This was written in response to Ross Douthat’s call for Americans to stop enabling M. Night Shyamalan. We all love him, we all want him to create another wonderful movie, and his lukewarm box office response is not enough to push him to abandon his current approach and do that. A complete flop, Mr. Douthat reasons, will be the rock bottom necessary before Mr. Shyamalan can begin true change.
He may be right. This prompted me to share my personal theory on Mr. Shyamalan. It’s also my personal theory on how to get the best idea, whether you’re writing a story, designing a test, or figuring out the best user-centered taxonomy for a site.
I love Shyamalan’s writing, I love his directing, I love his characters. What I don’t love is how he makes all of the above subservient to an idea that forces them into unnatural, un-storylike forms.
My theory on Mr. Shyamalan: he’s been letting themes take too much control of the story. It’s like the recently-evangelized musician who thinks removing a bad lyric about Jesus is somehow betraying Jesus—instead of thinking that writing the best song possible is a better form of praise. Or the recently-transformed-by-therapy writer whose characters all act in the best interests of each other’s mental health. I believe Shyamalan becomes enthralled by an idea, and the idea drives the story, the writing, and the directing.
I heard that the killer surprise in Sixth Sense was an afterthought. This is how good ideas show up—you follow the story/research/whatever faithfully, and have faith the best idea, or juxtaposition of ideas, will present itself as a result. Clinging to *an* idea throughout the process reduces the chance that the *best* idea—the one rooted in your fullest understanding of story, characters, data, concept—will emerge.
The best way to explore a theme in a story is to establish the situation, and let it play itself out in a means true to the characters. Your concept or theme will emerge much more naturally, and people will be much more engaged.