Pick a theme and work it to exhaustion… the subject must be something you truly love or truly hate. —Dorothea Lange
After discovering his cellist friend will go on a world tour playing the music of a pro-Nazi composer, the conductor determines to stop him, even if it should end their friendship. The conductor’s wife is appalled by the cellist’s decision, yet she determines to prevent her husband from interfering.
Three characters with three different motivations.
As readers, we share the conductor’s contempt for proponents of Nazism, as well as for those willing to overlook their crimes against humanity. We root for the conductor, who takes on the good fight. But the writer attempting to write a superior novel will want us to get caught up in the oppositional characters’ struggles, too. Why? Because if he can get us to empathize with the opposition, we’ll internalize the story’s conflict.
What is the issue? The relationship between art and life. We have the makings of a strong theme. Does art require the artist to embody the beauty of his work? Or does art stand on the merit of its beauty, despite ugliness reflected in the artist’s life? What is art?
The writer would disservice the premise by setting up cardboard characters who speak each side of the debate. If he creates passionate, three-dimensional characters that avow and act on their convictions, who yearn for their dreams and suffer when they’re averted, he’ll develop a serious work that will haunt his readers well after they’ve finished reading his story.
The cellist. Think of him playing Bach and Mozart and Bartok, knowing that his abilities fall short of these geniuses. He feels unworthy. His humility, though, doesn’t extinguish his ambition. He’s given himself and his life to his music. While his art doesn’t supersede his humanity, it does supersede his politics. Ambition has rendered him impervious to the composer’s Nazi affiliations.
By tapping into the wellspring of the cellist’s motivation, readers understand why the conductor can’t reason with him. The conflict between them takes on depth because they know someone must lose.
The conductor’s wife believes that art is humanity’s balm, that it transcends the ugliness of lesser men and invites redemption. She opposes her husband because he puts art second to the artist. She also takes issue with the cellist because he appears to be acting on his lust for fame. Lack of understand and misinterpretation creates conflict.
What if the writer throws in a twist? Perhaps the cellist is in love with the wife whose love for her husband, like art, is a thing of passion and beauty. The premise becomes entangled with complex emotion, and readers will want to know how this influences the characters.
We identify with the conductor’s cause, but could he be reacting to a bruised ego, unaccustomed to the musician neglecting to heed his orchestration? Is he jealous of the cellist? Maybe he wonders if affection rather than conviction is at the root of his wife’s opposition. Is the conductor, in part, defending his marriage?
Conflict and complexity arise when motives are incompatible. Each character in pursuit of his goal might be justified, but being right doesn’t ensure outcome. Nor does it ensure happiness.
That’s the stuff of a good story with a well-vested premise.
What is the principal thematic point you’d like to explore in your story?
Note the counterpoint to your theme. Next, write a brief description of the conflict between theme and counter theme. Finally, describe a number of instances to illustrate both point and counterpoint so your readers will draw conclusions as to the value of each.