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  • Dave Butler

50 Shades of Gray

The Role of Theme and Plot in Environmental Mysteries

By Dave Butler

Building on Pam and Greg’s reflections on theme and plot, I find the area of ecofiction to be ripe for explorations of theme.

In my first three novels, I looked at how development proposals, or differing ways of looking at our natural world, often push people apart, and perhaps make them do things they would not otherwise be willing to do. Based on my decades of work in land use, I commonly see people in communities, regions and countries fall into a comfort zone, a place where decisions are either black or white, right or wrong, or more often than not, win or lose. It’s certainly easy and less taxing on the brain to stay in that zone – it’s either this or that. Pick one, and move on.

In reality, the world is a complex and nuanced place where there are many shades of gray between right and wrong, between yes or no. Using energy pipelines in North America as only one example, those for pipelines are fighting running battles against those who oppose them. They’re battles between those who want to get to markets the energy stored in the ground as oil or natural gas, and those who are concerned about the environmental risks of pipelines and our collective failure to move to a low-carbon economy.

The same could be said about proposals for hydro dams (like in Greg’s novel: ‘A Straw That Broke’), or residential developments in natural areas on the margins of existing communities, or new highways, or new logging proposals, or new mines, or …

Pick any of those, and you’ll find strident voices on both sides, all claiming the higher-ground, the better argument, or in some cases, bringing god or some other supreme being into the discussion, as though he, or she, has granted them the wisdom to know what is best.

However, the reality in all these situations is far more nuanced, far more complicated, and as far from black-and-white as can be. There are always competing financial, community and environmental factors that decision-makers have to weigh. If you had to decide, and had all those pressures on you, what would you do?

In the first three novels in my Jenny Willson mystery series, I would summarize my main theme as: “it ain’t that simple.”

In the first novel (‘Full Curl’), I tried to challenge, subtly, readers on their views about trophy hunting. If it is acceptable to you, does that change if it occurs in a national park? If so, why?

In my second novel (‘No Place for Wolverines’), a proponent wants to build a ski area on the edge of a national park. If you like ski areas, what about a proposal that is not all that it seems? What about one that would affect the park but create jobs in a community in desperate need?

And in ‘In Rhino We Trust,’ the 3rd in the series, I shine a spotlight on the complexities of rhino poaching and poverty. If men in remote communities in sub-Saharan Africa do it to feed their families, is that OK?

With those 50 shades of gray as the theme, I then use plot -- and characters -- to dig deeper into the opposing viewpoints. The characters personify the wide range of opinions on these complex issues, while the plot carries the story along, building tension, answering the many ‘what if?’ questions that are such a foundation for mysteries. And given that there are always good guys and bad guys on both sides of these issues, they’re a treasure trove of tension, conflict and potential opposing actions. Ideally, the plot in ecofiction encourages a reader – in the midst of enjoying a great story – to question his or her own opinions and assumptions, and perhaps, come to understand how others could hold differing views.

I admit that I often find myself wondering if fiction might have a role to play in our society that is otherwise absent as we move further and further away from productive debate or discussion.

In short, I see theme as the ‘why’ in good mystery stories. Why is this issue so complex? Plot, on the other hand, is the ‘how.’ How does this complexity manifest itself in people’s behavior, and how far will those people go to win, or be proven right?

Like many things in life, it ain’t simple.

Given that, wouldn’t ‘50 Shades of Gray’ make a good title for a work of eco-fiction …? Wait. Did someone already use that...?

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