Themes

Your story’s theme

Your story’s theme is an answer to the question “what is the story really about?”; what’s the universal truth wrapped into the story? When you finish a book, or a film, you’re often left thinking about the questions it raised – is it okay to kill? Are we caring for our children or are we smothering them? What’s more important, family or justice?
Your theme runs through the whole piece. Themes are important because they tackle subjects we feel strongly about, things we care deeply about. A good theme, well handled, is vital for emotionally engaging the audience.
Themes often aren’t clear cut. They stray into grey areas. They’re things we disagree on – and therefore fascinate us.

 

The Seven Thematic Topics

It’s been said that all human desires can be summed us the attempt to attain one of seven things:
justice    Justice
selfaware    Self-Awareness
money    Money
power    Power
love    Love
survival    Survival
glory-2    Glory
I find this a pretty neat idea and I keep coming back to it – there aren’t many stories that don’t tackle at least one of these themes…

moral

Moral

Linked closely to the theme is the moral of the story. Often a simple phrase or saying, the moral of the story is more specific than the theme because it gives an answer to the thematic question.
If your story is a Justice story there are themes of crime and criminality being explored. The moral of the story might be statement such as “crime doesn’t pay”. It’s the moral if that’s the answer you leave the audience with. But first you have to ask the question – Does crime pay?
To keep an audience engaged you use your thematic moments to constantly ask that question, and constantly answer that question in lots of different ways:  yes it does pay, no it doesn’t. Only in this way will the audience GET TO THE CLIMAX OF THE STORY DESPERATE TO KNOW WHAT THE ANSWER IS… and hopefully get a SATISFACTORY answer – usually the one the majority consider fair (And don’t be mistaken, audiences judge a story on how fair the outcome is… don’t expect everyone to love your story if you shrug your shoulders and say life isn’t fair ;))
Thematic Value
Throughout this journey you present audiences with a thematic VALUE. Each scene plays with “does crime pay / does it not”. When a scene answers that question, the audience perceives there is a change in VALUE.
The thematic value states are:
positive Positive
neutral Neutral
negative Negative
nadir2 Nadir
The two main value states are Positive and Negative.
These might be as simple as Justice or Injustice, or a more subtle form such as Appropriate Justice or Inappropriate Justice (or Just Revenge vs Unnecessary Revenge).
By varying the moral value of each scene (crime pays/ doesn’t pay) and the value (justice, injustice) you are keeping the audience guessing on how your story will deliver on the theme – which moral argument will win. It will also leave them thinking about what it means to win.
With any luck they’ll have made their decision about what they believe in the context of your story and already identified with one side – they are invested. They are ENGAGED. Your theme is all about creating audience satisfaction.
The two other value states  Neutral and Nadir represent two specific moments in your story. Neutral normally occurs near the beginning and is used to denote the absence of a resolution to a theme – it’s not that justice or necessarily and injustice has been done – but there is a lack of justice, that demands to be tackled. A great place to start a story.
Finally there is the NADIR. This is an absolute low point in the tale, usually a state worse than simply injustice, a betrayal of something deeper such as exposure of corruption in the system and usually the point that tips the audience in favour of one or the other moral arguments.
This is a moment so low, so unspeakable, so unforgivable that the audience’s mind is made up – that character deserves to die or that other character deserves to win. Deserving, and the fairness of the situation is usually what is called into sharp relief here.
This usually occurs before the final act, and galvanises audience support (or condemnation) of principal characters – Even though the chance of victory may seem very slim at this point. Now we hope the hero will overcome their flaws and win.
There is much written about the “Seven Basic Plots” and while there isn’t a direct map between those “basic plots” and the seven themes, it is true that certain themes are at the heart of certain plot-types of sub-genres.  A heist movie or whodunnit is usually about justice at its core. A romantic comedy is usually about love. A rags-to-riches tale implies the value and approach to money is important. These genre descriptions can be great ways of promising a theme without stating it explicitly.
Themes and multi-episodes.
When creating a series is can be very useful to define a core theme for the whole series. (Survival is at the heart of medical drama – or a zombie series!) But it can also provide inspiration for stories when episodes explore the other themes. A six-part British sitcom such as Blackadder is a great way to deal with how a character gets into different situations and explores different themes in each episode. For longer running series, different character journeys can be exploring different themes. The nurse looking for love, the doctor obsessed with power…
In any case, having an understanding of your general theme, the value points to hit, and the moral argument you’re making can be fundamental to getting a story that has emotional resonance with an audience.
theme
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The Enneagram – Part 1

Part 1 is an explanation of how the Enneagram works. Part 2 will explain how to use it in your writing.

Quite simply, the Enneagram is a neat little way of categorising your characters by their psychology.

According to Enneagram theory, everybody falls into one of nine character types and each character type exhibits certain behaviours, based on what drives them. For some it’s the need to put things in order, for others it’s the need to be in control, or be original, or be helpful.

As a writer, I use the Enneagram a lot.

Here are the character types, along with a brief description:

  1. reformer The Reformer or Perfectionist – who likes to see things in order.
  2. Helper The Helper or Giver – who likes to assist others and receive love.
  3. Achiever The Achiever or Performer – who likes to win.
  4. individualist The Individualist or Romantic –  who dreams and likes to be original.
  5. investigator The Investigator or Observer  – who likes to know everything going on.
  6. loyalist The Loyalist or Skeptic – who needs to trust and be trusted.
  7. Enthusiast The Enthusiast or Epicure – who loves to indulge in everything life has to offer.
  8. challenger The Challenger or Protector – who craves security and control.
  9. peacemaker The Peacemaker or Mediator – who brings harmony to situations.

It’s easy to see how having a relatively short list of potential character types immediately creates a range of characters who all have different goals and desires – which opens the door to a wide variety of conflicts, much more subtle than simply good guys versus bad.

More of this in part 2…

Additionally the Enneagram describes some key traits of each type:

  1. holyidea HOLY IDEA – what the character truly believes in. Where their moral compass firmly points.
  2. egofix EGO FIXATION – when they’re at their most selfish, they’re here.
  3. desire BASIC DESIRE – what they really want on a psychological level
  4. fear BASIC FEAR – what this type of person hates and takes great pains to avoid.
  5. temptation TEMPTATION – what is the characters compulsive behaviour.  What they revert to under pressure.
  6. virtue VIRTUE – what redeeming behaviour this character has learnt. What they’re capable of at their best.
  7. vice VICE – what they’re up to at their worst. What foul habits they have.

Again it can really help to build a character from being mostly driven by one particular aspect of their personality. It comes to define them and drive.

The traits a character displays are all related and form a consistency that makes it easy to build up an image of a particular type that is easily accessible.

Perhaps you’d like to try to work out which type you, or some of your  (favourite) characters are!

To summarise the various traits of the types I’ve grabbed this little table. All of this, and descriptions are available in the App.

Type Ego Fixation Holy Idea Basic Fear Basic Desire Temptation Vice Virtue
Reformer Resentment Perfection Evilness Goodness Hypocrisy Anger Right Thing
Helper Flattery Freedom Being Unloved Unconditional Love Manipulativeness Vainglory Altruism
Achiever Vanity Hope Worthlessness Value Pleasing Everybody Deceit Truthfulness
Individualist Melancholy Origin Commonness Originality Self-blame Envy Equanimity
Investigator Stinginess Omniscience Uselessness Competency Overthinking Greed Detachment
Loyalist Cowardice Faith Vulnerability Safety Suspicion Fear Courage
Enthusiast Planning Work Boredom Experience Rashness Gluttony Sobriety
Challenger Vengeance Truth Loss of Control Self-Protection Rejecting Help Lust Magnanimity
Peacemaker Indolence Love Loss Peace of Mind Submission Indifference Serenity

 

Icon152
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And, in case I haven’t laboured the point enough already… more on how to use the Enneagram in part 2! (which is coming soon)

Thanks for reading. I always love to hear your comments! – James