Every story defines an initial, unresolved problem for the hero that will never get resolved until near the end. The story’s theme then defines the root of this initial, unresolved problem.
In “Back to the Future,” the hero’s initial, unresolved problem is that he lacks confidence in himself. Thus the theme is that you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. That means to solve the initial, unresolved problem, the hero must eventually understand and embrace the story’s theme. The initial, unresolved problem and its eventual solution defines the framework for the entire story.
In “Back to the Future,” then hero’s unresolved problem about lacking confidence in himself first appears when he tries to audition to play at the school dance but gets rejected. Then this problem gets reinforced when the hero tells his girlfriend that he think he’s not good enough.
In the end, this problem gets resolved when he finally plays his guitar at his parents’ school dance. Then he discovers that by gaining confidence in himself, he’s helped his parents gain confidence in themselves as well, changing the entire family’s lives.
Every story needs a clear, but not always obvious unresolved problem that the hero wants to resolve. Only after going through the bulk of the story can the hero eventually learn to resolve this initial problem. By framing the initial problem, its resolution, and the underlying theme, you can define the entire framework for your story.
This is how the initial problem, its resolution, and the theme define the following movies:
“Beauty and the Beast”
- Initial problem: A prince gets cursed by an enchantress for being selfish and uncaring.
- Resolution: The prince finally falls in love with the hero and breaks the spell.
- Theme: “Love is about caring for another person.”
- Initial problem: The hero (Rose) feels she has no control over her life.
- Resolution: The hero realizes that she can take control of her life.
- Theme: “You can live the life you want.”
- Initial problem: The hero (Joe) wants to be a professional jazz musician.
- Resolution: The hero becomes a jazz musician, but also gains an appreciate for the little things in life.
- Theme: “You can achieve your dreams, but don’t forget to enjoy the journey to your dream as well.”
The initial problem and its resolution defines where the story begins and where it’s going to end. Then the theme shows the eventual emotional resolution the hero must finally embrace at the end.
Study a favorite movie and identify the initial problem that the story poses. Then identify how that initial problem gets resolved. Finally, identify the story’s theme. Notice that the initial problem and its resolution are clear, and that the theme can be easily understood.
Now pick a mediocre movie like “Don’t Worry Darling,” “Downsizing,” or “Nope.” Does it define a clear, initial problem? Does it offer a clear resolution to this initial problem? Is there a theme that the hero eventually adopts? If not, that’s a huge clue that the mediocre movie is mediocre because it’s lacking a clear problem, a satisfying resolution, and an underlying theme that ties together every conflict in the story.
By just defining the initial problem, its resolution, and the theme, you can shape a large part of your story before writing anything else. That framework will simply help you create a structured story that can increase your chances of success.