Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! Elisa lives a very routine, boring life as a cleaner at a secret government facility in Baltimore, Maryland in 1962, during the Cold War. Her only friends are her closeted next-door neighbor, Giles and her co-worker, Zelda. The facility receives a mysterious creature captured from a South American river by Colonel Strickland, who is in charge of the project, to study it. Curious about the creature, Elisa discovers it is a humanoid amphibian. She begins visiting him in secret, and the two form a close bond as Elisa, who is mute, communicates with him by teaching him signs.
But Strickland plans to vivisect the creature. Dr. Hoffstetler, who is secretly a Russian spy, pleads unsuccessfully to keep it alive for further study but is ordered by his Soviet handlers to euthanize it. When Elisa overhears the American's plans for the Amphibian Man, she persuades Giles, Zelda, and even Hoffstetler to help her free him. She keeps the creature in her bathtub, planning to release him into a nearby canal in several days when it is scheduled to rain. Their relationship grows deeper, but the Amphibian Man's health deteriorates, even as we see he has the ability to heal.
Strickland interrogates Elisa and Zelda, among others, but learns nothing. After he tortures Hoffstetler into revealing that they broke out the creature, Strickland threatens Zelda at home, and her husband reveals that Elisa has the Amphibian Man. Zelda immediately telephones Elisa, warning her to release the creature. An enraged Strickland ransacks Elisa's empty apartment until he finds a calendar note revealing where she plans to release the Amphibian Man.
At the canal, Elisa and Giles are bidding farewell to the creature when Strickland arrives, knocks Giles down, and shoots both the Amphibian Man and Elisa. The Amphibian Man quickly heals himself and slashes Strickland's throat, killing him. As the police arrive on the scene with Zelda, the Amphibian Man takes Elisa and jumps into the canal where he heals her. When he applies his healing ability underwater to the scars on Elisa's neck, they open to reveal gills like his. She jolts back to life, and the two embrace. In a closing voice-over narration, Giles conveys his belief that Elisa lived "happily ever after" and "remained in love" with the Amphibian Man.
Carly, what did you think about the movie?
Carly: So I actually am very late to the party when it comes to this movie. I always wanted to see it and just never did. And I LOVED it. I’ve always loved Guillermo del Toro, but somehow this one really worked for me more than others. Maybe because it has Beauty and the Beast/Romeo and Juliet retellings. But it was just gorgeous. I was hooked from the beginning, especially with the magical realism of the first scene where her apartment is full of water and everything is floating. The storytelling framing of someone else telling her story. It was lovely. And don’t get me started on how much I loved Elisa. What about you?
Jeni: It definitely has the eerily beautiful, surreal aesthetic, like we see in other movies by Guillermo del Toro, even if it isn’t visually as dark as a lot of his other movies. And the actors are all brilliant, and sound is used so creatively in this film. Overall there isn’t a lot of dialogue in the movie, as the two main characters don’t speak aloud. The use of sign language in the film is so integral to the story, and it adds a whole other layer of complexity. But I think the thing that resonates the most with me in this movie is that Elisa sees humanity in what many others only see as a monster. I often don’t like monster movies because I feel bad for the monsters, so this movie is a really nice twist on standard monster movies for me. And I love that the monster gets a happily ever after. Poor Godzilla will never get that. So Carly, what did the movie do well that writers can use in their own work?
Carly: Theme. There are so many themes in this movie. Two of the main ones are “being silenced and voiceless” and the classic “who is the real monster?” But we get a lot of other subtler themes that stem from these two. There is the theme of art/movies and how they can be a way to express yourself. The power of silence and other ways to make yourself heard. There’s the cruelty of the American dream and how it only benefits the privileged. How the other can be scary but it is just different. There is a lot of struggle for power and freedom and how those two interact with each other. I could go on and on about all the themes, but those are the ones that stood out to me.
Jeni: Theme is one of those writing concepts that feels really vague, I think because it’s more abstract than, say, plot or character. It’s hard to pinpoint theme by choosing specific words in the text, and that makes it hard for writers to break it down in their own writing. It’s almost like theme is a feeling more than a defined element, but that’s what good writing can do--it keeps the author from showing their presence by immersing you in the story. But the good news is that although theme feels more abstract, you can definitely learn about it and practice techniques to refine theme in your writing. Theme isn’t the same as condensing your plot into a short phrase, like a log-line. So, what is theme exactly? Theme is a deeper layer of meaning that underlies the expressed elements of the story (like plot, character, dialogue, etc) and speaks to an aspect of the human condition that is larger than any one character or story. When you are trying to figure out the main theme of a story, it can help to try to define that theme in one word. For example, romance stories are about love. Now, under that, there can be several subthemes like family, grief, etc. The most important aspect of theme is that it needs to tie in to your character arc and plot, and because of that, it spans the entire story.
Carly: So how do we see those themes throughout the movie? Some are very apparent while others can be subtle. Let’s take voicelessness first. We see that literally in Elisa and how she is mute. We see it in the Amphibian Man and how he can’t communicate, he is literally wearing a collar around his neck. But we also see it in Zelda and Giles. Zelda speaks a lot, but is rarely listened to. She is a Black woman working and taking care of the house at the same time. She has no voice, even when Strickland confronts her for information on the escape, her husband talks over her and reveals the secret. Giles is a struggling artist that no one wants to listen to anymore. His art isn’t bought because photography is easier. He goes to a terrible diner just to talk with the man behind the counter, to be listened to. But when he tries to take the relationship forward, he is not only rebuffed, but vilified. The man behind the counter refuses service to a Black couple and kicks Giles out for being gay. All these characters are not being heard, not being respected, not being listened to. Whether or not the viewers have felt this obvert silencing, they can relate to the struggle to be heard. Then there is the “who is the real monster” theme that is shown through the Amphibian Man, the Russians, and Strickland. Strickland is a truly awful person, but he is also trying to keep his job. The Amphibian Man is a victim… but he also can harm others, including pets. The Russians aren’t any better than Strickland, willing to kill to keep information from the Americans. But Hoffstetler wants to save the Amphibian Man. You assume in the beginning that he is evil, but we slowly see he isn’t. So how do you take that into your writing? First, you need to figure out what you are trying to show with your manuscript. What do you want your readers to come away from your manuscript feeling and understanding? It can be as simple as “everyone deserves love” or it can be as complex as “the voiceless deserve to be heard.” Or even more complex, because my head is too full of this movie to think of other examples. Once you figure out what you want your readers to feel, then you need to think of how your plot and characters convey that. Does your overall plot show that everyone deserves to be heard? If yes, how? And what subplots or side characters can reinforce this theme? We don’t have only Elisa being voiceless, we see voicelessness in all the side characters. Even Strickland is shut down by his boss when he tries to get some leeway. You want to layer different aspects of it in. What are other forms of being silenced that can be layered in?
Jeni: Sometimes authors ask me if their commercial, genre fiction (as opposed to literary fiction) even needs a theme. Isn’t theme just for classics that you dissect in school? Every story has a theme, no matter the genre, age category, length, or any other defining trait. The fun thing about theme is that because it speaks to the human condition, sometimes readers will find themes you, as the author, didn’t even intend. But you intend themes in your story as well, even if you don’t realize it, because that theme is what touches your readers. It’s what makes readers connect and engage. Theme is important because it adds a deeper layer to your story. It’s what makes a story feel like it connects with our lives, why stories stick with us over the course of years. That deeper understanding of life and ourselves that we can take from stories is what makes them so special and important in our lives. Theme also helps readers understand the story on another level. That connection between what we read and our own quest for meaning, whatever that looks like to each of us, gives us a whole other way of engaging with a story. And that connection can be so full of meaning. Think about the ways that your favorite books have changed you. Was it the actual events of the plot that held such meaning for you, or was it something deeper about life that you took away from the book? Lastly, theme can help you keep your book more focused. If you know you’re writing about “letting go,” for example, you know the character arc and plot will relate to that, and when you’re feeling stuck, you can go back to that theme and ask yourself what does or doesn’t belong in the story.
Carly: So going off of what Jeni said, how do you develop your novel’s main theme (behind the scenes, not on the page)? Think about the books that you’ve read that you’ve loved. When you put them down, what did they make you feel? What did they make you think about. Now, what message do you want readers thinking about when they put your book down? What is important to you? Why are you writing this book? Once you know that, you’ll know what themes to put your energy into. It’s all about finding what is important to you and what piece of yourself you want to share. Themes can vary from showing a certain experience so others can understand it, to showing a feeling that connects people. Then you take your theme and find ways that your plot and characters can tie into it. What is your story arc and how does it convey your theme? What are other forms of your theme that you can apply to your characters? If your theme is say, love conquers all, then by the end of your story, your main characters need to have overcome huge obstacles to be together. But some of your side characters can choose love over a job. Or wish they had done that. You can highlight theme by also showing the antithesis of it, what happens if someone doesn’t adhere to the theme you’ve set forth? And how does it turn out poorly for them? Tie your plot and characters to your theme by coming at your theme from different angles and perspectives. Make sure your characters are building on your theme in different ways.
Jeni: Once you’ve identified and developed your theme and figured out how it connects to your plot and character arcs, my best advice is to think of theme as secondary to plot and character. If you know how these elements are connected, you will already be laying a solid foundation for your theme. Honestly, this is how you end up with themes you don’t intend. It’s all those little connections, all the ways you work to make your story reflect real life and real experiences. So try not to stress about whether or not your theme is strong enough while you’re drafting. When you get to revising, make sure you’re keeping the theme in mind with character reactions. Some of the most quotable lines in literature come from narrators expressing themes in tiny bits of thoughts, judgments, or opinions. And then make sure you ask about theme when you get feedback from beta readers and critique partners. If they understand your theme and feel a connection to it, you’ve done your job. If not, you may need to go back and look again.
Carly: Themes do have pitfalls, and one big problem is overdoing it. You don’t want your reader to feel lectured to or beat over the head with it. You want them to experience your theme, not learn it from being told. Lecturing your readers never goes over well. Theme is the epitome of show don’t tell. If the theme is overt, your readers get bored or uninterested. Themes can also end up restrictive. While they can help you get over a block, they can also be an obstacle themselves. Don’t be afraid to revise your theme. We all grow and learn, and you may not have the same goals at the end of the manuscript as you did when you began writing. Don’t be afraid to adapt.
This month, we have a query from a young adult fantasy. What are your thoughts on the query?
Jeni: Okay so my first thought is that queries are a great way to unlock the theme of your story if you haven’t already. Because you have to focus on the most significant, meaningful elements of your story, it can help you narrow your focus when you’re thinking about theme. For this query specifically though, I wanted a little more detail, more specificity. There are mentions of “powers,” but we don’t know what those powers are, why they matter, or how they affect this protagonist on a personal level. So while we don’t want all the focus to go to the powers, we do need to understand them in the larger context of the story.
Carly: Agreed! My main suggestion is to focus more on the emotional stakes and substance of your story. There is a lot of set up and logistics here that don’t show us who your character is on a personal level. They show us the frame of your story, without any of the pictures that fill it. Who is your character and why does this story matter to them? We need to connect with the character in a short time, so utilize your word count and gear it towards the “why it matters” instead of the how.