend credibility to your dialogue, but I’ll come back to that in a future post.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what fries your bacon.

Until next time!