Comic Craft: That Dirty Word "Theme" / by Frank Gogol

This past week, I started by third Comics Experience Course – Advanced Comic Book Writing 301 – Scripting Your Miniseries with Paul Allor (Monstro Mechanica, CLUE!)

My big take away from the first class was Paul’s idea about plot-theme hybridity, which is a fancy way of saying that the plot (what happens) in a story and the theme (what the story is talking about) are intertwined.

One of the things that stood out to me from the first lecture was Paul’s sentiment that “theme” tends to be a dirty word for writers and readers. I’d never thought about it *too* hard, but now that I’ve been thinking about it, Paul’s kind of right. There’s this strange sense of moralizing associated with the theme as if anything with a theme is preaching. But I think what people really resist are less nuanced approaches to incorporating theme into the story.

Theme done badly (read: heavy-handily) is what comes off as lecturing.  

So, I started to think about where I’d seen hybridity done well, and of course, I turned to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In particular, I turned to S01E11 – Out of Mind, Out of Sight.

Spoilers for the 21-year-old episode of television ahead.

This episode of BtVS jumped so immediately to mind, because—way back in 1997 when I was 9—it was the first piece of media that made me realize there’s a sort of poetry to storytelling. In the episode, a high school student, Marcie, is so incredibly lonely and feels like no one at school sees her, and that feeling of invisibility manifests literally and she becomes invisible.

Marcie uses her new-found powers to take revenge on one of her fellow students who made her feel especially invisible—Cordelia. One of the hallmarks of Buffy is the monster-of-the-week formula, in which Buffy and the Scoobies (here friends) each week faceoff against a monster that is a literal manifestation of something one of the main cast is experiencing. In this episode, Cordelia—the stereotypical popular high school girl—gets a spotlight, and we find out that in spite of her popularity, she feels lonely, too. Her friends are shallow and are really dumb, and she really doesn’t relate to them, but, as Cordelia says, being popular beats being lonely alone.

So, the theme of the episode revolves around different ways people experience loneliness and how it affects them. Marcie feels extreme isolation and literally disappears from sight. Cordelia feels lonely because she doesn’t relate to the people around her and is drawn to the Scoobies, who she feels are more like her. There’s even a small scene for Buffy, who takes a bit of a backseat this episode, in which she feels isolated from her friends because she’s a transfer student and they share a long history that she’s not part of.

Now, the idea of a lonely person becoming invisible isn’t exactly genius. It actually is kind of on the nose, as WB/CW shows from the late-90s and early-2000s tended to be. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it is what it is. That said, this episode plays well thematically because of the execution.

First – the episode is a bit of a deconstruction of the aforementioned popular girl trope. Cordelia is given layers and those layers—especially her loneliness—show the theme, rather than talk about it. Showing and not talking about the theme, literally not preaching to the viewer, makes the theme more palatable. Show don't tell - Writing 101. 

Second – the end of the episode, in true Buffy fashion, doesn’t have a neat, happy bow on it. Cordelia swings by the library to thank the Scoobies, whom she really has started to feel a connection to but shies away (and pushes away) when another popular kid sees them together. The subtext there is that she’s learned the lesson, but still makes the mistake, which is all the more tragic. In this way, the theme, what the story is talking about, isn’t lost on Cordelia, but (at least for now) she’s going to continue to be lonely.  

These two things together, to me, say that theme presented as character experience (what they’ve experienced before the story and what they do in the story) rather than him or her waxing poetic about the theme is the difference between the theme coming off as nuanced and it coming off as preaching. And this makes a lot of sense to me because characters and what they’ve been through and what they go through are the reasons we read stories. We connect with them, and we feel for and with them.

The story starts with character, so, of course, the theme does, too.