Theme as the Controlling Idea

What is meant by the controlling idea in Stories?

Controlling idea in Groundhog Day
Controlling idea in Groundhog Day: Cynicism and selfishness give way to love and selflessness

A story typically comprises of a sequence of linked events, centering on a protagonist who pursues a difficult goal against a rising tide of obstacles orchestrated by the antagonist, (or antagonistic forces). In achieving the goal, the protagonist has to overcome an inner weakness or limitation, which results in his/her becoming a wiser and more accomplished person.

But how do we, as writers, select the most appropriate incidents to relate? Certainly, verisimilitude, suspense, drama, excitement, and uniqueness play a role. But how do we choose between two actions of equal weight, in terms of this list? One way is to let the theme or controlling idea guide us.

In his book, Story, Robert McKee defines the theme, or controlling idea, as he prefers to call it, as a statement expressed in a single sentence that describes how and why life undergoes a change in value by the end of a story.

McKee explains that the controlling idea has two components: value and cause.

The controlling idea identifies the change from a positive to a negative value (or vice versa) at the story-climax as a result of the protagonist’s final action, and provides the main reason for this change.

Value plus cause, McKee informs us, captures the meaning of the story.

Value is the positive or negative charge found at the end of the story. In an up-ending, good triumphs, as in Groundhog Day, where cynicism and selfishness give way to love and selflessness; in a down-ending, negative values prevail. In Dangerous Liaisons, passion turns into self-loathing, resulting in hatred that destroys.

Cause, on the other hand, provides the reason why the protagonist’s world has been transformed into a positive or negative value. In writing a story, we work back from the end value, to the beginning, and trace the causes within the character, society, or environment that has brought about this change.

In Peter Falk’s Columbo, for example, we track back from the theme or controlling idea — Justice is done because the protagonist is cleverer than the criminal — selecting for inclusion only those story beats that serve the theme.

Sherlock Holmes style scenes in which Columbo uses deductive reasoning to corner the criminal are appropriate for a man of superior intelligence and observation skills. Reaching under his raincoat for a .44 Magnum in order to frighten the criminal into confessing, or beating the daylights out of him, is not, although it is a fitting action for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry.


The theme or controlling idea encompasses a change in value plus the reasons for it. Keeping the theme foremost in our minds assists us in writing appropriate scenes that stay on track.

One thought on “Theme as the Controlling Idea

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Comedy : The genre that is perhaps the single most difficult to write.

    The late Robin Williams is arguably the most accomplished comedian in recent memory. His film Mrs. Doubtfire is a text book example of what happens when you mix theme and value with the trademark wit of a talented leading actor.

    In Mrs. Doubtfire William’s character is a down and out actor who loves his children more then anything. Failing to prove to his wife that he can be a responsible adult his marriage ends in divorce with his wife winning custody of his children. Determined to be with his children William’s character makes use of special effects to disguise himself as a woman who his ex wife hires to be a house keeper.

    The theme of the story in a nut shell : If you truly love someone you can’t let others deny you to be with them.

    The value is the negative charge found at the end of the story. After Williams is exposed a judge denies him visitation rights to his children in order to protect them from a man who is viewed as mentally unstable. A father’s love is turned into forbidden love resulting in a negative cause – the television screen is the only method how William’s children ever get to see him.

    Society has brought this change : Williams actions give reason why his wife is not viewed as a villain who wants to keep her kids from a fun loving dad but rather as the only capable parent who is mentally suitable to raise the children in a protective environment. Think about it : would you leave your kids with a man who dresses like a woman even if he is there father?


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