Use the Theme as a Guideline for Conflict

What do all great movies have in common? It’s not the direction, special effects, or acting, but the underlying theme that defines the entire story. Without a definite theme, even if the audience isn’t aware of it, a story cannot be emotionally satisfying.

Think of every movie you’ll gladly watch over and over again even though you’ve seen it dozens of times. Chances are good you’re not watching that movie just for the directing, acting, or special effects, but for the emotional impact that movies gives you. That emotional impact comes from the story’s theme.

Once you know a story’s theme, you automatically know all the emotional conflict. “Terminator 2” and “Hacksaw Ridge” both have strong themes that life is worth protecting. As a result, both movies constantly force the hero into situations where they must choose between killing or not killing. The trick is that killing is the easy solution while not killing is the harder solution and that creates additional conflict.

In “Hacksaw Ridge,” the hero is a pacifist in the US Army. During boot camp, he refuses to touch a gun so initially he’s just ridiculed, then he’s threatened with getting kicked out and finally he’s threatened with a court martial. To make matters worse, he’s about to get married so if he gets courtmartialed, he’ll be unable to marry the woman he loves.

Notice how the physical conflict isn’t as crucial as the emotional conflict? The physical conflict is important only because of the emotional conflict.

In a later scene in “Hacksaw Ridge,” the hero is on a battlefield without a gun and enemy soldiers are trying to shoot and kill him. That’s bad enough, but that physical conflict is made even worse by his refusal to pick up a gun to shoot anyone else. Because the theme in “Hacksaw Ridge” is about not killing, every physical conflict forces the hero to choose the hard solution of not killing and suffering the consequences as a result.

A strong theme literals guides your story to make it easy to see what belongs and what does not. Without a strong theme, it’s easy to pile on more and different physical action until nothing seems unified. That’s the typical Hollywood approach.

A far better solution is to identify a story’s theme and then use that theme to focus every part of the story. If a scene’s conflict does not challenge the hero by the story theme, then that scene needs rewriting or deleting.

Use your story’s theme to focus your story. Without it, your story risks floundering in all different directions and you won’t know why it’s not working.

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