The Theme Defines The Core Conflict of Every Story

Some stories can be exciting just by showing a lot of visual action. Unfortunately, most stories need more than endless amounts of action. With every story idea, ask yourself what’s the point of your story. That point will likely be your theme.

Study any James Cameron movie (“Titanic,” “Terminator 2”, “Avatar”, etc.) and you’ll always see lots of action but also a strong, underlying theme. Action doesn’t exist solely for visual effects but to force the hero into making a choice based on the theme.

In “Terminator 2,” the hero (the good Terminator) starts off as a killing machine, but by the end of the story, he learns the value of human life. Thus the theme is that life is precious.

That means the hero’s inner conflict is whether to embrace killing or protecting life.

Every theme defines the hero’s dilemma. In “Terminator 2,” that dilemma is whether killing can be justified or if killing is never justified. Every obstacle the hero faces forces him to make that choice.

“Hacksaw Ridge” is another movie with a strong theme of not killing. The hero of “Hacksaw Ridge” has refused to touch a gun in boot camp, yet by refusing to do so, he risks getting courtmartialed, which will keep him from marrying his fiancĂ©.

The dilemma pulling him to touch a gun looks like the easy way out. The dilemma of not touching a gun and risk getting courtmartialed and losing his fiancé looks like the hard way out. Yet the hero constantly chooses the hard way out.

That’s the purpose of a theme, to define the two extremes of the hero’s dilemma. This singular dilemma underlies the conflict for the entire story. Once you know the story’s underlying conflict, you’ll never risk writing action that doesn’t support that conflict because you’ll know it doesn’t fit your story.

Watch a bad movie with lots of pointless action (“The 355”) and you’ll see that more action is never the answer. Then watch a great movie like “Hacksaw Ridge” or “Terminator 2” to see how action, centered around a unified theme, makes every story far more interesting.

Dilemmas are the heart of your theme. Use them to define the single inner conflict in your hero from start to finish.

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