Writing 344: Metaphorical Thinking (Theme Part 3)

I’m going to make you smarter. But first, let me tell you a story.

For a long time, I had trouble communicating with people. There would be a universe of thoughts floating around my skull, seeping past the blood-brain barrier in between the in-betweens floating around the synapse, and all I could manage were terse statements; or I would encounter the opposite issue: I would become a font of arcana and ephemera which held interest for few people but myself.

As it turns out, people are not really that interesting in the perambulations of Signore Alighieri or Joyce past a certain threshold; people don’t all like Anime; and people don’t always get things intuitively. One of my chief problems.

For me, and my obsessive nature, I would always be able to piece together things largely by intuition. It’s one of those kinds of intelligence that is innate, but can be developed. I would be watching a magic trick, and figure out how to do it; I would hum a melody, and get it lickety-split.

As a result, people grew intimidated by me; they left me alone; they made me feel lonelier than anything, and I isolated myself. So, I put a premium on effective communication. And good writing is effective communication.

But one of the best keys to effective communication is to be a lil’ smaht.

How do you get smahteh?

Well, continuing our discussion of theme (Jesus), let’s talk about the essence of theme, and my favorite lil’ fractal: metaphor.

Believe it or not, intelligence is one of those things that no one has a straight definition for. Some people think it has to do with how much you know; some people think it’s how much you’re able to do; some believe it’s different types of intellect.

I prefer to equate intellect with metaphorical thinking.

You are constantly thinking metaphorically, whether intentionally or not; and you may even be aware of it. Shows like Star Trek are great at using simple metaphors to explain complex subjects. A point so eloquently made fun of by futurama in the episode “Where no Fan Has Gone Before”.

Metaphorical thinking – or Analogical reasoning, as I refer to it – is the ability to recognize features of one thing, in features of another. It’s why we see that the sky is like the ocean: wide, blue, and seemingly infinite. We all use Metaphorical Thinking to some extent in daily life.

A large component of Intellect is your abilities with it. To make it easier: the more readily you recognize similarities in the unsimilar, the more you can do.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an example.

I’m currently teaching myself a number of languages. For the romance languages, I’ve recognized the fact that the adverbial form of any word is “-ment” in each one. It’s a recognizable feature of all five languages. Further, they each contain “un” “il” “con” and certain features of preposition, syntax, and structure in common.

So what, those five languages are all from the same family.

Well, that’s true, they all derive from Latin (the boring kind of Romance). But if you take it further, you can use even more complex metaphorical thinking.

For example, in Spanish and French – two languages that are mutually unintelligible – the phrase “Your Welcome” is literally translated closer to “It’s nothing”?

Rien is nothing, as is Nada; De Rien, De Nada.

The metaphor here is the recognition of the word “nothing”, and by extension we can use metaphorical thinking to deduce what thanks means in Spanish and French.

But I’m digressing like usual, and intuitively.

How do you get better at Metaphorical thinking, and how do you use it to come up with theme?

Believe it or not, Metaphorical thinking is a skill, not a talent, and you can practice it. You are going to suck at it first, at least as an active skill; but as you use the below exercise more and more, you will come to develop a keen ability to think metaphorically. And the more metaphorically you can operate, the better you will be at identifying the commonalities between your characters, and situations.

The Exercise:

Google search for a random word generator on the internet like this one and generate two words. Once you’ve got those two words, you’re going to find how they resemble each other conceptually. Then find ways in which they differ


For me, I got Mnemonic and Screaming.

Here’s a list of similarities I got:

  1. Memorable
  2. Involve vocalization
  3. Used in situations that are scary
  4. One follows the other, when studying goes wrong
  5. They are forms of communication
  6. They are both reactions to chaos
  7. They can be used to help people understand a situation

Here is how they oppose each other:

  1. One is meant to order the world, one is an expression of chaos
  2. One is cerebral, the other is instinctive
  3. They oppose each other in purpose

I’m not going to lie: this one was hard for me. I don’t normally sit and actively find metaphors. But as I thought of ways in which they are similar, I was also able to find ways in which they differed, and I established a stronger relationship between the two, than I initially thought.

Let’s apply this to theme:

Your theme is an overarching idea, it’s a fractal, and it needs to be able to relate to all the characters metaphorically in some capacity: this includes your main characters, but also your villains or antagonists.

When the theme applies to all of the characters, they can occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. When they occupy opposite ends of the spectrum of your theme, whatever that is, they act in opposition to each other. This makes your theme an engine for story, rather than a message.

That’s a little theoretical though, so let’s look at a good metaphor for what I’m talking about.


Image result for the joker and batman

(Credit to Warner Bros)

The Batman and The Joker, awww yiss.

The above characters are thematic opposites. The theme? Control.

You can reduce most of Batman’s stories into one simple controlling idea that influences the rest of the story: We need order, and structure to survive.

Batman represents control at its most strict. He controls his impulse for violence and darkness through the outlet of crime fighting. He has perfect monetary agency. He’s able to make influential powerful decisions and affect millions through his company and money. He controls his dark side, and let’s his thrill out in the night, against criminals. He’s like Dexter Morgan, channeling the darkness to purpose.

The Joker is not anti-good: he’s a complete lack of restraint in human form. His order is chaos. He abides by no rules, no morals trouble his behavior. He is the Id to Batman’s Superego. He is impulse, and intelligence. His intellect and abilities equal or exceed batman’s, depending on who is writing. But in every iteration, he represents a fundamental lack of restraint.

Notice that if you look at Batman through the lens of “Control” as a theme, and its subsequent sub-themes, you’ll see which of his villains often stand out as the best: the Penguin, the Riddler, Black Mask, ZsasZ: all of his great villains are some perversion or variation of someone who is out of control.

And that may seem like a simplistic assessment, but that’s the point: the theme is not meant to create a specific story, it’s supposed to create a large scale palette from which the conflicts are generated. It can be seen at every level of story.

And it’s a metaphor.

Your Assignment: Perform the Above Exercise for 10 pairs of words. Additionally, watch pieces of narrative fiction that you enjoy, and find the controlling theme, based on Theme as I have defined it currently.

Once you have done so, leave a reply in the comments with what you find; or just keep on going, and doing you. It’s not my job to dictate your behavior, just to guide it.

I look forward to hearing your story, and can’t wait to see what you got.

Writing 344: Theme Part 2: Fractals

Let me tell you about fractals.

Fractals are a writer’s best friend, and our first stop on this little ride called theme. A fractal is a rose by many names, and sometimes it may even literally be a rose, but for me, they are the DNA of writing.

Let’s look at a literal fractal for a second, because they are super pretty.

Image result for fractal

Now, the definition of a fractal is (according to Google):

“a curve or geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole. Fractals are useful in modeling structures (such as eroded coastlines or snowflakes) in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales, and in describing partly random or chaotic phenomena such as crystal growth, fluid turbulence, and galaxy formation.”

For the less mathematically inclined among us – present company included – that’s pretty dense. So let’s break it down.

Basically, a fractal is anything that resembles itself at all levels, but may not be the same exact shape. So in the above image, all of those pretty drawings are the same, but only statistically.

For the purposes of writing, let’s change “Statistically” to metaphorically, and get this show on the road.

When writing Fractals – especially thematic fractals – you are writing something that appears in the same basic configuration from the tiniest line of dialogue, to the largest set-piece. One of the most famous fractals is Freitag’s Triangle, or your good ol’ horrid buddy: Three Act Structure.

But that’s still a little dry and technical, so let’s use a practical example: The mothahfuckin’ Wire. The Wire is the epitome of fractal narrative, which is why I would argue that it’s the best TV show ever, and plenty of pretentious people agree with me. The streets as portrayed by David Simon, and the Docks and Government and Education and Media is such a powerfully told story because of its use of Fractal narrative.

Less take a look.

The very beginning of the pilot episode could easily be called an overture. But let’s call it a fractal of the series to come. Please watch the whole scene (intro song included) below, before going further. If you’re a wire douche, you can continue.

Now this scene does not look like the rest of the series literally: it features two characters talking at a crime-scene. But it sets up the theme of the entire series metaphorically: the game is rigged, but you gotta play because “it’s america man”.

The Game is the primary motif throughout the series and manifests in different ways. It refers to the drug game, which dominates the locale of west baltimore; but it also refers equally to the police department; the stevedores union; City and State Government; Public School; and, finally, the Baltimore Sun.

In the scene, Royal Irish A-Hole Jimmy McNulty talked to a nameless stranger about “Snot Boogie” a boy nicknamed for his shit-luck one day out in the cold, who gets murdered by someone for doing his usual thing stealing from a craps game.

McNulty tries to piece together what happened, and concludes that “Snot-Boogie” always had the choice to just not rob a craps game. But his companion tells him that that’s irrelevant, because it’s america.

Throughout the scene we’re being given a thematic overview of the series to come: a character will come upon a good – if morally problematic idea – and will decide that the promise of a better life is worth more than the shit they’re in. It’ll go well, and they’ll start to involve more people. But then it will attract the wrong kind of attention. In their attempts to stop the attention from gathering, they doom themselves like tragic characters against the unstoppable grinding machine of institutional bureaucracy, and get crushed to feed it. Destroyed for taking a chance, when they knew they were fucked. Then life continues without anyone taking notice.

Because that is the plot of each season (and, incidentally Freytag’s triangle), the fact that each season is a self-contained story, part of a larger story doesn’t matter: it’s easy to follow. You just have to pay attention.

But that opening scene never tells you that directly. It is the motion of the narrative that lets you in on the secret. It’s practically subliminal. That’s the thing about fractals, when done right: They’re not obvious.

If you watched the Wire without knowing that that you would see the above plot be the A-Plot for every season – and practically every character – you would still be able to follow and enjoy it. Knowing that it operates as a series of shapes that aren’t the same, but similar expanding outward infinitely only enhances the ease with which you can watch it.

And if that weren’t enough, you have the theme song: “Way Down in the Hole” which is about not being tempted by Satan, if you want to be saved. Although Simon is openly against obvious musical cues, this one is ironic in the context of the show: When you follow the devil in The Wire, what you want will often happen, but you’ll be fucked anyway. It is a metaphorical reinforcement of the entire theme of the show.

From the Fractal, you can glean the theme: Fate, Tautology, and Chains. Or even Self-Destruction. The fractal in this case is so large, it can be applied universally, and create a rich tapestry of potential themes.

Now, if you’ve never seen The Wire, the above will make no sense to you. First off, shame on you, go watch The Wire. But you can do the above with just about any show.

So, your homework assignment, before we continue this conversation: Find a TV show, Musical, Movie, Book, or any other piece of narrative art you really love, and tell me what the fractal of that show is. 

To make this easy, phrase your fractal as the sequence of events that occurs at all levels of the story: from scene to the entire damn story. What is the sequence of events that is followed similarly at all levels, but never identically.

Leave a comment on this article, and we’ll continue our discussion of theme, next time.

I can’t wait to hear what you got.

Writing 344: Theme Part 1: Overview

A Note: Theme is a huge topic, and it’s also fractal (we’ll get to that). Because it’s so fucking enormous, I’m breaking up my discussions of it into multiple parts. Without further ado:

Let me tell you a story that you’ve probably heard.

While I went to Emerson College, I had applied, and successfully placed into Advanced Screenwriting: a screenwriting class led by the “Semel Chair” who is generally an established screenwriter who can help to maintain themes. Considering my readership, it will remain one of Emerson’s best kept secrets.

The professor was the spectacular David Magee, writer of the screenplay Life of Pi, and, generally, an awesome guy. He’s a writer who knows exactly what he’s about; you can tell because he has that Schrodinger’s casual: where it’s clear that so much effort went into learning about how to write, that it all just sorta comes as natural.

So it’s our second day of class, and all twelve of us are sitting on this cafeteria like chairs in a tiny ass classroom facing a brick wall. There’s a white board taking most of the wall, and everything is blasted in white light. Today, we’re pitching our stories.

Mine is a biopic on the Tragic, Beautiful, and weirdly Timeless story of Nick Drake (to date, in progress). I get up there, ready to knock his socks off with my awesome idea for a biopic – parallel structures, music, scruffy looking depressed dudes, an encounter with the rolling stones – and, because I’m first, I’m given a simple question: “What is your Theme?”


If you have ever taken a writing course by anyone who knows how to actually write, then you have faced, and maybe railed against that question: I don’t need a theme, man, I’m talking about life; the universe; everything, my story is going to be great without theme.

Eh, yeah, no, you’re wrong, chill.

If you want to write, you need to know theme, and thematics. You don’t have to know fancy ten-clause sentences; you don’t have to know 3-act structure (oh, no, wait); you don’t have to be able to write epic set-pieces that move the heart and the mind; if you know how to write theme, you will never write a truly awful piece of writing.

With that said, you need to get to know theme. You need to check out theme from across the Starbucks where you and your laptop are straight chillin’. You have to play the eye game with theme, play coy, then get the nerve to walk up to theme, and ask it out. Then you have to take theme on a really awkward first date, and ask it about like…it’s life, or something. I don’t know, I’m shit at dates. Then you have to really get to know theme.

Then, you have to take it on a few more dates…three or more, and get so intimate with theme that it puts out, and you get bizzay. Heyyyy.

Ok, yeah, I agree, that was weird.

But the point stands: know theme. Write good. Not write well: write GOOD.

Because all writing is thematic, even when people make pains to point out that they didn’t choose a theme, or that their work doesn’t have a theme. Coming from a background of creative writing, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard the sound of people’s eyes rolling when asked this question.

But you, you’re cool. Right?

Now that I’ve introduced, and creeped you out about it. Let’s actually get to brass tacks (not tax) here: what is theme, and why does it matter?

What Theme is, and Why it matters

Theme, is literally whatever your story is about conceptually; it’s also known as your Controlling Idea. It’s the intangible concept you decide to focus on directly, and center your writing around.

Every story has a theme, no matter what genre, execution, or medium. And, while it may not be as sexy as Character Arcs, or Action Set-Pieces, it is by far the most important thing you have to learn, if you want to write well, and you want to write consistently. I rank it even above sentences, and here’s why.

Let’s say you want to tell a story about… I don’t know, you’re great-grandmother Bertha. She led a fucking balls-out crazy life, and you want that shit on paper, because her story is so ridiculously cool that people will actually give you money to read it. Just, off. the. walls.

So you get all her anecdotes, you get a fancy type-writer, or a snazzy new laptop; you go to starbucks, all ready to be a writer, you sit down, you open word, and then…nothing. You stare at the Cursor and get bored, and then decide fuck it, maybe Bertha’s crazy nights trolling for strange in Tijuana in WWI weren’t actually that amazing after all. Maybe her being a pilot and going on crazy adventures with a half-insane orangutan, and having mad fun…well, it’s just not worth talking about.

Because here’s the thing. Any story sounds great in your head. You see all this cool and crazy shit happening. But, until you put your conceptual theme in there, it’s just going to be a bunch of scenes strung together.

So let’s go back to Bertha. Instead of saying “I’ll just write it out, and see what happens”, you say “Bertha did all these crazy things, but she really liked helping people; and, barring some questionable exploits with some hunky Tijuanan men…in world war I (dafuq), she was all about fighting the good fight, and doing insane things because she knew deep down, they were right”, my theme is “Selflessness”.

Selflessness is a great theme: it’s one word (muy importante), it’s not moral (important x10) and it’s widely applicable to the story at hand. It’s also binary, and fractal.

So you sit down, thinking about examples of things Berta did that were selfless, and things that she did, that were not selfless. An idea. You start with her crazier exploits where she only helped herself, and the first time she did something selfless, and how it changed her life.

And from there, you start writing, and you know which scenes to write about. You pick and choose all the scenes that illustrate what selflessness is – your antagonists are selfish, your Bertha becomes more selfless – and you create an arc, where before, there were just a bunch of stories. You craft scenes that give a sense of focus to Berta’s life. And her story is no longer just insane, it’s meaningful. Because theme, it’s a focus-ring baby.

Wait, what?

In the interest of your precious time, I’m not going to go into greater detail about theme quite yet. This is just a teaser, really (sorry love). But before I peace out, I want to provide a little more clarity on what I mean, so we’re on the same page about theme, moving forward.

Think of the Focus-Ring on a manual camera…or that little circular thing on your Android or iPhone when you want to take a super crisp selfie: this little thing at the end of the lens on your camera determines what objects will be sharp and detailed, and which will be blurry and fuzzy.

A good photographer can use Deep-Focus, and focus on everything, and may have to, if absolutely necessary. But often, great photographers blend fuzziness around the edges of what they want you to actually look at, and think about. If you’re taking a picture of a Carnation in a field of Dandelions, setting your Focus-Ring on the Carnation, getting it just right, will make certain that people know that that’s what you want them to focus on. Everything else is visible, but the subject that you’re focusing on is the one they’re looking at.

That is what Theme really does. It’s a focus-ring on your camera, that gives the piece of art you making meaning.

In the next few lessons, we will go into significantly more detail about what that means; but for now, I’d like you to look at some books, or movies that you really like and ask yourself: What is the theme of this?

Dun Dun DUN

I’m glad to have shared this story, and I hope I helped yours. Until next time.





Writing 344: Introduction

I’m going to tell you a story you’ve heard before.

Three years ago, I was broke as hell. I had struck out on my own – with my parent’s tenuous support – and had quit my job at Panera Bread because the difference in pay was, to my horror, not especially dramatic.

My parents had agreed to bankroll this little venture; but middle class is middle class, and the strain was evident in the dwindling amounts they could provide. I couldn’t pay my bills for electricity, or credit card debt; and, to top it all off, my tiny single apartment with an alcove retained heat, all year round. Unable to afford air conditioning, new clothes, bedding, or groceries, I would wake up daily sheathed in sweat, put on my worn down clothes, and walk down to my mecca: Coolidge Corner.

I had set up rituals for myself, to keep whatever remained of my sanity intact. I was down to three essentials: two fast-food meals a day, and books.

In Coolidge Corner, with whatever album I was listening to that day, I would eat a breakfast sandwich, admire the fact that poverty was doing wonders for my figure, and figure out what the hell I was going to do, because I had no money, and interviews were fruitless. Then I would go to the bookstore: Brookline Booksmith.

Brookline Booksmith is one of those beauts of Eastern Mass bookstores: deceptively arranged like H.P. Lovecraft’s Non-Euclidian Temples to Cthulu, minus all the terrifying elder gods.

You walk in and you see it go all the way back. It’s deep. It’s almost martial in its formation of books, arrayed like Book-Nerd feng-shui that draws the eyes down the length of its horizon line. In the front were baubles that bookstores like to sell for people who don’t like to read: colorful plates, pencils, miniatures. The air wasn’t quite musty, but it was a dream.

I still feel the sensation of the brown hardwood floor that held me steady as I would walk in with a dancer’s grace to avoid hitting the platforms; and then I would feast under the bright light whites.

I would dance, and massage the textures of the books. I would hold them, admire them; I would find a particularly great passage and laugh my balls off to the ambivalent looks of other patrons.

It was a second home for me, and I bought books.

Now, before you think my despair of poverty ended with Freelance Writing: it didn’t. During this time, I had been freelancing, and had learned how much of a horror-show it can be, if you don’t have any fucking idea what you’re doing.

But I wanted to write. I had drafts: screenplays, books, short stories, poetry. A pile of unreadable garbage. I had purchased an Alpha Smart to write more, and had succeeded. It held a privileged space, next to the stack of books for which I had no shelf. I’d had the gift of gab, but no confidence, and no knowledge. I would admire these book store offerings, but I always felt the distance.

Then, one day, during my morning ritual, I found Stanley Fish’s book: How to Write a Sentence, and how to read one. Even though I had about 30 dollars in my bank account, I decided to purchase it. Then something clicked, and I realized how amazing a sentence can be.

I started searching for good sentences. I burned through the book, I got a job which taught me a lot of things; I got some money; I got a writing gig; and since, I’ve focused my obsession for narrative craft into something spectacularly intricate.

There is no end to this story, sorry. But there is a point: for the last three years, I have consumed and made an active effort at writing sentences so that they land. I have written 4+ manuscripts (still need editing) and I have listened, watched, and obsessed over Narrative Pedagogy, as well as just learned so much by observation.

So this series is my attempt to give something back. Writing 344 is my attempt to Fish it up, and teach you how to write, if not well, then better. I love good writing. I love aspiring writers. But more than that, I love good craft.

And writing is that, by a pretty wide margin. In my bracket (unpublished, but obsessive), I note a lot of very common areas that can be improved, and a lot of things you may not have picked up on. I hope to share these observations, and provide you with a guide-boat to writing.

My story is far from finished, but I hope you will take it with me. We’re going to go over as much as I can humanly remember, and then some. Each course will be conversational, and will focus on one thing at a time. If you like what I have to say, please drop a line, and I will be happy to hear you out, and help you become your best writer.

If you don’t like it, well, cool, you do you. But I hope you do enjoy it, and learn to appreciate the fine thing a good sentence can be, when it’s done write. I hope you come to appreciate a shapely theme; balanced exposition; the right kind of conflict; character development; scale; weight; all the way down to my favorite of punctuation marks: the Semi-Colon.

And, most importantly, I hope you improve your writing. The only thing holding you back from going forward, is you. Just write, and the rest should come. But you can always use a little help.

And that’s what I’ll do.

Now that I’ve told you a story, let’s start with yours.