Ant-Man and the Wasp Big

4 Ways to Choose a Better Theme for Your Book

4 Ways to Choose a Better ThemePart 20 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

Writers often have a complicated relationship with theme. We love it. It loves us back. But reaching a harmonious happily-ever-after with theme sometimes turns into as much of a soap opera as a long-running CW drama.

Just writing a story that has a theme is a huge step in the right direction—one that will put you far ahead of the pack. But then comes the careful dance of executing that theme in a way that brings plot and character together into a whole of cohesion and resonance.

If you believe you’ve reached that point in your writing journey, then you have my profound respect (and, as a reader, my gratitude).

But here’s something I’ve been learning lately: the thematic journey ain’t over.

We talked a few weeks ago about the idea of “unique themes.” Really, what this concept comes down to is an awareness of authentic themes and a willingness to search beyond the obvious choices to find those that best optimize all aspects of the story.

Today, I want to look at how you can choose a better theme for your book by examining some of the missed thematic opportunities of Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Ant-Man and the Wasp on Why (if You Really Have to Choose) You Should Choose Theme Over Plot Every Time

That headline might sound familiar. It’s the same one I used to introduce Black Panther‘s entry in the series. In that article, I talked about how Black Panther managed to survive its great pitfall—wobbly plot structure—thanks to its devotion to a coherent thematic throughline for its main character.

Ant-Man and the Wasp, sadly, is an example of the opposite. What this movie does well (humor and, well, Paul Rudd), it does very well. But the rest of it? Not so much. I spent the entirety of the film alternating between two reactions—amusement at the funny bits and boredom at pretty much everything else.

There are a couple reasons for this.

  • Once again, the antagonistic forces are scattered and not particularly integral to the main conflict.

Ant Man and the Wasp Ghost

  • The story lacked the same cohesive “feel” as the first Ant-Man movie (which presented itself, refreshingly, as a “heist” movie).

Ant-man and the Wasp Shrunken Lab

Ant Man and the Wasp Wings

But the biggest reason—the one all three of the above point to—is the lack of thematic depth. That’s disappointing, especially since, for my money, there were plenty of wasted opportunities.

Still, there was definitely stuff to like:

  • Paul Rudd. He’s pretty just… Paul Rudd here. But his charm carries every scene he’s in.

Ant-Man Dancing Paul Rudd

  • However ancillary his subplot, I totally appreciated the nuances of Bill Foster character’s not turning out to be a back-stabbing baddie, even though his goals and Hank’s stood in opposition to each other.

Ant Man and the Wasp Bill Foster

  • Supporting cast. All the supporting characters were good in their place—everybody from Scott Lang’s ex-con buddies to Michelle Pfeiffer’s cameo (let me just say that if I ever get stuck in the Quantum Realm for thirty years, I hope my eye make-up looks that good) to the always excellent Walton Goggins.

Ant Man and the Wasp Janet Van Dyne

4 Ways to Choose a Better Theme for Your Book

I’m going to argue that the single most common problem I see holding stories back from excellence is a lack of solid thematic execution. Don’t let that happen to you. If you’re going to master just one storytelling technique, strive to master theme. It changes everything.

Don’t leave your theme up to chance. Examine all the elements of your story—especially character arc and plot—to discover how to fit all the pieces together into a big picture of powerful thematic cohesion and resonance. And don’t stop there. Once you think you’ve found a pertinent theme, look harder. Is this the best theme for this story? Or could you choose a better theme that would notch everything up just a little more?

To that end, here are four questions you can ask yourself to determine whether you’ve got a theme, a better theme, or the best theme.

1. What Can Your Protagonist Bring to the Conflict That No One Else Can?

A truth often lost upon modern storytellers (especially within the medium of action movies) is that the heart of your story is not found in your plot. Rather, it’s found in your protagonist.

Consider, by way of example, Christmas. What is Christmas? Is it the decorations, the lights, the tree, the presents, the cookies? Or is Christmas the people, both personally and collectively, whose love, generosity, and faith infuse these traditions with meaning and purpose?

When examining your story for its best theme, start with your protagonist. This begins, of course, with knowing which character is your protagonist (even if your story features multiple main characters, you’ll still want to identify the character who represents the thematic throughline).

And once you’ve found your protagonist—then what? We’ve talked before about how the essence of the theme is both found and proven within the protagonist’s character arc. But you can leverage this even more specifically by asking telling questions about this character.

1. What is it your protagonist brings to this particular conflict that no other character does?

2. Why is this his conflict, his plot—and not anyone else’s in the story?

3. What is your protagonist’s greatest virtue?

4. Greatest flaw?

5. How does this virtue and this flaw directly influence the plot—and what do they say about both the plot and the character himself?

Examining the Protagonist of Ant-Man and the Wasp

As a matter of fact, this film’s title is a clue to its first thematic misstep. Just whose story is this?

Nothing wrong with dual protagonists. But if that’s the route you’re gonna go, both characters’ journeys must come together thematically by the end.

Here, we have Hope Van Dyne set up as the one whose goal (i.e., save her mother from the Quantum Realm) drives the entire plot. And yet, this story is never presented as hers. This is clearly set up as Scott’s sequel. But just as was the case in his first movie, he is totally ancillary to the main conflict. The main plot goal isn’t his. The antagonistic force isn’t directly opposing him. He does very little in this film other than be charming and funny—while Hope stomps around getting stuff done.

But here’s the thing. Just a tiny bit of thematic tweaking could have made this all work. As it stands, Hope and Hank don’t really need Scott to do much of anything to help them reach their plot goals. Scott doesn’t know science like Hank does, and he can’t even whup on the bad guys as convincingly as Hope does. He’s a radio antennae to the Quantum Realm and nothing more.

So what does Scott bring to this story as a protagonist? Or, rather, what could he have brought?

I’m gonna argue this story could have been thematically saved had it only been recognized and emphasized that what Scott brings is heart. He’s a genuinely nice guy who wants to help people. He wants to help Hope and Hank, to the point that in order to help them save their family, he puts everything—including his relationship with his own family—on the line for them. Hank and Hope don’t particularly share this virtue. They have no problem asking Scott to endanger his own family, just as they have few qualms about sacrificing Ghost in order to save Janet.

This is never acknowledged, never used as the thematic leverage point that might have transformed the external conflict into a deeper investigation of life and relationships.

Ant-Man and the Wasp Daughter

2. How Is the Antagonistic Force a Direct Challenge to the Protagonist’s Relationship to the Theme?

Theme is the glue that binds everything in your storyform. The single most blatant way in which it does this is by binding the external conflict to the internal conflict by binding the antagonist to the protagonist.

One of the most common problems in stories that struggle with thematic cohesion (aka nearly every Marvel movie ever) is the lack of attention to the antagonistic force’s alignment to the theme. Specifically, you want to see the antagonistic force presenting a direct challenge to your protagonist’s thematic orientation.

This can manifest in a couple of ways.

  • If your protagonist is following a Positive Change Arc, she will start out in a negative relationship to the thematic Truth (i.e., she will resist it or outright reject it in favor of an opposing Lie). In this instance, the antagonistic force will likely represent the negative Lie, which will eventually challenge the protagonist’s view of that Lie and end by catalyzing her move to embrace the Truth.
  • If your protagonist is following a Flat Arc, he will maintain a positive relationship to the thematic Truth throughout the story (i.e., he will embrace, utilize, and promote the Truth as a way to advance his plot goals). In this instance, the antagonistic force will always oppose the protagonist’s Truth with the Lie. Whether blatantly or not, the external conflict will represent a battle between ideologies.
  • If your protagonist is following a Negative Change Arc, she may start out in either a positive or negative relationship to the thematic Truth (i.e., she may start out already aligned with either the Truth or the Lie). In this instance, the antagonistic force may represent either the Truth (which, again, will be pitted against the protagonist’s Lie in at least a subtextual battle of ideologies) or the Lie (which will serve to seduce the protagonist to her ultimate demise).

Whatever the case, if the antagonistic force does not comment upon the theme in a way that catalyzes the external conflict, you can be pretty sure the external and internal conflicts are not in alignment. In short: at best, you’re telling two different stories at the same time.

Examining the Antagonistic Force in Ant-Man and the Wasp

Marvel movies remain a high step above most of the remaining blockbuster fare these days for the simple reason that they keep the majority of their stories deliberately focused on their protagonists. But Marvel’s perpetual Achilles’ heel remains its disconnect between those protagonists and their antagonists. With a few exceptions (most notably Cap vs. Tony in Civil War), Marvel’s antagonists (and thus their external conflicts) have very little thematic pertinence to the protagonists’ personal journeys.

This is blatantly on display in Ant-Man and the Wasp, which features four (count ’em, four) antagonistic forces:

  • Ghost is the flashiest and most poster-worthy of the story’s cadre of antagonists. She consistently creates obstacles to the primary goal of rescuing Janet Van Dyne—but her connection to this main conflict is ancillary. It’s coincidental that the tech she needs to save herself is also the tech needed to save Janet. Even more telling, she has zero explicit connections to Scott, much less specific challenges to his thematic orientation.

Ghost 2 Ant-Man and the Wasp

  • Black marketeer Sonny Burch is even more ancillary. He’d have made a lot more sense within the plot had he been working for Ghost or vice versa.

Ant-Man and the Wasp Walton Goggins Sonny Burch

  • Of the human antagonists in this story, the Feds (who are hunting Hope and Hank while trying to keep Scott under house arrest) are the most pertinent to Scott. They are the only ones who directly threaten him and his personal conflict/stakes. However, they’re merely plot devices who offer no comment whatsoever upon the thematic premise.

Ant-Man and the Wasp Ankle Bracelet

  • Finally, the true antagonistic force in this story is the Quantum Realm itself, which is preventing the characters from achieving their primary plot goal of rescuing Janet. Although non-human antagonistic forces can comment on thematic premises in powerfully symbolic ways, we don’t see much of that here.

Ant-Man and the Wasp Quantum Realm

3. How Do the Supporting Characters Reflect Back Aspects of the Protagonist’s Relationship to the Thematic Principle?

As an extension of the antagonistic force’s role of contrasting and challenging the protagonist’s alignment to the thematic Truth, every other supporting character in the story should also comment upon the theme in some way.

Think of your overall theme as a big mirror smashed on the floor. The biggest chunk of glass is your protagonist. The second biggest is your antagonist. And every other shard represents every other character. They all reflect the theme. They all show a different piece of the big picture. Some reflect positively upon the theme; some reflect negatively. They all represent a different relationship to the Truth and the Lie.

If any character or plot device fails to reflect an aspect of the theme, that character or plot device is almost certainly failing, at least in part, to serve the story’s overall cohesion.

What this ultimately means is that every dialogue exchange, every minor character’s relationship to the protagonist, every minor character’s personal goal/ conflict—should comment upon the theme on every page of the story. This will not, of course, be blatant. The best stories present thematic weaves so complex it’s sometimes impossible for readers to immediately identify the thematic weft—but when it’s there, readers respond instinctively to the depth and consistency being presented.

Examining the Supporting Characters in Ant-Man and the Wasp

This movie’s biggest wasted opportunity was in its supporting characters and their relationship to the protagonist. Let’s particularly examine Hope. Had she either impacted Scott thematically or been impacted by him, the story would have instantly gained a ton of thematic resonance.

Yes, she “changes” by forgiving him in the end and deciding to let him be her crime-fighting partner. But those choices seem both inevitable and arbitrary.

If, instead, the plot had set Scott up with a primary thematic Truth that emphasized his generosity and compassion in risking his own well-being to help Hope and Hank, this would, in turn, have allowed Hope the opportunity to arc. She could have moved beyond her willingness to use Scott into a willingness to embrace his Truth by risking herself to help him protect his own family in the end.

Ant-Man and the Wasp

4. How Could the Main Conflict Be Presented as a Metaphor for the Theme?

Theme at its best is both simple but deep, complex but subtle.

One of the single best ways to achieve this is to think of the entire story—the protagonist’s character arc and the events of the plot—as a metaphor for the theme.

My all-time favorite example of this is in Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children. This story offers the high concept of a single mother secretly raising her half-werewolf children. It’s so high concept it just screams plot. The story itself never comments outright on its themes of parental sacrifice and struggle in the face of a child’s inevitable growth from complete reliance to clumsy independence.

And yet this is an incredibly thematic story. Everything in this story comments upon the universal struggle of raising, loving, and letting go of your children. It does it without ever feeling thematic. It never forces a message. It doesn’t have to, because everything about it is built to symbolize one cohesive idea.

Sometimes you may get your thematic idea first, from which you can then figure out the best plot to symbolize its inherent ideas. But usually, plot comes first. This is actually much trickier.

Take a look at the events you’ve constructed so far. Step way, way back.

What does this story look like from afar? Does it have a shape? Stripped of all the particulars of plot events and personalities—what is left? The stronger, the simpler, and the more cohesive the shape, the more opportunity you will have to create subtle depth.

Examining Thematic Metaphors in Ant-Man and the Wasp

If there’s any thematic shape at all to Ant-Man and the Wasp, it has to do with family—how far we’re willing to go to protect or rescue them and how much we’re willing to sacrifice.

In its simplest iteration, this movie is about Hope and Hank’s desperate gambit to rescue mother/wife Janet from her long imprisonment in the Quantum Realm. There are echoes of this thematic premise in Scott’s devotion to his daughter and even in rival scientist Bill Foster’s determination to save the life of his daughter-figure Ava/Ghost.

Together, these relationships all create some echo-y resonance within the sound chamber of the overall story. But that’s about it. Because the characters themselves have little to no interaction with a unifying theme, any parallels within the plot end up feeling more coincidental than anything.

Again, it’s a shame, because the pieces needed to create a more interesting and impactful thematic presentation are all there.

Ant-Man and the Wasp Hank Hope Scott

***

Theme is the transformative factor in any story. Learn how to harness it on every level of your story, and you will have created something wonderful.

Stay Tuned: In March, we’ll find out what we can learn from Captain Marvel.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any ways to choose a better theme for your book? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Jeff Wunder says:

    Nice article. Themes are a big deal in my WIP.

    “How Is the Antagonistic Force a Direct Challenge to the Protagonist’s Relationship to the Theme?”

    In my WIP, the Antagonist’s challenges help the Protagonist to discover the Theme(s), touching on Truth, Freedom, and other topics. The Antagonist seems evil at first, but his morality becomes less certain as the Theme(s) come into focus. He’s still the Antagonist at the end, but the reader is left with lingering questions. Not sure if that’s a good resolution. Probably good for a sequel, though.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good stuff. “Antagonist” is a morally neutral term. The only true role of the antagonist is a story is as someone/thing that presents obstacles to the protagonist’s plot goals.

Trackbacks

  1. […] big-picture items to consider when writing a book are theme and setting. K.M. Weiland gives us 4 ways to choose a better theme for your book, and Jeffery Phillips shows how to make your setting come […]

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