Tag Archives: Theme

Defining the theme in stories

Theme in 30 Days of Night

Theme in 30 Days of Night

Dictionary.com defines theme as a subject of discourse, discussion, meditation, or composition; a unifying or dominant idea or motif found in a work of art.

What I find most useful about theme stems from combining two ideas drawn from the work of Lagos Egri and Stanley D. Williams: that a theme emerges only the end of the story and contains a moral premise.

The theme is proven at the end of a story because that’s when the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is decided. It contains a moral premise because the conflict itself is, at its core, a conflict between good and evil.

In simple terms, if the antagonist wins we have a down ending — evil triumphs. If the protagonist wins we have an up ending — good triumphs over evil.

Establishing the theme in 30 Days of Night

In the film 30 Days of Night the isolated northern Alaskan town of Barrow is beset by a band of vampires intent on using a month of darkness to gorge on the unsuspecting and helpless community.

The sheriff, Eben Oleson, the story’s protagonist, confronts Marlow, the leader of the vampires, in order to protect his town, but clearly lacks the strength to defeat him. All seems lost until Eben hatches a plan to bolster his own strength by infecting himself with tainted blood, turning himself into a vampire. Eben defeats Marlow then purposely exposes himself to sunlight and dies, ensuring that he himself never becomes a threat to the humans.

The theme that emerges at the end of the story is that death, through self-sacrifice, leads to a greater, more transcendent victory by granting life to others.

Isolating themes in this way allows us to see the essence of stories at a glance. It helps us to keep narrative events on track.

Summary

The theme embodies the moral premise of the story and is established at the end of the tale.

How to Write Your Moral Premise

Child writing

The Moral Premise:

Although I’ve blogged about this subject before, it’s such an important one that it warrants revisiting. Coming up with a good premise, after all, is the first step you take in creating your story. It is the seed from which your tale will sprout. Or, if you will, the essential core or meaning of the story you wish to write. It is also the chief theme of your tale. It is, therefore, as Lagos Egri informs us, wise to formulate your premise first, before you begin writing, because you must first know exactly what you want to say, why you want to say it, and how far you want to go in saying it.

Egri goes on to mention that if you intend to write a story about greed, for example, you need to know precisely what it is that you want to explore about it and what direction the story will take. Condensing your story to its premise, you have:

Greed leads to destruction, or greed leads to humiliation, or greed leads to isolation, or greed leads to loss of love.

Use the words that express your idea perfectly, knowing that it is the essence of your story. It may be brief and concise, or slightly more descriptive. Your premise should include the basic facts about the character, the conflict and its resolution.

It takes the form: Character/Subject + Conflict/Verb + Resolution/Object.

The first part of the premise should represent the dominant character trait. For example: honesty, dishonesty, selfishness, ruthlessness, false pride, etc.

The second and third parts should represent the conflict and its resolution: dishonesty leads to exposure, or, ruthless ambition leads to destruction, etc.

The premise entails a result. You, therefore, need to know the end of your story before you start to write it. This is because your premise depends on the outcome of the final conflict, typically between the protagonist and antagonist. Only then will you know if greed does indeed lead to destruction, humiliation, isolation, or loss of love in your specific story.

Finally, note that the premise encapsulates a moral aspect, which tends to dictate the kind of ending your story resolves into. In stories that resolve in an “up ending” good triumphs over evil. In a “down ending” evil tends to trump good. In the latter, your premise might well be: Greed can lead to a successful life devoid of suffering. You should be aware, however, that down endings tend to do less well in the realm of popular fiction, although there are always exceptions.

Summary

A premise contains the mortal essence or meaning of your story. It is the blueprint that informs the writing of your tale.

How to Use Theme to Orchestrate Your Story

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.

Conducting

Shaping the Art

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

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

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.

Theme as a Scene Creation Tool

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.

Summary

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.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

How to Establish Story-Context from the Get-Go

Starting gun

Starting gun

The purpose of the establishing scene is to provide the context of a story, and to do so early. In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christian Vogler refers to the world in which we first encounter the Hero as the Ordinary World. By clearly establishing a before and after, a writer is able to emphasize the transforming effect of the Hero’s actions on the world around her — the amount of change that this world undergoes by the end of the story is precisely the measure of success that the Hero has achieved in acquiring the goal. How do we go about sketching in the main features of this world quickly and efficiently? One answer is to do so through the deft use of imagery.

Establishing Context Through Imagery

Precisely what is established at the start of a story? In Advanced Screenwriting, Linda Seger, suggests that an establishing scene should introduce the tone, time, location, as well as, the theme of the story, in other words, the framework of the tale. The first couple of minutes of Wall Street, for example, introduces us to the world of business through a series of images — its buildings, the morning rush, the energy of those whose pursuit of money defines who they are. Indeed, the first images in a film or novel are often the most powerful and, therefore, need to be selected carefully since they set the framework for the entire story.

Schindler’s List opens with a black and white closeup of a drawer, and a man putting on elegant cufflinks in preparation for attending an important Nazi party. This immediately sets the tone and time period of the affluent and influential world that Schindler will eventually use to help get Jews out of Germany.

Dead Poets Society, too, begins with a defining sequence of images, those of a school preparing for its opening day procession — banners announcing the school’s solid foundations of education and moral learning, foundations steeped in discipline, excellence, and honour. Such images help to establish the theme of conformity stemming from such traditions, a conformity which will be questioned by Mr. Keating’s creative approach to education, putting him at odds with the school’s hierarchy, and pointing to the central conflict in the story: conformity vs. creativity.

Having established the time, place, tone, and theme through an effective use of starting imagery, the writers of these stories are now able to concentrate on plot and subplot from the basis of a solid framework. It is no coincidence that all three films went on to become huge hits with world audiences.

Summary

Selecting the right images with which to start your story is important, since such images help to set the tone, time, place, and theme of your entire tale. Incidental or irrelevant imagery can mislead and confuse the reader or audience and should be purged from your manuscript.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

What is “Tone” in Story-Telling?

This post come about as a result of a suggestion by Mark Landen, a regular contributor to this blog, that I say something about tone in story-telling, and its impact on narrative elements such as theme and plot.

First, a brief definition: By “tone” (or the slightly more imprecise, “mood”), I mean the moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude the writer/narrator adopts towards her material in narrating it. Tone can be satirical, comic, serious, or tragic. It is no coincidence that a description of tone corresponds to the overarching genre in story-telling; it is genre, more that setting, plot, or theme, that determines a story’s tone by inflecting the aforementioned elements. Hence, a similar setting in a musical such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show or a classical horror such as Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff) can produce a disparate mood of levity and dread respectively, precisely because it is modulated by a difference in genre.

Theme

Does tone help to determine the theme of a story? The short answer is: not necessarily. If we take theme to be the (moral) lesson delivered at the end of the story as a result of the final conflict between the protagonist and antagonist, then it is clear that a musical or a comefy can produce as viable, serious, and independent a theme as drama, or tragedy. In this sense, theme tends to be a universal and etherial ordering element, floating above the specific textural concerns of genre.

Plot

What about plot? Here again, at the most quintessential level, tonal elements are not fashioned by plot itself, but by genre: The exploration of the going-on at Frankenstein’s castle, for example, may receive a traditional horror treatment, or may be rendered comedic or satirical, as in a musical, giving rise to a different emotional experience. Again, it is genre, not plot, that creates the tonality of the story.

In Summary

Although tone is deeply rooted in the generic demands of the tale, it is inflected by the writer’s moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude towards her story and her method of narrating it.

If you’ve enjoyed this post or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting.

I post every Monday.