Define a Theme to Create a Stronger Story

One common mistake writers make when coming up with a story is they focus solely on the plot. Even if you have the most original idea, plot alone can only work on a simplistic level. Once people have seen the plot, they’re far less likely to want to see it again.

Compare that with classic movies that people willingly watch over and over again. People know the ocean liner is going to sink in “Titanic” and they know the the hero will survive a dangerous mission in “Top Gun: Maverick.” The reason why people watch their favorite movies multiple times is because they want to relive the experience of the story.

What makes a story interesting isn’t just the physical action involving stunts, car crashes, sex, or gunfire. What makes a story interesting is how every element of this tory works as a unified whole to tell one story. When a story has a strong theme, everything in that story must support that theme.

When different elements fail to support the same theme, a story feels disjointed, bloated, and unfocused. However, when every element in a story supports the same theme, a story suddenly feels focused. Even though audiences might not be aware of this storytelling technique, they can sense it subconsciously and know what a story is focused and when it is scattered and disjointed.

In “The Black Phone,” the theme is that part of growing up involves standing up for yourself. To emphasize this idea of standing up for yourself, the hero is a young boy who gets beaten up by bullies at school, gets emotionally abused by his alcoholic father, and longs to get to know a girl he likes but is too shy and self-conscious to talk to her. 

Notice how everything in the story works against the hero standing up for himself? Now to make matters even worse and force the hero to act, a serial killer kidnaps the hero and traps him in a basement prison. With time running out, the hero has no choice but to learn to stand up for himself or the serial killer will murder him. 

What if the idea for “The Black Phone” consisted of nothing more than a serial killer who abducts a kid and imprisons him in a basement? Without a theme to guide the story, all the other problems the hero faces would likely not highlight the same idea, which would create a disjointed and unfocused story. However, once you know the theme is about standing up for yourself, then every problem reflects this single idea, which creates a unified and emotionally satisfying story.

Pick a favorite movie like “Barbie” or “Soul” and you’ll see that every problem the hero faces reflects the same theme. Then pick a poorly rated movie and study the problems the hero faces. Most likely the problems either don’t reflect the theme or the theme is missing altogether. Take away the theme from a story and you literally rip the foundation of that story away, leaving nothing behind.

This is why a movie filled with lots of action (“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” or “Fast X”) can overwhelm us with special effects but still leave us feeling emotionally empty five seconds after the latest special effect is over.

So make sure your story has a theme and that everything in your story supports that theme. The plot doesn’t exist just to entertain an audience but to externalize the real problem your hero must face. When a story does that, it delivers a unified, coherent experience that audiences subconsciously recognize and enjoy.

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