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"Lead With The Theme"

by Mark O'Bannon

Lead With The Theme
Lead With The Theme
Stories with a well developed theme are rare.  Thematic writing is one of the most misunderstood writing techniques, but all of the great writers have learned to master theme. 

Countless hours can be spent reading books or watching one’s favorite television show, but after a time, all of it can become quite boring and unsatisfying. 

What Is Theme?
One reason people have trouble with theme is that they don’t understand what theme is or how theme works in a story.  Most writers consider theme as “sending a message,” but this is a clumsy way to approach the subject.    Teen pregnancy, for instance, or alcohol/drug addiction are subjects, not themes. 

Robert McKee uses the term, Controlling Idea to describe theme, and says that theme is used to tell the emotional lesson of a story.

John Truby, the premier story consultant in Hollywood, defines theme as, “The writer’s view of the proper way to act in the world.” 

Another way to look at it, he says, is to define theme as the story’s Moral Argument

Why am I writing this?
When you’re writing a story, you should know what you’re trying to say.  Before spending hours upon hours working on a story, sit down and ask yourself this question.  What is the purpose of this story?  When you ask these questions, you are leading with the theme. 

Average writers lead with plot.  Advanced writers lead with the theme.  Remember the second pilot episode of Star Trek (The Original Series), “Where No Man Has Gone Before?”  This story asked the question, “What would happen if a man gained the power of a god?”  The writer of this story knew where he was going from the moment he sat down to tell the story.  The Twilight Zone writers knew this too, and their stories are some of the best ever written.  Great stories are told when you have something to say. 

The Central Moral Problem
See if you can set up a central moral problem in the story for the protagonist to deal with, culminating in a moral choice at the end of the tale.  When the moral problem is based on the protagonist’s moral weakness, you can create a theme line in your story.  This will end with a Thematic Revelation.  The moral weakness is a character flaw that harms other people (such as arrogance).  This isn’t as hard to set up as it might seem. 

Action Steps
To set up a Theme Line in your story, take these steps:

1. Create a moral character flaw in your main character.  To be a moral weakness, the character must harm other people in some way. 

2. Create a moral problem for the story which will be exacerbated by the character’s flaw.  The idea is to draw out the weakness in the character as the story progresses.

3. Create an opponent with a different view of the central moral problem. 

4. Set up a Moral Argument Scene where the protagonist and the antagonist argue their case, based on their own unique value systems. 

5. Set up a series of immoral actions by the protagonist – small things at first, but gradually getting worse. 

6. The hero will come in conflict with the antagonist and will lose.

7. The hero will become desperate to win and will begin to do immoral things.

8. During the story, have the hero’s friends criticize his actions as the immoral actions are taken, with increasing intensity.  The protagonist will make excuses.    

9. Sometime around the final battle between the hero and opponent, the hero will face a moral choice of some kind.  The moral choice may revolve around the hero’s moral flaw.

10. The character will make a choice which will bring out the Thematic Revelation.

What To Do Now
If you like, you can create an entire story around a moral argument.  The movie, “Tootsie” is such a story.  The man ’s moral flaw in Tootsie is that he mistreats women.  Every one of the opponents are different ways that men abuse women. 

These kinds of stories are a great way to supercharge your storytelling.  So get out a piece of paper (or turn your computer on) and begin to write down ideas for how your character might become entangled in one of these kinds of dilemmas.  Using the ten steps above, come up with a thematic line for your story and then weave the scenes into your tale. 

Always remember to include a Moral Argument Scene in your story. 


- Mark O'Bannon


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