I’ve been studying story structure for some time now and I have to say, this is predominantly in screenwriting theory, that almost all the time, the learning process focuses on two aspects, the character’s main goal, and the plot. Current writing methods and available courses tend to revolve around the protagonist and their journey. Seems obvious, right? But, taking this route don’t be surprised if you end up with a series of disjointed events happening to someone for some reason.
Why is this? You may ask, well, I would say it’s mostly because there’s a misunderstanding about what the theme is and what is its impact on the story as a whole. Put it simply, the theme is everything, the characters, the events happening, even the decoration in the walls is a reflection of a core idea, repeating itself infinitely and giving the spectator a sense of “patterns” appearing again and again, talking to them about an idea the author is trying to convey.
Now ask yourself, but be truly honest about it… How can your story resonate with the audience if you don’t know what you’re talking about? Because you may come up with a plot that “makes sense”, especially if you’re reflecting on movies you’ve already seen. Maybe you’re telling yourself “I feel this is talking about something”, you may even feel there’s a pattern here and there, that’s great! But are you really in command of what’s going on? Are you discovering something intuitively or are you designing something like a creator?
Is there any way to be sure?
Of course! That’s the whole reason we’re talking about this, and K.M Weiland is here to give us a hand. In her book “Writing your Story’s Theme” she presents to us a template which we can use to figure out our story, but not using plot beats or prefixed structures, but by choosing our theme and using it to figure out these patterns, because these patterns are glimpses of the truth, we, as authors, want to convey.
So, let’s dive into this template as we also try to come up with a story to support the idea that it works!
The template goes like this…
Story’s Big Truth (main theme)
Your core theme idea is expressed as a premise. The universal principle of the story.
Example: Hope gives people a reason to live.
As you can see, it works best when you establish it as an intentional statement.
Story’s Big Lie
The flip side of the coin is the opposition to the big truth.
Example: Hope makes people suffer and waste their lives.
Now, as you can see, by choosing these two general aspects of your story, a theme expressed as a Big Truth and a counter theme expressed as a Big Lie, what you just did is define the conflict in the story.
This is important because, from this point forward, every time you’re thinking about conflict…
- Characters you choose and their involvement in the story.
- Character dialogues.
- Plot beats.
You have to keep in mind the decision you initially did with the Big Truth and the Big Lie. If, when adding something to the story, you’re not talking about these core elements, you’re drifting and wasting time and space.
Okay! Are you getting the idea? I hope you do. Let’s bring our initial statements back for a moment:
- Big Truth: Hope gives people a reason to live.
- Big Lie: Hope makes people suffer and waste their lives.
The template continues with…
Character’s specific Truth:
It’s any of the characters you choose a specific version of the Big Truth, and it’s specific regarding your story.
Main character’s truth:
“Hope can help you survive and be free from injustice”.
Character’s specific Lie:
This is one of the most important elements of your story, period. It is also known as “the lie the character believes”. It branches from the character’s ghost/wound and it’s the seed of their want, which is the pillar of the plot and the antagonist and the setting. So yeah, this may be the most important information you’ll use to build your story, so treat it as such!
But hey… ease up a bit on the pressure, is not like you’re putting all your life at risk by choosing, right?
Remember the Big Lie?
“Hope makes people suffer and waste their lives.”
Normally, the relation between the protagonist and the antagonistic forces depends on the type of story you want to convey. From a character POV there are only three types of stories:
- Positive Arc Story
- Negative Arc Story
- Flat Arc Story
We’re not going to talk about them at this point, let’s just state that according to our main character’s specific truth, we can infer that we’re dealing with a positive arc.
So, if we’re dealing with a positive arc, we have to start our journey from the polar opposite, from a negative place.
Now, what could be the negative of…
“Hope can help you survive and be free from injustice”.
“Hope can make you suffer and get you killed”.
The relation between the Big Truth and the Character’s specific truth is stated like this:
If generally “Hope gives people a reason to live”, then specifically, “Hope can help you survive and be free from injustice”.
Now, let’s do the same with the counterpart.
If generally “Hope makes people suffer and waste their lives”, then specifically, “Hope can make you suffer and get you killed”.
Great! We’ve already designed the core idea behind our conflict, the engine upon which all of our decisions and plot making will be based.
Next time we’ll continue our exercise, using Weiland’s template, to go deeper into our story, building upon this strong foundation and moving into more specific details that slowly but surely will help us deliver a powerful story, keeping our theme always in the back of our head as guidance in this treacherous journey of fiction writing.