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Consider Using a Controlling Theme as Your Creative Sherpa

There are many ways to discuss and frame theme as a story tool. Writer Jay Thornton dives deep into the use of Controlling Theme to keep an audience engaged and on the edge of their seats.

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“Opinions are like assholes—everybody’s got one.” If social media’s any indication, that crass old adage hits the bullseye like Robin of Locksley splitting his own shaft to the oohs and aahs of spellbound spectators. As a professional screenwriter of minor repute my social network is populated with scribes of all stripe, from the lowly weekend warrior hobbyist to Oscar nominees and everything in between. What we seemingly disparate, motley band of key-strokers have in common is that there is no shortage of opinions amongst us. And, for better or worse, if one is to glean anything from observing the daily dust-ups in which these assholes—ahem, sorry… opinions—are oft revealed, it is that we, as obdurate and intransigent as we can be, have a lot to say.

But, for all of our soapboxing tweets and Facebook-blown wind… what, if anything, do our stories have to say? Or, rather, what do we have to say through our stories? This is where THEME comes in.

There are many ways to discuss and frame theme as a story tool. If prodded on what the theme of a given story is some will answer with a one-word utterance along the lines of “love” or “friendship” or “revenge.” Those are not themes. They are motifs. A theme is best conceived of and implemented as a dramatic question—such as “Is it better to have loved and lost or never to have loved at all?”—or, even better in my opinion, as a thesis: “It is better to have never loved at all than to have loved and lost” (be authorial—pick a side!). While Hegel’s musings on Tragedy are not tenets I would completely subscribe to, as his is in my understanding a rather staunch insistence that a protagonist must be wholly “good,” I do find tremendous utility in the way he crystallized theme in terms of Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis. Thesis being essentially an idea (tip: a provocative one always trumps a platitude in my opinion, with the exception perhaps of children’s fare), the Antithesis being an opposing idea by and through which the Thesis is challenged and honed and, finally, Synthesis—a closer approximation to objective Truth that has been meted out by sifting through the wreckage of these colliding diametrically oppositional ideas.

[Script Extra: Avoiding Cliché Characters and Actions]

Everyone of course not only has their own opinions on how to define and implement theme, but there are also quarrels on how vital a tool it is or isn’t in a writer’s utility belt in the first place—in effect, is it even worth quarreling about? I’ve been part and privy to countless social media melees on this front. Some very solid writers I know believe any faceted, compelling work will inherently be thematic in a myriad of ways, so it’s not something to focus on or overtly hammer into your story like Hephaestus heaving at the forge. Others believe it is the very lifeblood of storytelling, and why we are compelled to spin yarns in the first place—all these characters and plots are merely conduits and mechanisms through which to reveal what we see as the axioms under which reality operates, and that theme is the very foundation in expressing this.

I personally believe both camps are correct (synthesis, anyone?). If you have a distinct point of view on the world and can write compelling characters navigating at least somewhat complex plots, all sorts of themes can and will be distilled and extracted by the viewer. No matter the intended principal theme of a great film, a grad school class can pull from it untold themes with which to ballast untold dissertations. Meanwhile, for all a writer’s work in instilling a central theme, sometimes the unintended themes are the most provocative and compelling. For instance, while it’s easy to unearth the pat and likely intended themes of a film such as Forrest Gump, like Lynchian worms writhing under the surface of Gump’s white picket lawn there are other darker, more provocative themes to be teased out if one is to only stand on their desk and take the Dead Poets’ vantage. In a film constructed in large part on the motif of “Destiny” (with a capital “D”) Gump’s likely surface theme is readily conveyed in a line of dialogue uttered by his mother on her deathbed: “I happen to believe you make your own destiny. You've got to do the best with what God gave you.” However—and I must give props to a professor provocateur I had in college, Steve Matuszak—one can easily make a case that the insidious theme meted out by the somewhat fluffy film is in fact “Assimilate. Kneel to authority—do what you are told or you will be destroyed.” This darker, far less platitudinal (and dare I say much more truth-ringing) theme is evidenced in the action: pliable, obedient “Sir, yes sir!” Forrest, despite his somewhat limited faculties and maligned limbs, does as he is told and reaps the benefits; he travels the world, starts a successful business, gains a literal legion of followers modern social-media magnates could only hope to garner, becomes a loving father to a brilliant little boy—in short, he thrives. Doomed Jenny on the other hand—she represents the anti-authoritarian, status quo-questioning counter culture… and she gets fucking AIDs and dies.

This is all to reiterate that yes, no matter what your intended thematic message is in the story you’re telling, a thousand more subjective meanings will be extrapolated by your audience if you’re firing on all cylinders. This is a good thing. We’re weaving tapestries here, not milling paper. That said, I believe there is a case to be made for landing on a Controlling Theme that you purposefully implement from the outset (or at the very least in early drafts—it may take a couple passes to land on the one that perfectly pings the tuning fork). But make no mistake: this is not a call to subject your audience to spoonfed messages by way of obvious platitudes. Anything but. What I am suggesting is considering letting this Controlling Theme be a subterranean trojan horse sherpa that guides you through the process of telling your story, lending a subtle richness and texture to the audience experience and holding aloft a lantern to you, the creator, as you fjord the dark waters of story construction. Writing a story is nothing if not peering at a chess board and seeing all (or at least, hopefully, most) of the possible moves, and making the ones that place our pieces in the most peril while promising the most thrilling rewards. But making those choices can be paralyzing at times. There are so many ways to take a scene or story or character that it helps to have this guiding lighthouse of a very specific and, ideally, character-driven Controlling Theme.

[Script Extra: Novel Writing Tips for Screenwriters]

For example, in a calling card script of ours called "Mechanicsville" my brother and I chose to use “Blood is not thicker than water” as our Controlling Theme. In a Kentucky-fried neo noir about three at-odds brothers banding together to rob the local bank in their economically depressed town, this embedded thesis gave us a subtle, subversive tracer round shot through each scene that helped us make decisions and concoct character-driven story turns that carry us to a punishing but truthful summation, without relying on all of the more obvious, potentially hamfisted, preachy socio-economic and philosophical or political themes that are inherently baked into such a premise. Almost unanimously, it is this thematic element and character dynamic that people have responded to (this script got us repped at our first “big,” has scored us a shitload of meetings, led to assignments, been optioned if not produced, etc)—not the high concept twist in the premise (just so happens that as much as it stings for us, parallel development is a lot more fucked up for thieves than writers—an inside job is going down the day the brothers hit the bank), or the statements it has to make about wealth disparity and institutional corruption in this country.

In the end, what a reader and ultimately an audience are roped in by is not so much the plotted how—as important as the how is in keeping us engaged and on the edge of our seats—it’s the who (character) and the what (theme) that truly invests us in a story. Marrying the two and allowing that character-driven Controlling Theme to steer us creatively will help to ensure that there is real meat on them structural bones. Make your movie a meal, not a snack!

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