all that Mat­ters

Nov­el­ist and Star Trek writer Melinda Sn­od­grass on the cru­cial re­la­tion­ship be­tween plot and theme

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Freespeak -

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.

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