Before you start writing, define your theme and storyline to help keep every part of your story focused in the same direction.
When someone asks you what a story is about, the simplest answer is to recite the plot and explain what happens. However, retelling the entire plot is what happens in the story, but what a story is really all about is its theme.
A story’s theme is it’s purpose. Many people use stories to make a point and teach a lesson. For example, almost every story in the Bible isn’t just meant to amuse us, but to teach us a lesson about life. This lesson is the story’s theme and essentially “proves” an idea.
Nearly everyone can interpret a movie with different themes, but look for the one overriding idea that permeates the entire story. In “Thelma and Louise,” the basic theme is that women usually get shafted in a men’s world. Knowing this, every scene supports and reiterates that theme.
Thelma is married to an overbearing husband, Louise was raped in Texas, Thelma was almost raped until Louise rescued her and shot her attacker. Thelma gets robbed by a hitchhiker who literally screws her over.
Every scene keeps emphasizing that women get screwed over by men. Whether you believe that or not is irrelevant. The point is that the theme makes sure that every scene supports the entire story. If “Thelma and Louise” wound up getting rescued by the good cop who is trying to save them, that would destroy the unity of the theme emphasized throughout the rest of the movie. As the good cop rushes to try to save them, the movie’s only satisfactory ending is for Thelma and Louise to go flying off the cliff.
Despite their deaths, this is a happy ending since the women are finally free from being screwed over by men.
The theme unifies your story so every scene helps tell the same consistent story. Imagine how disjointed “Thelma and Louise” would have been if halfway through the story, a handsome man appears and helps establish their innocence. This would make for a dull story because it wouldn’t fit with the other scenes that emphasize the idea about women getting screwed over in a man’s world.
The theme acts as a guidepost for every part of your story. When writing any scene, keep your theme in mind. The moment you stray from your theme, you’re writing the wrong story. The options are to either change the story you want to write or discard your scene and rewrite it to fit within your theme.
Think of your theme as your main idea. To convince an audience that your main idea is right, you need to tell a story that illustrates why your main idea is the proper way to behave or live.
Now your main story and your subplots are your supporting evidence. Your main story shows the right way to behave or live while your subplots show alternatives.
One way to interpret the theme in “WALL-E” is that “Love conquers all.” Through their accidental encounter with WALL-E, a man and a woman meet each other and even learn to enjoy themselves in a swimming pool, which is one of their first social activities that doesn’t involve staring into a computer screen. WALL-E helps bring love to two people and his pursuit of Eve keeps the story moving all the way through its midpoint where WALL-E and Eve get to dance around in space. Seeing WALL-E struggling inspires the spaceship captain to stand on his own two feet and confront Auto, the computer running the ship.
Similar to the theme is the storyline. The theme states a broad idea. The storyline defines a specific emotion or desire of the hero.
In “Die Hard,” the storyline is Bruce Willis’s desire to get back together with his wife. Throughout the movie, this storyline keeps popping up to remind us. When the head terrorist calls Bruce Willis and says he has someone he needs to talk to, Bruce Willis initially thinks it’s going to be his wife. This reminds us of the danger that his wife is in and reinforces the storyline that Bruce Willis wants to get back together with his wife.
Later as the news crew discovers who Bruce Willis’s wife really is and blows her cover to the terrorists, we see the danger that she’s in and we keep the story focused on the storyline, which is Bruce Willis is trying to get back with his wife.
The theme is the broad idea that your story will “prove” while your storyline is the specific way you’ll “prove” the theme. In “Die Hard,” the basic theme could also be “Love conquers all,” but while “WALL-E” focuses on spreading love and joy everywhere he goes, “Die Hard” focuses on one man trying to get back with his wife.
Your storyline is what your hero wants. Now every scene in your story must support that storyline. If a scene has nothing to do with the storyline, get rid of the scene (or rewrite your hero’s goal).
In “Die Hard,” the storyline is about a man who wants to get back together with his wife. How this will occur belongs to the specifics of the story. In “Die Hard,” the man has to battle terrorists. In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” Robin Williams is trying to get back with his kids (and his wife) but does it through impersonating a housekeeper. The storyline is basically the same as “Die Hard” (get back with his family) but the specific paths are wildly different.
What makes a story unique isn’t necessarily an original theme but an original storyline.
Your theme defines the overall tone of your story and your storyline defines how you’ll “prove” your theme. Now you just have to figure out how to tell a story creatively.