“I think what ‘The Hobbit’ and Middle-earth deal in are quite universal and timeless themes of honor and love and friendship . . . so they’re things that do resonate with people.”’
Martin Freeman is the actor who portrayed Bilbo Baggins in “The Desolation of Smaug,” the film he was promoting when he said this quote. Martin was definitely correct when he said this. ‘The Hobbit’ and Middle-earth do deal with universal and timeless themes. Boromir’s great sacrifice at the end of the ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ and the faithfulness of Samwise Gamgee are examples of timeless themes within the world of Middle-earth.
But Martin Freeman was wrong too, because none of the films in ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy truly resonated with me. How can this be? Universal themes should resonate universally. Don’t the films in ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy use universal and timeless themes?
Of course they do. Bilbo Baggins is a man of great honor. The bond among the dwarves is clearly seen. We even have a romance between Tauriel and Kili. The problem isn’t with the themes that ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy deals with. The problem is with how they deliver these themes.
The Problem with Universal Themes
This is expected. These themes are certainly universal. We all understand them and, to some degree, have experienced them. But if the mere act of injecting a universal and timeless theme into a film is enough to make them resonate with people, then nearly every single story would resonate with everyone.
And we all know that isn’t the case. I’ve read many books that were completely uninteresting. I have sat through too many mundane films. I’m sure you have experienced this too. Just because a story contains a universal theme, doesn’t mean it will resonate universally. The impact a story makes depends on how the universal theme is delivered.
There are many, many ways to deliver a theme. Choices, subtext, symbolism, characters, and foreshadowing are all just a few tools in a writer’s thematic toolbox. However, one tool that I believe is underutilized is the counterargument.
The Most Underutilized Thematic Tool: The Counterargument
What is the counterargument? To know this, you must first understand theme. Theme is basically a proposal. An argument. An argument for something over its opposite. For example, an argument for love over hate. Or an argument for honor over dishonor. Friendship over division. It can go the other way too. Dishonor over honor. Hate over love. This is theme in a nutshell: a statement that a certain value triumphs over its opposite with your story providing the reason why.
The counterargument is the opposite value. The counterargument is the value that is to be triumphed over, to put it complicatedly. So hate is the counterargument to love, dishonor is the counterargument to honor, and friendship is the counterargument to division.
Now that you understand what a counterargument is, how do you utilize it in the creation of a story? The fix is quite simple, really. Build it up. Push the counterargument to the front of the stage. Let the audience see the counterargument in all of its glory. Just by doing this, you will strengthen your theme. However, there are some problems with building up the counterargument.
Problems with the Counterargument
The first problem is that the audience might mistake your counterargument for the real argument. You’re building it up so much that they mistake one for the other. They may think that your theme is about hate when it’s really about love. Or that you’re praising crime when you’re really trying to show that justice ultimately triumphs. That would be . . . disastrous.
Another problem is that it might not even work. We all know that if you want to get an idea across, you repeat it again and again and again. That’s how speeches work. Most one-level speech outlines look like:
Looking at these problems, I guess counterarguments aren’t the real deal. They’re just an untried tool that hasn’t stood the test of time which might make your audience believe the total opposite of what you’re trying to say.
The Answer to the Problems
Well, it’s not true. The counterargument has stood the test of time and is actually fully ingrained within us. Let me tell you two stories to demonstrate my point.
If you have a character suffer through an intense ordeal, a small act of kindness will bring her to tears. If the small act of kindness came after a good day at the office, then the act is deemed insignificant. But when you precede kindness with a crucible, the amount of satisfaction explodes exponentially. That is the power of the counterargument. You build up the negative so much that even a small positive argument can hit the audience hard.
It’s like a pendulum suspended in midair. Swing it to the left: that’s the negative. Swing it to the right: that’s the positive. The farther you swing it to the left, the more it will swing to the right. In the same way, the more of the counterargument you build up, the more impact the main argument has.
The power of a story doesn’t come from the themes used, but from the creator of the story and the tools he uses to convey a meaningful theme.
The counterargument can also be seen as the antagonist to your main argument. If you have a powerful antagonist, it takes a better protagonist to overcome the antagonist. The same is true for your argument and counterargument. A strong counterargument will naturally yield a stronger argument. That’s why your audience will not mistake your counterargument for the real argument.
Because counterarguments imitate life so closely (think of the illustrations above), the impact that the main argument will have can evoke a more proactive response than repetition would. We’re used to repetition in speeches. We’re ready to learn from speeches. However, in story, you want to be entertained, not learn. So the simple repetition of a speech won’t cut it, because story is not a speech. Story is a metaphor for life. You come into a story wanting to live another life. And the life that you live through the story is governed by the themes of the storyteller. That’s how you make themes resonate with an audience: by imitating life.
But Martin Freeman was right, you do need universal themes. All stories need themes that audiences empathize with. However, the power of a story doesn’t come from the themes used, but from the creator of the story and the tools he uses to convey a meaningful theme.