Book Review: The Golden Theme by Brian McDonald 1


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You may remember that last year I reviewed a screenwriting book by Brian McDonald: Invisible Ink (A Practical Guide To Building Stories That Resonate, a great book for beginner screenwriters which covered elements of storytelling not always immediately obvious to the writer; hence the title.

I was immediately intrigued when approached to review McDonald’s second book, The Golden Theme (How To Make Your Writing Appeal To The Highest Common Denominator), as the title suggests a relation to the Golden Section, otherwise known as the Golden Ratio or Divine Proportion, which I happened to study at school and university as part of my art studies.

Wikipedia explains the Golden Ratio:

In mathematics and the arts, two quantities are in the golden ratio if the ratio of the sum of the quantities to the larger quantity is equal to the ratio of the larger quantity to the smaller one.

Makes sense, in a geeky maths way, but what’s the point? Well, the Golden Ratio – defined by Phi – has been used throughout history in art and architecture to create beauty and balance. It’s even found in nature by way of a Fibonacci spiral in shells and in analysing the way plants grow and why they look as they do. It’s thoroughly fascinating and you can read more here, here and here!
Maths and storytelling? Combined? Surely not! So how does McDonald make the connection? 

The Golden Theme is a universal law: we are all the same.

Just as the Golden Ratio is found throughout the universe (in nature, design and even in the makeup of human beings) so is McDonald’s Golden Theme. No matter how different we think things are, they are all connected. We may be of different races and cultures, but underneath it all we are the same. A story may be a particular genre, but ultimately they serve the same purpose; to tell a story and to communicate this Golden Theme.

It can be a tricky concept to get your head around. McDonald backs up his bits of advice with plenty of examples and his Golden Theme certainly has some credibility as a way of tying lots of theories together under one “roof”. As with his last book, McDonald has a way of explaining things that make it easy for anyone to understand his theories.

The book is split up into short chapters. Each starts with a famous quote and ends with a simple statement from McDonald himself by way of a summary of what has been learnt in each chapter. He talks us through a brief history of storytelling and why humans tell stories; we need stories to live, why stories need conflict;  we learn from them, all the while interspersing his theories with fact and his own opinions backed up by his own life stories.

Many chapters seem like glorified information that everyone already knows deep down. However, McDonald is passionate about his theories and about teaching us to see things simply and clearly. It’s a pleasure to read through his anecdotes and the stories he has pulled from history to illustrate his points. With short, concise chapters and interesting quotes, this book is ideal to dip into over a cup of tea.

McDonald uses his theory to teach us the importance of character conflict, character traits and not being constricted by style, convention and expectations. There are some excellent nuggets of advice, but I wouldn’t go so far as claiming this book is an essential read for storytellers and screenwriters. It’s a book that appears to be trying to be several books in one – a book for writers as much as it is for those interested in philosophy, equality and even those who need a bit of self-help guidance; touching upon how, to live life as an artist (writer), you have to be able to face the deepest parts of yourself. McDonald’s Golden Theme ties all these aspects together well.

Having finished reading the book I can confirm that it has affected the way I think about storytelling (McDonald’s anecdotes and stories from history stay with you, as he tells you they will) but it hasn’t necessarily taught me anything new with regards to my own writing process, be it short prose or screenwriting. The writing advice gleaned from McDonald’s book is not new advice, but is merely presented in a new way; a way which is both informative and entertaining.

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