My last post about Theme turned out to be a little contentious. Not everyone agreed with the definition, which isn’t surprising considering we were all taught in English class that theme is a) usually distilled down to one word, like “salvation” or “death”, and b) open to interpretation. This approach to theme works in a classroom setting where the point is to explore a work of fiction, but it’s not very helpful when trying to write.
Perhaps I should follow McKee’s lead and call this writing-centric theme something else:
“Theme has become a rather vague term in the writer’s vocabulary. … I prefer the phrase Controlling Idea, for like theme, it names a story’s root or central idea, but it also implies function.” STORY by Robert McKee, pg. 115
So, to avoid further confusion and controversy, let’s refer to Theme as The Controlling Idea. To review, this Controlling Idea consists of a value at stake (like love, justice or freedom) and a cause that changes that value from negative to positive (or positive to negative) by the end of the story.
CONTROLLING IDEA = VALUE changed by CAUSE
For example: Justice (VALUE) triumphs (the change) because the hero is smarter than the villain (CAUSE).
As stated in McKee’s quote above, the Controlling Idea implies function – it doesn’t just exist as the end meaning of a story, rather it works to build the story towards the end meaning. And if you know how the Controlling Idea does that, you can write a stronger story.
Using The Controlling Idea To Strengthen Your Story
1 – Define the Conflict. Just like every hero needs a villain, every Controlling Idea needs a Counter Idea. So if the Controlling Idea is Justice triumphs because the hero is smarter than the criminal, then the Counter Idea is Injustice reigns because the criminal is smarter than the hero.
2 – Create Dramatic Tension by making the Controlling Idea and the Counter Idea fight! In great stories, these opposite values battle for supremacy – in one scene Justice looks like it will prevail, and in the next scene Injustice seems poised for victory, and back and forth. Make the Controlling and Counter Ideas so well matched that it is unclear which will win until the very end. A fantastic example of this is the BBC series “Sherlock” – we expect Sherlock Holmes to solve the case and justice to triumph, but the show is so well written and the villains so brilliant that we really do doubt right up to the final moment whether Sherlock will succeed.
3 – Cut Meaningless Scenes. All scenes must argue for or against the Controlling Idea, otherwise the story loses dramatic tension. Take The Hunger Games series, for example. Every scene presents freedom from the Capitol as attainable or unattainable. Each time something goes right for Katniss we think, “Katniss and the citizens of Panem will get their freedom!” and then something goes wrong and we think, “Oh no, the Capitol is going to rule them forever.” The Controlling Idea doesn’t have to be obvious and in your face, but it must always be there, informing everything the characters do and everything that happens to them. If it’s not, cut the scene.
And that’s how to use a writer’s theme (aka Controlling Idea) to write a dramatic tale full of conflict, tension and meaning.
Next Up from Heather… How to stay motivated without deadlines or money.