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:
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…
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 ;))
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:
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.
If you’d like to have a pocket guide to carry around with you, then please check out the App
I expect you’re wondering why I brought you here. Well, the fact is, one of us is a murderer and I intend to find out who it is.
Sorry, force of habit.
I expect you’re more likely wondering what the devil Little Writing Apps are all about.
Little Writing Apps came about because I write – and there were a handful of little shortcuts and ideas I came to rely on in my own writing. When designing a cast of characters I would reach for the Enneagram so I could be sure I had a diverse group at my disposal. When coming up with ideas for episodes and stories I would always turn to the same universal Themes for ideas. To structure, the Hero’s Journey would help both fire my imagination and keep me sort of on the right track.
I wanted these things with me all the time, so I could tinker with my ideas and capture them. And I thought others might feel the same.
The result is a combination of this blog and the apps. The apps let you have these shortcuts with you at all times in a fun and interactive way, this blog explains the thinking behind them, and for what it’s worth, how I use them.
As it takes less time to create a blog post than it does to write an app ( now there’s an understatement), I expect the blog will be somewhat ahead of the apps… So if you like a post and would like to see an app – let me know!
I don’t claim these ideas are all mine, and I will let you know where they’re from so you can check them out first hand if it helps. I don’t claim they’ll help you make brilliant stories, with vibrant characters who have clear things to achieve in the rich worlds they live in, which you’re able to convey to the reader with an eye for pared-back detail that brings a scene to life through a few choice words and promises conflict and emotional journey. That’s your job. But they might help that journey be more fun.