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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, March 15, 2007

on thematic research

After my post yesterday I gave more thought to what it means to research the meaning-content of a story (my story, anyway).

For I suspect that it's not strictly necessary for most writers to do such research. The meanings of stories emerge naturally and inevitably from the narrative. When the writers of the Clint Eastwood thriller Magnum Force were developing their screenplay, for example, I doubt they did specific research into the abstract nature of justice. But the thematic interest and tension of the movie, its meaning in my sense, has to do with justice. What are the individual's responsibilities and rights concerning justice when his society's institutions of justice have been perverted and turned into institutions of injustice? What if the forces of the law have themselves become criminal?

This question is interesting and important, and it is, in my opinion, much more responsible for making Magnum Force a hit than the fact it starred Clint Eastwood engaging in violent gunplay.

Magnum Force was conceptually a relatively simple movie (although, I think, a very good one--and a rare example of a sequel that lives up to the quality of the original, in this case Dirty Harry). Movies in general need to be conceptually simple; it is not a conceptual medium. Their ideas should be simple, but deep and emotionally charged--important, in other words. Novels do not need to be so simple. Since the medium is words, they are inherently conceptual; they are absorbed over a much longer time, and the reader is free to pause and backtrack if he or she wishes. Literature, of all the art forms, is the one best able to explore ideas to their conceptual limits.

So for me thematic research means investigating my story at the level of ideas. To use Dirty Harry again, I would be investigating the question, what is justice, anyway? I believe that digging into that question would be fruitful in sparking story- and character-ideas. Ideally, different ideas of justice would be held by different characters in the movie (I'm not sure how many actual ideas are represented this way in the movie--it's been years since I've seen it!). Their ideas would guide their decisions and their actions, and, to the extent that these ideas were incompatible, dramatic conflict would be generated.

Thematic research, then, clarifies the ideas underlying a story, untangling the confusion that exists first of all in the writer's own mind. If you were assigned to write Magnum Force, you might go in with your own assumptions about justice, maybe something like, "justice is the orderly operation of the law in a democratic state". But it would be good if your assumptions started to bump up against competing ideas. How about something obvious, like, "justice is ensuring that people get what they deserve"? Now, if your orderly operation of law does not result in people getting what they deserve, then what? Conflict.

Of course, each question sparks further questions. What does it mean to say someone "deserves" something? Who decides? These sparks can start their own fires, so to speak. Plato's whole masterwork The Republic is, in theory, the result of an inquiry into this topic--what is justice? I'd like to think that if I were writing Magnum Force, I would dip into The Republic to see what I could find.

Hmm. I seem to have talked myself out of my own supposition stated above, that writers of simple stories don't need to do thematic research. Now I'm thinking they probably do! (Do need to, that is--they probably often don't actually do it.)

For the best stories, in my opinion, are ones in which the writer has clarity about the competing ideas involved. You need to know what your characters truly stand for, and then give them their own integrity based on that. Even your deceitful, two-faced villain has integrity somewhere, even if it's only in a steely adherence to the conviction that the world is a Darwinian jungle where only the fittest survive, and survival is the supreme value.

So, in the spirit of untangling a great knot, I proceed day by day with my thematic research, learning about what my characters might believe, and learning also what I believe.


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