all that Matters
Novelist and Star Trek writer Melinda Snodgrass on the crucial relationship between plot and theme
I’ve been called Structure Girl – which as superhero names go isn’t very cool – but I accepted it because my ability to plot is probably what made it relatively easy for me to move between novels and screenplays. In novels you have some leeway to sprawl. Not so much in a script. You need to know where you’re going and get there cleanly and efficiently. Early in my writing career I couldn’t start a project until I knew the final scene. As I became more adept I found myself asking other writers in my critique group: “Tell me what your book is about – in one sentence.” It wasn’t until was lured into the world of Hollywood that I learned that what I was asking for was what’s known in the industry as an “elevator pitch”.
The elevator pitch has been rightly maligned. It can be just lazy. A satiric example – “She’s a chimp! He’s the Pope! They’re cops!” Still it can have real value for both prose and screenwriters. What is your book/script really about?
Plot and theme aren’t the same things, but they also aren’t separate things. They go together like Pen & Paper, Salt & Pepper, Moose & Squirrel – okay, maybe not that last one, but you get the idea. When these two forces work in tandem it’s going to elevate the writing.
Here’s my elevator pitch, for how to think about plot and theme. Plot is the stuff that happens. Theme is why it matters. Let me give an example – in my Star Trek: The Next Generation script “The Measure Of A Man” the plot was all about a court hearing to determine if Data was the property of Star Fleet Command. The theme – what is that ephemeral quality that defines the concept of human? I’m not sure we answered it, but we made a stab at it. Here’s another. Casablanca, one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s not a romance. The theme is about how a man regains his soul and decides the world is worth fighting for. As a further example how about Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings. Lots of plot; lost kings return, great evil is overthrown, giant spiders, orcs, and wizards and elves, oh my. The theme – that evil is everywhere, even in the heart of the peaceful Shire, and vigilance and sacrifice is always needed. When I first read the trilogy as a child I thought everything that happened after Aragorn became king was boring. Then I re-read as an adult and realised that The Scouring of the Shire is the climax Tolkien had been building to all along.
That’s the moment I understood that when I said I couldn’t start a project until I knew the end what I was really saying was, “I can’t start this until I know what it’s about.” What it says about the human condition. What understanding it offers into the mystery of the human heart. Once I know the theme I can sit down with the cards, and the multi-coloured pens and begin to plot.
There’s a certain arrogance in writers. Why do we think our imaginary friends and fantasies are worthy to be shared with others? And then we have the temerity to ask people for money to get to read those daydreams. I think part of the answer is that stories allow us to examine how humans feel and react. As a species we have a great need to try and understand each other and the world we inhabit. In a sense writers are spirit guides for humans. We do a better job when we actually think about what we’re trying to say.
“As a species we have a great need to try and understand Each other”
Melinda Snodgrass’s new novel, The High Ground, the first in The Imperials Saga, is out now.