In his book, Story, Robert McKee explains that the controlling idea of a story delivers to readers and audiences the true theme or ethical judgment of the tale—what the story is really about.
For writers, the controlling idea can help us keep the story on track by shining a spotlight on what actions and events to include or exclude from the story—actions and events that stay or stray from the intended path.
We‘ve talked about this controlling idea before, but under the nomenclature of The Moral Premise. What I like about McKee’s use of the phrase is the reminder that the story has to be constantly steered towards its destination.
McKee defines the controlling idea as having two components: Value and cause. Value identifies the positive or negative charge that arises as a result of the 3rd act’s climax. Cause gives the reason for this outcome. Value and cause, therefore, provide the central meaning of the tale.
“The controlling idea serves to keep your story on track.”
Because value can have a positive or negative charge, the outcome of the controlling idea, the value judgment, can only be delivered to the reader or audience at the end of the story. Importantly, though, the result has been prepared for by a series of actions undertaken by the protagonist in pursuit of his goal. The result of the climactic battle between the antagonist and protagonist towards the end of the third act delivers the writer’s final judgment on the moral or ethical status of the story. In the words of McKee, ‘value means the primary value in its positive or negative charge that comes into the world or life of your character as a result of the final action of the story.”
The final value, therefore, whether positive or negative, is the hard fought-for point of the entire tale.
In an up-ending crime story such as In the Heat of the Night, the writer’s judgment on the final value, might be: That even in a corrupt world (negative charge), it is possible to have justice restored (positive charge) through righteous and persistent action.
In a negatively charged love story-ending such as Dangerous Liaisons the controlling idea leads to a negative outcome: That passion, naively directed, leads to self-loathing and death.
All this sounds remarkably like the moral premise.
Summary The controlling idea is the ethical or moral point of the story. Scenes containing actions and events that stray from the path should be eliminated.
Do you follow a writing mentor? Do you need to? Well, we are living in an time in which there is an over-abundance of information. This includes information on creative writing and screenwriting. Sifting through it all to find the right stuff can be a challenge.
In an attempt to make this task a little easier I mention five writing mentors whose books are studying.
Although each mentor emphasises different aspects of the screenwriting craft, they all adhere to a similar structural approach that agrees with the film critic John Egan’s definition of a conventional screenplay telling ‘a story that involves a single plot that revolves around a single protagonist who is supported, opposed and offset by a cast of secondary characters.’
Of the five mentors mentioned here, perhaps only Christopher Vogler offers a somewhat different inflection at first glance—-although even he employs a template in his use of the quest as a generic structure. But more of that later.
“I view writing mentor Syd Field’s work as focusing on the structure of a plot which is centered on a protagonist who struggles to achieve the story goal against mounting obstacles.”
Syd Field, who claimed to be one of the first mentors to package Hollywood codes and conventions into a single paradigm, asserts in The Screenwriter’s Workshop, that ‘before you can express your story dramatically, you must know four things: 1) the ending, 2) the beginning, 3) Plot Point I, and 4) Plot Point II. These four elements are the structural foundation of your screenplay.’ He later adds a fifth element, the midpoint, which he defines as ‘a link in the chain of dramatic action.’
Additionally, the midpoint ‘expands the character’s depth and dimension’. Field sees the typical film as comprising three acts, balanced by the midpoint, which breaks up the middle act into two units roughly of equal length. Each act is about 30 pages, or 30 screen minutes, in length and focuses on the vicissitudes of the protagonist’s fortunes.
Linda Seger follows a similar line, but offers more detail about subplots. In Making a Good Script Great, she writes that ‘subplots give the protagonist an opportunity to smell the flowers, to fall in love, to enjoy a hobby, to learn a new skill.’ Emphasising that the function of subplots is to support and add density to the main plot, Seger stresses that subplots have their own beginning, middle, and end and are most effective when they intersect and connect with the plot line. Importantly, subplots carry the theme of the story. But no conventional story is possible without a central lead.
Michael Hauge lays down five essential requirements for crafting a successful protagonist or Hero, the inclusion of which he sees as the first essential element of a well-crafted conventional story. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Hauge asserts that the Hero, as the vehicle that drives the story forward, must allow for audience identification, pursue a clear and visible goal, face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and show some sign of courage.
Interestingly, Hauge does not place character growth, which he defines as the ‘character’s search for courage [which] results in greater self-knowledge, maturation, or actualization’, within the first five essential elements of his story-concept checklist, although he does include it at number thirteen, after high concept, originality and familiarity, subplots, genre, medium, and cost, and before theme.
Lastly, Hauge defines theme as ‘a universal statement about the human condition that goes beyond the plot. It is the screenwriter’s prescription for how one should live one’s life.’ Theme, then, is generated from the premise or argument of the story within a wider context of received moral and ethical values.
“Who is your favourite writing mentor?”
Robert McKee’s Story, in addition to concepts already explored above, the book includes a survey of major non-canonical forms which he labels ‘anti-plot’ and ‘miniplot’, as well as a detailed examination of genres.
McKee’s definition of the following terms is also useful: The Premise is that which shapes the dramatic context of the story by asking an open-ended question – ‘What would happen if…?’; a beat is ‘an exchange of behaviour in action/reaction’; a scene is ‘a story event, usually in continuous time and space’; an act is ‘a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal of values’; the inciting incident, as ‘the first major event of the telling, is the primary cause for all that follows’; and the ‘obligatory scene’ or crisis, is ‘an event the audience knows it must see before the story can end’, which most often takes the form of a final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonistic forces.
Christopher Vogler – writing mentor extraordinaire
Christopher Vogler, by contrast, employs a mythological approach, inspired by the work of the American mythologist Joseph Campbell, defining the screenplay in terms of a quest. In The Writer’s Journey, Vogler describes each stage of the narrative as a journey undertaken by the Hero as he struggles to achieve his goal.
Here the Hero starts in the Ordinary World, receives a Call to Adventure, which initially results in The Refusal. He typically meets with The Mentor, Crosses the First Threshold, is Tested by Enemies and assisted by Allies, approaches the Innermost Cave, suffers an Ordeal, is Rewarded, begins his Journey Back, is Resurrected, and finally Returns with The Elixir. In doing so, he is aided and impeded by a host of archetypal characters (or combination thereof); namely, the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Herald, the Shapeshifter, the Shadow, the Ally, and the Trickster.
This approach to storytelling has much in common with Vladimir Propp’s description of the fairy tale, in terms of character function, put forward in his Morphology of the Folk Tale. Although some of Vogler’s offerings seem ostensibly different from other mentors, his definition of character and character action, in adhering to a predetermined template based on structuring narrative elements according to function, remains much the same as Field’s, Hauge’s, Seger’s, and McKee’s.
Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, Christopher Vogler, and Robert McKee are five important writing mentors who have packaged much of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom into various screenwriting systems. Collectively, they offer new and established writers an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the writing craft.
While prepping for one of my classes I had occasion to watch several televised debates between proponents of theism and atheism as examples of the sort of logic used in hotly contested debates of this nature.
One such debate in particular struck me as informative. Both men were scientists, one, a mathematician from Oxford and a believer in the existence of God – a Christian. The other was a physicist from Arizona State University and an unflinching atheist.
“The logic of the heart and the art of persuasion.”
Both men, in my opinion, put forward narratives that were strong on logic and consistent within their world views. In terms of their delivery, the Oxford man was affable, warm, tolerant and kind. The physicist came across as cold, rude, arrogant, and condescending. When I asked my honours students who they thought won the debate, a surprising number of them thought that the Christian did, even though that might have been at odds with their own beliefs.
The point is that the logic of a narrative, be it scientific, historical, or fictional, is only part of the story. The heart behind it plays a role in the art of communication too. It is not enough for a scientist to say that we have it by the numbers and that pleasantries, therefore, do not matter. Certainly, it will make no difference to the hard mathematical proofs whether you come across as arrogant or kind, but it will make a difference to how effective you are in advertising your field.
The mathematician and string theorist Brian Greene is proof of how hard science can be delivered in a warm, persuasive, and cogent way that makes it accessible to lay people. His documentary The Illusion of Time, is a good example of his affable, passionate style. Special and general relativity are explained in a way that makes one want to know more.
So it should be with any narrative. Behind the facts and logic we should sense the presence of a human mind seeking to communicate the wonder of being alive, not only through logic, but through the ineffable understanding of the heart.
Use logic as well as heart to persuade others of the merits of your point of view.