Great novels, like great movies, are built of many layers. Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, and often it’s a moral. Love, honor, family, redemption, and revenge are all common, underlying themes.
Allegory is an essential tool of the author who wants to convey important ideas with the least amount of words. One of my works-in-progress is a contemporary novel. I need to convey a Gothic atmosphere in this piece and yet maintain the setting and time-frame of a novel set squarely in the 21st century. The way I am doing this is through the use of allegory. With symbolism in mind, I try to approach writing a scene as it would be portrayed in a movie. Each conversation is an event and must advance the story.
Consider this scene from one of my favorite movies of all time, The Matrix. The films of The Matrix trilogy pit man against machine in a clearly drawn battle, but they also reveal that the humans are more machine-like than they think, and that the machines possess human qualities as well. These are the obvious themes, but there are several underlying concepts going at the same time.
The movies in this series are famous for the action, and rightfully so. But great choreographed martial arts sequences can’t convey the concepts the authors needed to express. The advancement of the plot hinges on dialogue. Dialogue drives the action and connects the fundamental ideas of the story through the intentional use of allegory. The authors never lost the way, because every aspect of that script is steeped in symbolism that directly points to the overall theme(s).
The conversation concerns a drug deal, but the overarching idea of the blurred line between humans and machines is never lost.
The key words are in the first line, written on Neo’s computer:
- The Matrix has you,
- the third line,follow the white rabbit,
- and in that very last line, telling Neo to unplug.
The obvious plot of The Matrix series of films details a questioning of what reality is and portrays Neo as the potential savior of the world, which has been enslaved by a virtual reality program. Dig slightly deeper, and you see that it is about escaping that program, at which point the audience sees that a larger theme is in play: fate vs. free will.
Even before that larger concept is made clear, the conversations that happen in the course of the film all advance that theme, even the minor interactions, from the first conversation to the last.
The storytelling in The Matrix movies is a brilliant example of employing heavy allegory in both the setting and conversations to drive home the motifs of man, machine, fate, and free will.
The themes are represented with heavy symbolism in the names of the characters, the words used in conversations, and even the androgynous clothes they wear. Everything on the set or mentioned in conversation underscores those themes, including the lighting. Inside The Matrix the world is bathed in a green light, as if through a green-tinted lens. In the real world, the lighting is harsher, unfiltered.
In the movie, everything that appears or is said onscreen is symbolic and supports one of the underlying concepts. When Morpheus later asks Neo to choose between a red pill and a blue pill, he essentially offers the choice between fate and free will.
Neo chooses the red pill—real life—and learns that free will can be unpleasant. Cypher regrets choosing the red pill and ultimately chooses to return to the Matrix.
The creators of the movie even used the lighting as an allegory showing that Neo’s world is filtered through something else: The Matrix.
The arc of the story is driven by
- who has the information,
- when they learned it, (and when the audience learns it)
- what they did on learning that information.
In our own work, if we don’t keep the arc of the story moving toward the final conclusion with each scene, we will lose our reader. To that end, we disseminate information in small increments, with the reader learning what she must know at the same time our protagonist does. Using symbolism and allegory is a way to get the most information out there in the least amount of words, but it requires intention on the part of the author. Words, phrases, and setting must be chosen and the narrative’s prose must be crafted.
Crafted prose does not mean flowery prose. If you reexamine the above excerpt from The Matrix, you see lean dialogue, spare and to the point. It is in the symbolism of the setting, their names, their attire, and the authors’ choice of words that we get the most information. When Neo answers the door and is invited to the party, he at first declines. But then he notices that Du Jour, the woman with Choi, bears a tattoo of a white rabbit. He remembers seeing the words: follow the white rabbit, on his computer. Curious and slightly fearful of what it all means, he changes his mind and goes to the party, setting a sequence of events in motion.
We build the overall arc of the story from scenes, each of which is a small arc, in the same way a gothic cathedral is constructed of many arches that all build toward the top. The underlying arches strengthen the overall construction. Without arches, the cathedral wouldn’t remain standing for very long.
Theme is a thread that winds through the story and supports the plot. Using allegory and symbolism in the environment to subtly underscore your themes allows you to show more without resorting to info dumps.
Picture conversations, clothing, settings, and wider environments as if they were scenes in a movie, and consider how you can use allegory to support your story arc. When we are immersed in reading it, we don’t notice the heavy symbolism on a conscious level, but on closer examination it is all there, making the imaginary real, solid and concrete.
By using allegory and conversations to create many layers, we can build memorable stories that will stand out in the reader’s mind.