MGM co-founder Louis Mayer famously quipped, "Movies are for entertainment. If you want to send a message, send a telegram." It's easy to share his cynicism towards stories that go heavy on theme. Who doesn't think Atlas Shrugged or Left Behind would've felt less forced in a more didactic form? But even though propositional pronouncements sit uneasily in narratives, we writers often have abstract ideas we want to communicate. How can we do so and still keep eye rolling to a minimum? One true and true technique is the association principle.
You see it front-and-center in the 1987 slasher flick The Stepfather. Jerry Blake loves the suburban family life. He loves his colonial-style house with the picket fence around the yard. He loves his job as a realtor, helping settle fathers and mothers and children into quiet, friendly neighborhoods. But most of all, he loves his new wife Susan and her daughter Stephanie. "I sell houses," he proclaims to friends and neighbors during a backyard cookout. "That's my job. But sometimes I think it's more than that. Sometimes I truly believe that what I sell is the American Dream." His dedication to home and country is so intense it sometimes baffles. "You really are a cheerleader for the old traditional values, aren't you, Jerry?" a prospective buyers asks during a showing. But perhaps his dedication is a little too intense. Because when his family disappoints him, when it falls short of perfection, Jerry finds himself eyeing the knives on the kitchen counter. Susan and Stephanie haven't been his first family. They may not be his last.
In his book Influence, Robert Cialdini states, "The principle of association is a general one, governing both negative and positive connections. An innocent association with either bad things or good things will influence how people feel about us." Or not so innocent when it comes to narratives, because most authors make these associations intentionally. Say that the family-values ideal is morally bankrupt and potentially dangerous, and people will line up to either affirm your proposition or take a swing at it. But their feelings about the subject may shift after watching Jerry beat a man with a two-by-four and deck his wife with a vicious jab. Stories engage both the intellect and the affections. Of course, the technique requires caution. Push too much, and your character becomes a caricature. They need roundness. Interestingly, The Stepfather grants Jerry some in a single, haunting scene where he watches a family disappear into their cozy cottage after playing in the yard. The door swings shut, cutting him off from the sort of home he'd always longed for and somehow never achieved.
(Picture: CC 2008 by Christopher Saccaro)