How can I better identify and understand "theme" and "subtext" (and "motif"?) in stories and not just take them (as I tend to) as a plot or a bunch of things that happen.
May 5, 2012 12:54 PM   Subscribe

How can I better identify and understand "theme" and "subtext" (and "motif"?) in stories and not just take them (as I tend to) as a plot or a bunch of things that happen.

I know this is a bit vague and varies from film to film and book to book, but I've just never been that good at identifying theme and subtext in stories. I often find that I enjoy a story as a series of events while its themes end up not so much going right over my head as they just don't register at all. Then later I will read a review or a critique and realize there was so much going on below the surface that I completely missed.

IS this even something that can be helped? Id like to get better at this if for no other reason than to enrich my experience with stories.
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Practice. Keep reading professional reviews for a start. Maybe read some classics and follow along with an AP study guide or sparknotes. These will point out the obvious things and as you see a lot of them you should be able to start to recognize them yourself. Join a book club and talk to people on a regular basis about what they got out of books.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 1:05 PM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies. Talk about them with your friends.

Keep in mind that a lot of that is just the opinion of the critic, and that it may or may not have been intended. A lot of people view the world through a particular prism and will find variations on the same theme in every movie they watch-- for example feminism, or politics or Freudianism, or religion.

For fun, try picking a movie and a subject you know a lot about and think about how you could use the movie as a way to help you explain your opinion on the subject.
posted by empath at 1:09 PM on May 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Watch the director's commentary of movies and TV shows you love.

And maybe call up your high school English teacher (I'm serious!) and ask him/her for recommendations of things you could re-read.

You can also google "book club questions" (etc.) for popular and classic fiction books, which can definitely help prompt your own internal probing.
posted by argonauta at 1:22 PM on May 5, 2012

It can be overwhelming to read a brilliant analysis of how a movie is all about a certain theme, which could make it seem like you missed the real significance of everything in the movie. So try to focus on a few specific moments or lines. This might be easier if you're rewatching the movie (or rereading the book, etc.) and have read the analysis in the meantime. Try to notice lines that might have seemed random or forgettable before, but that you can now understand how they fit with the theme.

It's fine to not pick up on these kinds of things the first time. When you see a movie the first time, it can be hard enough to keep track of basic things like the characters and the plot, without having to also discern an underlying message. There are only so many things you can focus on at once.

One way to look for these kinds of detailed clues is to listen for lines that would otherwise seem pointless or out of place. If there's no other reason for the line (it's not essential to the plot, it's not a joke, etc.), it might have been put there just to underscore the theme. This is especially likely if a character suddenly makes a grand philosophical statement in the middle of talking about something else. Here's a pretty glaring example: there's an episode of Arrested Development where the lead character, Michael Bluth, is finishing up a conversation with someone while getting on an elevator, and while the elevator door is closing, he holds it open just to say: "Well, we can't really change who we are!" It's a somewhat clunky line, which isn't necessarily supposed to be funny even though it's in a comedy. It's also noticeably philosophical, not about the specifics of the plot. Therefore, you can assume this is the show's way of saying: "This episode is about people trying to change who they are!" The same kind of thing will often happen in movies and novels, even if the execution is often more subtle than that.
posted by John Cohen at 1:24 PM on May 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Get used to asking yourself "Why is this happening?" as things are happening, instead of saying, "Cool, this is happening now".
posted by bleep at 1:26 PM on May 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Read better books? That is, novels or films that are carefully constructed as texts, rather than hastily and sloppily made, will reward this kind of attention more obviously. A lot of this kind of insight is produced by re-reading, rather than reading for the first time, too: so maybe try to read more things that you suspect will reward repeated reading, and fewer pure disposable page-turners.

I think the key here is to realize that, when you read a novel or watch a film, you're not actually in transparent contact with "the story" — that is, you're dealing primarily with a text, a series of words (or images and sounds), and only through that can you have access to "what happened." It's too easy sometimes, especially with works designed for pure disposable entertainment, to pretend that you're just there for the plot, reading to find out what happens next. But books and movies aren't just plot-information dispensers. Try to concentrate on how you're getting that plot information (is it out of order, with flashbacks and mysteries? is it purely linear? is there a framing story? are you seeing things through one character's perspective, or omnisciently?) and literally looking at the surface of the text — what words or images or styles, scenes or types of shot, are used again and again, and when does this vary?

Still, remember that nobody outside of a high-school class or a Cliffs Notes author thinks reading literature is a scavenger hunt for secret Big Themes that explain everything. This isn't really what criticism is for: thematics are one part of reading, but not the key to all of it. Learning to pay attention to form as well as content is valuable on its own terms, but it's not going to unlock the secret key to understanding — it's only going to allow you to produce more interesting questions and respond on more different levels to what's happening as you read/watch.
posted by RogerB at 1:28 PM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. Arrested Development. Watch all three seasons (perhaps several times in a row), and pay attention to the music. The music highlights -- quite blatantly, for laughs -- a lot of the subtext and themes. Very handy for figuring out how and where subtext is inserted into stories in general.

2. Read up on film language, mise-en-scène, and all that. Any basic film studies book (check your local library) will be of service.

3. Read some Jung, and absorb his powers of beanplating the living fuck out of absolutely everything.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:32 PM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, one more thing: As mentioned upthread, the key question is Why?

The biggest Why? that'll crack open most anything is about the stuff outside the film or book: Why did this artist make this art? The date it was made, the place, the sociopolitical circumstances, the artist's personal history and views and their other work (some of which might send the same message a lot less subtly) -- all of these will help to answer that question, and from there, everything else usually follows pretty easily.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:45 PM on May 5, 2012

It doesn't help that a lot of modern serial narratives (like TV shows or long book series) basically are a bunch of things that happen, and keep happening as long as the show or the series goes on. I think it's generally easier to identify themes in shorter novels, short stories, movies, and poems. I am not an educator, and one particular thing I don't teach is literature, but if I had to try, I'd say something along the following lines —

I find that subtext is driven by selective focus. (And it's easier for an author to practice focus in a shorter work.) By "selective focus" I mean that, given the entire range of potential events that could conceivably stem from the premise, the author selects one or a few to assert "this, of all possible things, happened." An auspicious start is followed by a catastrophic setback. Sustained effort is rewarded. The sins of the fathers befall the descendants.

In a long work the thematic "impact" of an event may be weakened by something that contradicts it in an incoherent way. Sometimes an author may have a contrast of opposites in mind: for example, a virtuous character's downfall may be juxtaposed with a scoundrel's rise to prominence. But at other times things just sort of happen in sequence for no reason. It may be that the subtext is "things happen, and such is life" (e.g., Joseph Heller's Something Happened). Alternatively, parts of the story may just be indulgent, superfluous, and thematically incoherent.

With the above in mind, one way to think about subtext is to take a focal event or character from the story and condense it to a sentence or idiom. It's generally easier to discern the author's attitude from a proverb than it is from 200 pages of text.

But occasionally you run into a plot summary along the lines of "high-school girl hangs out with friends and kills vampires for sport," and it kind of makes you wonder. One may find it productive to focus on a single character and brainstorm about the world such a character could inhabit. In general terms, how is that world different from ours (that is, aside from "it has vampires")? How do the rules of this alternate world conflict with what you know about the rules of the world you inhabit?

Again, this kind of thinking is easily frustrated by off-the-shelf elements (i.e., cliches) that have certain thematic baggage that the author takes for granted. There are also many instances of subverted cliches. One may ask whether putting the cliche into this new context makes it look absurd or humorous. Why? What makes it work or fail to work?

Let me close by saying that you may have a bit of a hard time motivating yourself and others to think about subtext. A lot of readers and viewers like to think of stories as vicarious experiences — things that make them feel. It's something of a rude awakening for many people to be asked to think of a story abstractly, as a series of interconnected hypothetical statements that make them think.
posted by Nomyte at 1:54 PM on May 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Maybe a good answer might be to list movies that have clear themes.

Magnolia is a great one, with several clear themes - parents and children, chance and coincidence, love, forgiveness.

For a more recent and low-brow example, Cabin In the Woods is both a metacommentary on filmmaking and perhaps has something to say about the evils that institutions are capable of.

There were a whole bunch of what I call gnostic movies that came out in the late 90s that were based around conspiracies and hidden realities - The Truman Show, The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, and The Matrix -- it might be interesting to see how they all handle the theme of reality vs unreality.

It's really just a matter of noticing something in the movie that isn't strictly needed to move the plot forward-- a long speech, an extended shot, a subplot that doesn't seem to be related to anything else, and trying to figure out why it's there, how it might really relate to everything else in some way, and then watching the movie a few times. For example, how does the introduction to Magnolia relate to the rest of the movie, and is the ending as completely nonsensical as it might seem the first time you watch it?
posted by empath at 2:12 PM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

In terms of critical essays that do this in a way that's easy to understand and model, I'd recommend Fredric Jameson's "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture." The first bit may seem to have its head in the clouds, but the readings of The Godfather and Jaws are quite down to earth.
posted by gerryblog at 2:39 PM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sounds like How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines is exactly the type of book you're looking for.
posted by mcmile at 3:13 PM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

A class in rhetoric or critical thinking might be right up your alley. These can be hard skills to develop alone, and if your friends aren't already having the kinds of discussions that cover subtext and theme, it might be a little harder for you to hone these skills.

I really enjoyed those types of classes specifically for the discussions I wasn't able to have elsewhere, so if you're looking for that kind of connection (as opposed to simply learning how to do this for your own sake - which the classes would still teach you), I think they'd be really useful. Frequently you can audit these classes for a lesser cost than full tuition.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 3:38 PM on May 5, 2012

if your friends aren't already having the kinds of discussions that cover subtext and theme, it might be a little harder for you to hone these skills.

Of course, there are plenty of opportunities to have those kinds of discussions online, so don't feel like you have to go it alone just because those in your immediate circle aren't talking about these elements.

One thing I've found is it's important to re-read or re-watch a particular piece of work if you want to talk theme (and other elements beyond plot). Most people read or watch something the first time through for the content; if you want to investigate a work more deeply, you'll likely need to go through it again. Some people can catch things beyond the plot the first time through, but until you develop those skills--and you can; I personally don't feel like this is an innate ability--you might need to review it once or more.

Not a how-to exactly, but Charles Baxter's The Art of Subtext might also go on your reading pile for the purposes of honing this ability.

Good luck!
posted by xenization at 4:09 PM on May 5, 2012

Read your favorite books and movies several times. The deeper stuff rises to the top after you've gotten past the basic plot and don't need to spend time thinking about what's going to happen next to your favorite characters.
posted by skewed at 4:53 PM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it can all be done with _Miller's Crossing_. I'll be teaching an introduction to Literature class in July, and that (along with Othello and some short stories and poems) will be my key text. Well-planned movies have repetitions. They have issues they seem to be debating. They have things that keep coming up in different ways or in progressions. They have little plot-lets that associate with each character. The more you think about them, the more clear it can be.

With _Miller's Crossing_, you don't have to go far to see what some of them are going to be: "Ethics," "Friendship," "doing things for a reason." But also homosexuality and male friendship, hats, people saying variations of "Christ, Tom," people playing by the rules or against the rules, snappy banter, "double crosses," etc. etc. etc.

Part of it's just looking for patterns, then, as upthread, working to figure out why someone would have done it that way, and what the effect of it is when the audience is paying attention. Watching and taking notes helps. Likewise, trying to understand anything that seems pointless: in good art, there's not much focused on that's ultimately pointless. So by starting with the things that seem out of place or out of character, you can begin asking the questions that'll give you the best meanings.

I tell my students--don't worry about intention. The goal of playing the interpretation game is to, while playing by a few simple rules (everything has to be demonstrable in the text, you have to honor the words that are on the page or the images on the screen, and finally, maybe, you need to take into account the history and time period and the language as she is spoke at the time), the goal is to make the most interesting, most enriching, most fascinating story about how and why a work means that's still plausible given your argumentative skills.
posted by LucretiusJones at 5:43 PM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Try googling how to do "close reading". With text, at least, doing a close reading of several passages from different parts of the text will help you see common threads.
posted by lollusc at 6:25 PM on May 5, 2012

I used to be exactly like this, and still am, to some extent. The one realization that helped me was realizing that EVERYTHING the author wrote into the book was put there for a specific reason. Maybe that reason was simply to make the plot more interesting/exciting, but usually there's something else the author could have written that would have been equally exciting. So start thinking about WHY the author chose to write a specific character, action, event or thing, when she could easily have put something else.
posted by mekily at 6:35 PM on May 5, 2012

I also like "How To Read Literature Like A Professor"!

Some questions that I think about when I'm reading a book or watching a movie:

-Who is coded as "good"? Who is coded as "bad"? How are goodness and badness signalled? (For example: in The Hunger Games, all the people of the Capital are really decadent, while the people of the outlying districts are very plain and rustic.)

-Whose actions get punished, and how? Whose actions get rewarded, and how? (For example, the cliche horror-movie rule that the virgin survives and the more sexually promiscuous girl dies.)

-Where have I seen this before? (For example: EVE's crankiness and WALL-E's solicitous anxiety in WALL-E seem designed to evoke a stereotypical pregnant couple).

Speaking of WALL-E, really well-made children's movies are always worth watching for theme and subtext because they're so straightforward and story-focused, and they often make their metaphors pretty literal. You can tell a metaphorical pregnancy story in a lot of ways, but -- a metaphorical pregnancy story where the boy robot puts a seed in the girl robot's belly, that's pretty much on the surface.
posted by Jeanne at 8:55 PM on May 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

John Mullan's How Novels Work is a good, straightforward runthrough of the tool kit authors use to express some of the deeper meanings in their writing. It's especially good if you've read some of the books he uses as examples, but it's a good read even if not.
posted by tavegyl at 2:34 AM on May 6, 2012

If you're up for taking a course in English or American Literature, that would help. Lots of 19th and early 20th century lit has themes and subtexts that aren't really up for debate anymore. (Yes, I'm assuming you are American and/or that your first language is English.)

Stories like The Awakening and The Story of an Hour both by Kate Chopin, have feminist themes in a time when many Americans are surprised to find them. Check out the despairing stories of Dickens and the poetry of Whitman.

Read up on allegory, which you can find as far back in history as Plato (The Cave). Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings trilogy " neither allegorical nor topical.... I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence."

Check out AP literature test prep books, the sample essays will give you some hints, and so will the essay prompts from previous years.

The way that I got a 5 on all my AP English and Lit tests was to focus on Diction (word choice), Structure, Metaphor/Simile, also by being pretty good at recognizing patterns. Blackberry Picking, by Seamus Heaney was the poem to analyze the year I took it, and I used all of the above to assert that allusions to Christ used to unify what I called a coming of age poem tackling themes of greed, sexuality, mortality and unmet expectations. The Christianity of childhood is very focused on imagery and repetition. I picked out the briars, the plate of eyes (god is always watching), the scratched wrists (stigmata). I connected the history of church officials encouraging poverty among the laity to the mention of hoarding in the byre. How does a 17 year old atheist kid write that essay? I read a lot. I read critical theory. I read the bible, I listened to the creepy televangelists on tv sometimes, I read the newspapers, and I read as many poems and books and well, everything I could get my hands on. Being on the debate team didn't hurt one iota in the making connections and backing up arguments. (I mistyped backing as baking, and that is funny and a good accidental metaphor there. Engaging with literature is like baking and other pursuits. You must practice.) If you don't know that the crown of thorns is briars, or that Christ's hands were bloodied by how crucifixion (which I think I funnily enough spelled incorrectly in the essay! May have made it crucifiction, displaying how much stock I take in the story.) But even the story of Christ is, ultimately, the story of loss. No matter how hard you work, how good you are, how pious, and even if you are the only begotten son of God, you die just like all the rest of us.

Learn your Greek and Roman mythology and be able to see what names derive from those myths. Learn a lot of flower names and realize that Katniss is a type of flower as you read a book (Hunger Games) in which a character must have an intimate knowledge of nature, if you're curious you'll go look up the words that you've never seen before. You'll read all of the meanings listed, not just the first one. You might go find a picture of that flower. Be obsessed with sounds and hear that PEETA works in a bread shop. But pita is a slightly different kind of bread. It's not like you normally think when you think bread...hmmmmm what's different about this guy? His name alerts you to a theme Names may tell you a lot about the theme or motive or challenges in a well written piece. If the character names don't give you any clues, move on to place names.

And the big summary that a History professor once gave for essay writing was "all art is about something. Most art is about loss. Most people fear and mourn death more than any other loss. If you have to guess what a piece of art is about, you can't take a better shot in the dark than death." I also had an Art History class that was very helpful in articulating the ways that painting was connected to cultural and geographical connections, which helped me connect literary themes to art themes. So, um, go to some museums and see what you can get the docents to talk about, regarding the times of paintings and the artists' particular circumstances and relationships with each other?

Learn the catch phrases of different movements. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. This is not a urinal. Know the timing and exactness of Warhol's 15 minutes of fame remark.

So, the short answer is, know more about everything.
posted by bilabial at 9:36 AM on May 6, 2012

Other people are giving you some great advice, but I'm going to recommend something else: you can access stories on a different level when you consider how a story is reflecting society. Are the characters realistic? If they are, consider what type of people they are: are they representing largely people of a certain class, gender, or race - and do they need to be in those positions for a story to work? What are they concerned with, and how universal is that concern? If the characters aren't realistic, that opens up a whole different set of questions. Are the characters exaggerated traits of people, and are some more likeable than others? Why do you think that is, and is there a commentary on the people who hold those traits? If they're just archetypes, is there any kind of criticism of the archetype, or any kind of human twist on that archetype? Or are the characters much the same in personality - perhaps they're vessels for ideas.

Focus on why THESE characters are in the story, and why they are the way they are. What do their interactions show that interactions between other characters wouldn't show? Fiction is a very human thing, and one of the best things you can get out of fiction is a very personal view of society from someone else's eyes.
posted by Bleusman at 12:24 PM on May 6, 2012

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