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The Controlling Idea – Not Your English Teacher’s Theme

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.

About the author

Heather Jackson

Heather is a cartoon screenwriter, YA novelist, small town fugitive, and late-blooming gymnast. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

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10 comments

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  1. One Woman

    Miss Heather, thank you for clarifying a concept I had been tiptoeing around. Your thoughts on using the controlling idea to strengthen the story are life-changing. I was inspired to finally nail down my Controlling Idea AND the Counter Idea, to boot. l’ma need to shout you out in the acknowledgements when I finally finish this thing.

  2. Derek Fisher

    I found this very helpful (along with previous related post) in clarifying theme. Thank you.

    1. Heather Jackson

      Fantastic! So happy to hear that.

  3. Filgo

    Hey Heather, Im a MCkee fan but this one example he gives makes not “buy” his explanation. “…because the hero is smarter than the villain” – This is so mundane. I belive the Theme must bem something more universal, like his example on Ground Hog Day Theme definition… Im confused…

    1. Heather Jackson

      The hero being smarter than the villain is just the CAUSE of “justice triumphs” which is the thematic universal goal. Remember, McKee’s Controlling Idea is about function, i.e. the actions that lead to the story’s end meaning (generally referred to as Theme). You may think the hero being smarter is a mundane reason for achieving that end goal/meaning, but it is the foundation of many great crime stories, including Sherlock Holmes.

      That said, McKee’s method is just one way of looking at theme. If it doesn’t work for you, that’s okay. Some writing tips help some writers, and some don’t. Use whatever helps YOU understand story better.

  4. Sue Coletta

    Excellent with a capital “E”!

    1. Heather Jackson

      Haha! Thanks!

  5. Tim McGregor

    Excellent post, Heather. Theme/controlling idea can be such a slippery bugger. This made me stop and rethink the current WIP. Damn!

    What was it Gordon Gekko said in Wall Street? “Greed is good.” A great example of a theme stated, not just the film but a decade too.

    1. Heather Jackson

      Thanks, Tim! I’ve been trying to wrap my head around theme for a while and it’s been tough. Glad this post came out coherent enough to be useful! Good luck on your WIP!

      1. anonimo

        good i like it

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