Building stronger story themes

Strong stories are built on strong thematic elements, or combinations of many strong elements. Otherwise, it's not a strong story – just a nice character study that moves around a bit with some pretty scenery. Right? So it stands to reason that if we can dissect a strong story we can find those elements and perhaps borrow some of those ideas to incorporate into our own writing?

Have you ever taken a story (movie, novel, or any other work) and de-constructed it to see what makes it tick?  It's important for writers to read, but reading for the sake of turning pages is not necessarily informative. If a movie or novel really moves you, ask the question, "why"? If you can answer the question, then you have a hook to build into your own writing.

So let's take this one step further. I will compare the themes of two of the most popular (and fanatically followed) story lines. We may find some clues on what makes a strong story tick, perhaps?

I'm going to compare Star Wars (SW) with Lord of The Rings (LoTR). I'm not talking about giving Frodo a light saber, or suggesting that Darth Vader might want to get his hands on Galadriel. This is not about characters, so letting Yoda talk to Sauruman is right out the window. This is not about plot exactly, so we're not talking about simply putting the Shire in jeopardy from storm troopers. I'm talking about those deeper issues that characters face that motivate them, and thus affect the plot.

I've read LoTR many times and enjoyed the movie adaptations. I've seen all the Star Wars movies. I've been considering what makes these two blockbuster story lines so immensely popular. The result of my pondering is that there are some similarities between these two story lines. In some ways I consider them the same kind of coming-of-age adventure romp, just in vastly different settings and completely different genres.

This is neither a complete nor scholarly discussion. Just some of my observations. Your results may vary.

The Opening Situation – let's look around:

Both stories happen in environments that are fully populated. Yes, it's easy to take the tapestry of the environment for granted. But let's consider things for a minute. Tolkien's world is so complex that to understand it completely there is a companion book, 'The Silmarilion' full of additional stories and background notes that gives you the keys to some of the more complex relationships. Lucas wrote of odd things like jar-jars, light sabers, Jabba, and his entire menagerie of oddball species. The relationships between elf and dwarf, or between Jawas and Sandpeople, usually come naturally through the dialog – as if they had always been that way, not being 'invented' or described to a complete stranger on the spot. Of course there are explanations, but from the voice of either Gandalf or Obi Wan, not the voice of the narrator.

A sense of wonder: Magic equals Technology. Gandalf's power is hinted at but in battle he usually prefers a sword and staff. He's not throwing fireballs around and being the star of the show here. His magic is used sparingly (except for fireworks, perhaps) and its impact is always felt powerfully by the enemy. Those touches of magic take us someplace else very effectively. The technology in Star Wars creates a world many otherwise rational humans would love to live in. Flying vehicles, hovering cars, light sabers, palantirs, elvish rope, light in a bottle, and magic rings all add to the sense that we'd like to see that for ourselves at some point if we could. Magic (or technology) is used to take the reader far away to a place that can't exist – to delight us and prompt us to try to recreate that magic for ourselves.

Both stories open with a vague sense of impending Evil. This dreadful force, while being rather profound, is rather far off. Frodo's skin crawls at the mention of Mordor in a way not very different from the way Luke reacts to the Empire. There may be something bad going on, or did go on in history, but it doesn't affect them until something else happens. The mention of evil at first is not a good thing, but its depth is surprising, its power is absolute, and it is coming soon.

Evil comes home for a visit.

Frodo has a hard time grasping the seriousness of his situation until the black riders come into the Shire and he barely escapes. Sure, he understands what Gandalf says intellectually, but I don't think it sinks in viscerally until then. Likewise Luke doesn't think he can do anything important against the Empire until his aunt and uncle are roasted out of their home by stormtroopers looking for those two droids. Both Luke and Frodo are highly motivated from this point of realization onward. So, evil coming next door doesn't have as much impact, does it? Or, if evil stays over there somewhere.

You can't go home again. This is the next logical step.  Frodo must leave the Shire because the ring-wraiths are searching for him. He is not safe in Bree, and must flee to Rivendel with Aragorn and his friends. Luke has no reason to stay on his uncle's arrid farm – his foster family is dead, so there's nothing really holding him there. What is not really discussed however, is what the impact would be of Luke's staying. His prospects can't be that great, can they?

Ah, the safety of home. We can't have it here. Leaving home is a similar event to Cortez burning his ships when he arrived in the New World. You're more motivated to go forward if you cannot go back. No nets, just give your hero a high wire and a poke in the backside. The bittersweet side of this is that there is a 'home' to go back to, or reminisce about. Frodo and Sam on the rocks near Mount Doom try to remember the taste of strawberries – which is not pivotal to the plot. But you can taste the berries, can't you? It re-emphasizes the contrasts between good and evil (more on that later).

Speaking of home, don't forget to remind your audience of what's worth fighting for. In Star Wars, it is mostly salvation from the technology / tyranny of the Empire. In the Ring Trilogy we're elegantly reminded of the Shire from time to time. When Frodo and Sam are at the foot of Mt Doom, they try to remember the happy days long past, Rosie, and the Shire. Get specific here. Remember to show elements that have already been shown or talked about. Home is a powerful, patriotic theme for any hero to fight for when you conjure the right memories. The greener the better. It wouldn't make much sense to die defending the arid wastelands from marauding Druids who only want to plant seeds and water them, would it?

The Good Guys

Obviously, both story lines have heroes and villains. I want to look at similarities among the heroes first.

The main hero has no father. Yes, Luke has a father. But Luke lives with an uncle, and does not know his father – in that role – until the last five minutes of Episode VI. Frodo lives with his uncle, and not much is said about his father at all. Yes, they have no mother as well – but I suspect the absence of a father is a stronger position psychologically. I tend to agree with the author of Iron John by Robert Bly with his thoughts on how boys become men, and how fathers can be immensely important. But I'm not an expert so we'll move on.

The hero is reluctant. Luke is a mere tinkerer on his uncle's farm, and is completely unfit for any duty in any army, force, or adventure. When Obi Wan throws out the suggestion that he could travel and see a bit of the Empire, Luke shrugs it off, because he is needed on the farm. Likewise, Frodo offers the ring to Gandalf rather than take responsibility for it. Bilbo's stories had always fascinated him but he was not ready to make a journey until he had to throw his gear in a ruc
ksack, grab Sam, and hit the road with Gandalf pushing urgently from behind. It's an endearment that these guys start out as antiheroes, not at all likely to ever do anything dangerous.

That's pretty much the lowest common denominator isn't it? You can't go much further down on the totem pole – both Luke and Frodo are pretty hopeless at the opening of their stories, even though their foster families speak highly of them and their abilities.

The good guys don't like each other right away. Episode IV of Star Wars shows Leia and Han not really getting along. Han is hard to trust right away, and we don't know what the Wookies are all about either, do we? Later in the story Han and Luke compete for Leia's attention with a bit of humor and bravado – but ultimately that's a sidenote not part of the plot. In LoTR the friction starts in Bree with the stranger Aragorn leading the hobbits away, is amplified in Rivendel as the Fellowship is formed, and doesn't end until Boromir meets his noble end defending Merry and Pippin, and Legolas and Gimli have buried their differences. This all adds a nice bit of political or social tension that keeps you turning pages, or watching the show. If the good guys are too vanilla, there's less impulse to keep reading. Add some spice then, and see what happens.

The hero has a mentor. While the hero has a father figure of sorts instead of an actual father, there also is a spiritual guide who takes over his training. For Luke this is Ben Kenobi, and later Yoda. Gandalf fills this role for Frodo until Gandalf makes a detour in the Mines of Moria, and Galadriel fills in that role in his absence. It's not exactly fair to throw your hero out into the wild without any guidance, is it? I mean after all, he's taking on the ultimate in evil, and needs all the help he can get, right?

The Bad Boys

In both stories, evil is not just a nuisance or a minor trouble. It is a vital force that is gathering strength and is all-consuming in its purpose and scope.

Evil is represented in the biggest, baddest thing around. It is supernatural, impending, all-consuming, corrupting, and relentless. In the Ring Trilogy, Sauron is a major spiritual force, who keeps himself together by the magic he created and his own determined willpower. In Star Wars, the Force is corrupted (or completed if you prefer) by the Sith, who use it to complete their own ends. In both stories the sense of evil and dread is something you can almost taste. Whether it is flaming eyes piercing through to your invisible self, or strangulation by remote squeeze, make sure the bad guys are really, really bad. Marauders or pirates create tension and a plot with somebody for your hero to make a story out of, but sometimes they are just not big enough for an epic-sized tale.

Evil likes to make converts of key people. Aniken Skywalker gets slowly seduced by the Dark Side, just as surely as Sauruman (and Theoden) became poisoned by Mordor through the palantirs. These are powerful figures that initially are allied with the side of light, but they ultimately turn on their friends – bitterly disappointing those who trusted them to say the least.

Evil is masked. Have you noticed that both Sauron and Darth Vader are masked? Vader doesn't don his mask until he is horribly disfigured in the lava, but this is also very early in his evil career working for the Emperor. Both masks are inflexible. Neither mask allows emotion to show. Neither mask comes off. When Darth Vader's mask does come off, it is when he is morally rescued by his son Luke, and has a change of heart at the end, revoking the dark side. We see his emotions again in his eyes as he dies at that point. We see Sauron's eye, but it is aflame with his burning passions and dark thoughts – not a comforting visage. The masks are not particularly frightening of themselves – it's the context of WHO is wearing them that makes them that much more fearsome.

Evil is mechanized. While this sounds like a Godzilla movie element or something, it holds true for both of these story lines. Sauruman is busy destroying the forest to create his Uruk Hai. Treebeard laments that Sauruman has a mind for metal and wheels. Mordor is already in ruin. Meanwhile in a galaxy far away, the Emperor is busy putting together technology to destroy entire planets.

The flip side is that both sets of 'good guys' are nature-based. Frodo and Sam are from the Shire, the greenest and most peaceful home you could want. Luke Skywalker begins to learn the natural Force that holds the galaxy together while near his uncle's farm. This makes the contrast between what good and evil are (and represent) utterly unmistakable. So from the plot point of view, you can say that evil is 'not natural' now, can't you? 

Moving the Story

The stories both involve friends coming from unexpected places, or sometimes being misunderstood (Lando for instance in the Cloud City, or the Wood Elves being suspicious of the fellowship, or the Rhohirrim being aggressive toward Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas). This keeps the drama going. If everybody always likes everybody else right away it is much easier to yawn. On the other hand, the elves show up at Helm's Deep with no questions asked, and their help is vital in keeping the orcs out until Gandalf can arrive with reinforcements. Star Wars is less dependent on showing these relationships – they are assumed – but there still must be some underlying reason why the rebel alliance has so many different freaky kinds of peoples in it. Where does General Ackbar come from anyway? Never mind….

The hero is wounded. Frodo gets a grievous wound in his shoulder from a Mordor blade that never heals. Luke loses his hand and gets a prosthetic. (I think Lucas has some kind of stump fetish or something – somebody loses an arm in most SW episodes) You can't kill your hero, but you can throw him around some. Leave some marks to give him something to talk about later. Emotional marks work as well as actual ones. For instance, Frodo knows the anniversary of his shoulder's wound because of it aches every year as a reminder on that anniversary.

The mission is clearly suicidal but we hope they succeed. So this little hobbit has to take a very important ring that the bad guy wants, and melt it under his nose in the Mountain of Doom. Riiiight. And Luke and his friends have to take down the death star by shooting a perfect shot down some tiny vent. Riiight. But we're glad they succeed. If the mission is impossible, with no odds of success, the more curious the reader is going to be about how exactly they're going to do it. Of course, this only works if there's a reason for us to like the main characters, or a reason to empathize with their situation in the first place. The lesson here is that a difficult mission done with difficulty and danger is not enough – we have to care about the outcome.

The mentor dies yet lives again. This is a bit more tenuous, but I still see some parallels between Obi Wan letting Darth Vader finish him off, and Gandalf doing a selfless descent into the pit with the balrog. Obi Wan is gone – but can still talk with Luke somehow from the other side. Gandalf doesn't really die. Well, yes he does, but he comes back differently – all in white. I think the bottom line is that you can kill off your main 'spirit guide', as long as he/she can hang around for advice somehow when the main hero needs it later. I'm going to throw in a similar thought from a third story line here – remember Jurassic Park? Ian Malcolm the mathematician is wounded badly and cannot communicate easily with the rest of the scientists as they try to survive after the dinosaurs get lose. Here is the voice of logic, the philosopher, and the most independent observer symbolical
ly laid low.

The friends are split up and reunited. The Fellowship is sundered at the river when Boromir dies, Frodo and Sam head into Mordor, and the remainder of the company go after Merry and Pippin. In Star Wars, the group is split up when Luke goes on a detour to find Yoda, and Han is separated from Leia in a carbon freeze thingy – and shipped to Jabba. Two plotlines with the same central characters gives you opportunity to talk about twice as many adventures. So your characters are fearful and don't want to split up? Do it anyway.

Moral salvation with a physical rescue. In Star Wars episode VI, there is a poignant moment between Luke and his father at the end. Luke wants to 'save' him meaning a physical rescue from his wounds. The dying Anakin reports that he already has been, meaning a moral recovery from the dark side. In the ring trilogy, don't forget that Eowyn did a similar favor for Theoden at the death of the witch king on the field of battle in front of the White City. Eowyn wanted to save Theoden's life, yet Theoden's thoughts were that he could now rest in honor in the halls of his fathers. Both of these mortally wounded characters were deeply flawed, but had found some sort of reckoning through their final actions (and the actions of their kin). Yes, feel free to jerk a few tears. But then be sure to get over it and get back to the story.


My point here was to direct you toward some similarities between some immensely popular story lines. I wanted to give you some story line devices that a writer might want to consider for inclusion as he/she begins work on any epic project.

Why are these story lines so popular? I suspect the answer may be deeply rooted in the psyche of the male. Why male? Both of these stories are male-centric, and I suppose (though I've not seen any data) that the majority of the fans are also male. But I'm not a psyche-ologist, so to speak. Some ideas here may be more effective with a male readership, I don't really know for sure.

Let's put the shoe on the other foot.  If the story had involved all female characters, it would have been an entirely different story even if the overall plot were the same, would it not? 

Now get out there and plot yourself an epic!

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