Story by Kevin Quigley '18
Usually, English class is very boring. Out teachers batter us with motifs, symbols, and theories that we definitely pay attention to so we can write our essays and be done with them. “What is the significance of the green light in The Great Gatsby?” “What does The Canterbury Tales tell us about medieval society?” “What does the color blue symbolize in The Glass Menagerie?” English classes seem to tell us that the only important thing in reading a novel is finding the meaning. Not the plot, not the setting, not the characters—only themes! And yes, finding the morals and themes of a work is the end result of reading a novel. However, this obsessive focus on theme prevents most of us from enjoying what we’re reading.
The phrase “Deus Ex Machina” is where most of our knowledge about plot devices ends; the ideas of Chekhov's Gun, the MacGuffin, and the Audience Surrogate mean nothing to most of us. Sure, Ms. Denize briefly mentioned Freytag’s Triangle freshman year, but if any of us tried to outline a story following a three-act story structure, we would fail to follow the conventions of an introduction, we would be unable to present challenges to make our protagonist go from The Abyss to Apotheosis, and we would have no idea how to craft our conclusion so that the audience sees the change in our protagonist and his world. We should be learning the Seven Basic Plots so that we can avoid them and instead bring something new to the literary community, and we should learn to steer clear of the clichés and ideas that have already been done to death.
Character is also important. We don’t want our characters to be stereotypes for obvious reasons, but we shouldn’t have other static or flat characters, either. Too often, stories focus only on the main character and his enemy, as if they’re the only ones on Earth in conflict, as if no one else has motivations or a backstory. But where’s the balance? How do we introduce and develop our characters without losing focus on our story? Why does this character act the way he does? We just haven’t been taught. We focus on what we can learn from the character, not what the character has learned from his past.
Charles Dickens was not known for his symbolism; he became famous because he created characters that the audience felt were real, characters to whom nineteenth-century Englishmen could relate. J. R. R. Tolkien’s books don’t focus on theme, but the worlds he describes and the settings his characters explore made The Lord of the Rings the third bestselling non-religious book of all time. Harry Potter is heavily criticized for lacking depth, but the series’ plot drew an audience of millions, making it the best-selling book series of all time, by far. So why do we focus on theme if that’s not what sells? After all, if any of us actually ends up using the skills we learn in English class, it will be a future writers.
Obviously, learning to write an essay is very important, and being able to find the social protest or moral advice in a work is the highest form of knowledge and understanding. But there’s more to literature than theme. Recent developments in psychology and plot theory are allowing authors to write works that people want to read, and learning to live through your characters, giving them motivations and histories, is the best way to make your art seem real. These skills are teachable, and they make what we write all the more interesting and what we read that much more understandable. A good novel needs living characters and a riveting plot. Without these, you just have an essay. And we’ve all written more than our share of those.