ASSIGNED READING: Javier Grillo–Marxuach’s “Operational Theme” Essay
I need you to go read something. Last week, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, TV writer/producer extraordinaire, posted an essay titled “Finding the Next LOST: What is an ‘Operational Theme’ and Why Don’t I Have One?” That essay is what you should be reading RIGHT NOW, not this. So go. If it all explains itself to you, no need to come back until my next post. If you read it and still wonder things, come on back. That’s fair, right?
Ah, I See You Came Back
I hope you loved the essay as much as I did. Even if you didn’t, though, I urge you to take it seriously, as what it lays out is true and inevitable, like math. Since this is the internet and we both have stuff to do, I’ll lay out my thoughts in a quick series of numbered points. You’re welcome!
1. I think Grillo-Marxuach’s essay is invaluable.
2. I also think it’s all common sense.
3. Common sense is a hard thing to express convincingly — doubly so when the subject is writing. I think he laid it out better than I ever could.
4. THANK YOU, Javier, for reminding people that a theme can’t be summarized in one word. If you can do it in one word (“loneliness”; “despair”; “guilt”), then what you have is a subject, not a theme. The theme is more like the questions that arise around a subject. (e.g., Subject: “loneliness.” Possible Theme: “Can a person develop a real and healthy relationship with a computer persona?”)
5. If I’m looking at characters’ operational themes, it helps me to think of the story itself as having a “master theme.” (Grillo-Marxuach calls this the “operating theme.” I’d already been using “master theme,” so I’ll continue with that, but they mean the same thing.)
6. It also just makes sense to me to discuss the master theme in the form of a question. Because isn’t that one of the roles of art? To ask and attempt to answer questions? Or at least ask a series of rhetorical questions?
The master theme for The Sopranos, for instance, could be: “Is it possible to live a life in organized crime and retain your humanity?” The operational theme Grillo-Marxuach identifies for Tony Soprano — “Tony Soprano wants to remain a sadistic mobster even though his unconscious musters every weapon at its disposal to get him to turn away from his horrific life” — rings in harmony with this. As does Carmela Soprano’s, which could be: “Carmela wants to reconcile her enjoyment of her family’s mob-enabled lifestyle even amid mounting reminders of the costs of this arrangement.”
7. The way I’ve been talking about themes with my classes this week is by using musical comparisons. A song, unless it’s some shitty experimental work, will be in a particular key, right? So each of the instruments, though they have different “voices” and tones and will play at different times and with different jobs to do, they’re all doing so in the same “master key.” And if the song’s key changes, it changes for all of them. They’re part of the whole. And they’re not necessarily all playing in unison, by the way, they’re most often playing in harmony with one another — different notes that still sound good together.
This is why I chose a guitar headstock for this post’s photo: a single guitar can be the model here — six strings, tuned to different notes that sound good together, strung on a recognizably guitar-shaped chunk of wood.
This is how the Theme Thing works, too. There’s a master theme for the story. The major characters all have operational themes that harmonize with the master theme. They won’t all mimic it perfectly — that’d be a little on-the-nose, right? — but they complement each other well. Tony and Carmela don’t have the same operational theme, but their operational themes both play into that master theme.
8. Likewise, throughout the run of Breaking Bad, Walter, Skyler, Jesse, and Hank all had choices to make when presented with the complicated subjects of power, deception, sacrifice, and denial. And because they all had different operational themes and were distinctly drawn characters, they each handled their challenges differently. But make no mistake: they were all playing in the same key, and that key was known and established at the beginning by the writers of Breaking Bad, and everyone stayed in-key throughout the run of the show. And this is a large part of why Breaking Bad is so revered. Why?
9. Because audiences respond to care. When you take the care to a) know what your themes are; and b) present them in ways that feel emotionally true, then you have won half the battle. You’re telling the audience “I’m not just making this up. This happened, somewhere, in some universe, and I’m bringing it to you.” That’s what it feels like when a story is working — like the writer has somehow captured a time from actual life and has figured out a way to load it into your head. The line of artifice has been erased — or so it would seem. The opposite of this feeling is when a creator just says, “Well, there has to be a grumpy leader-type and then a goth-y hacker-girl, and I don’t know, let’s give them an objective.” There’s not a lot of care there, and the audience can tell.
10. There should probably be ten of these.
The most important thing a writer can do right now is to sit down and ask herself: Do I know what I’m working with? Even if I don’t know the exact dimensions of my story yet, do I know WHAT story I’m trying to tell? And do I know how all this matters for my characters — and how they matter to my story? I’m sure there are people who’ve read the Grillo-Marxuach essay and said, “Great, more cookie-cutter, Save the Cat-type Hollywood advice to help ruin literary writing!” And that’s fine, I get it, you adorable artist — “No more JELL-O for ME, Ma!” But the thing about that essay is, it’s asking one of the oldest and hardest questions you can ask of any fiction writer, which is: Do you know why your character exists?