Using the Theme as a Story Guide

“The Lego Movie” is a huge hit that has a theme about how anyone can be special. When a movie has a strong theme and supports that theme with a compelling story, it usually creates a great movie. When a movie lacks a strong theme and/or creates a faulty story, it usually creates a mediocre or simply awful movie. A theme simply helps shape your story so you know what to include and what to avoid.

There are two parts to defining your story’s theme. First, ask yourself what do you believe? A theme is nothing more than a belief. In “The Lego Movie,” that theme is how even the most ordinary person can be special. Themes are often surprisingly simple. Even in a comedy like “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” the theme is that being successful really means pursuing your own life regardless of what other people might think.

A theme is an opinion. In “Thelma and Louise,” that theme might simply be that women live in a male-dominated world. Now notice that every action in the story supports that theme. In mediocre movies, the theme is either non-existent or the story doesn’t fully support that theme. Think of a bad movie like “Prometheus” and you’ll find a confused theme and an even more confused story that doesn’t know what theme to support.

A second part of a theme is to show the consequences of that theme, both good and bad. The hero represents the good side of the theme while the villain represents the bad side of the theme. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the theme is that each person’s life can affect others. The hero positively affects the lives of others while the villain negatively affects the lives of others. The consequences of the theme defines the hero and villain’s actions.

In “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” the theme is to live life on your own terms. The heroes think that their lives aren’t that great, so they make up a story that they’re more successful than they really are. Later they find out that the villain also made up a story to make herself look more successful than she really is too. The difference is that the heroes realize their flaw and decide to simply be themselves because they have fun and enjoy life being who they really are, regardless of what other people think of them. Meanwhile the villain remains trapped in her disappointing world because she doesn’t realize the story’s theme.

In “The Lego Movie,” the hero is an ordinary person who learns that anyone can be special if they simply look for what makes them different. The villain believes that only certain people have the right to be creative and everyone else has to follow the rules and avoid doing anything that could risk creating chaos. Your story’s theme literally defines the goals of your hero and villain, so without a strong theme, your story risks scattering its focus on anything but your theme, which creates a sloppy story.

In “Terminator 2,” the basic theme is that killing is wrong. The consequences of that theme appear in the hero by trying to prove that killing is wrong, while the villain’s whole goal is to kill. Try to write a story without a clearcut theme and do you think your hero’s goal and your villain’s goal will seem so closely related and dependent on each other?

A theme is an absolute must, no matter how simple or obvious it may seem to be. The theme shapes your entire story, especially your hero’s goal and your villain’s goal, so make sure you define your theme before you start writing. A theme guides your story. The lack of a theme gives you the freedom to tell an unfocused story, which will likely result in an unsatisfying story.

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