K.M Weiland’s TEMPLATE to create the backbone of a story using THEME (1st part).

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.
  • Setting
  • Etc.

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.

Example:

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”.

                                                                          Maybe…

                                                                                         “Hope can make you suffer and get you killed”.

Look closely…

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.

A QUICK REVIEW of the 4 most important CHARACTERS in a STORY.

Thinking about the theme of a story, there are many ways to go about finding and choosing the characters that will traverse the plot in order to shape our premise through their respective arcs. So, what better than to review the 4 most important characters you’ll ever use in storytelling to wrap up this whole character/theme chapter.

Let’s do it!

But, who are these important characters we’re talking about?

  • The protagonist
  • The antagonist
  • The sidekick
  • The love interest

Now, let’s quickly review them one by one, first we’ll go about those who we’ve extendedly discussed in previous entries, so we’ll just briefly discuss them.

  1. THE PROTAGONIST: represents the main thematic principle, meaning that their emotional journey, which is also the main engine of the story, culminates in the realization of the thematic truth.
  2. THE ANTAGONIST: Represents the flipside of the protagonist’s thematic principle.

Okay, so we already knew a lot about those two, but what about the others?

Let’s see!

3. THE SIDEKICK: Proves the value of the protagonist’s thematic principle, mostly through reflection, which is important because of its differences from the protagonist and makes a strong argument as to why the protagonist has to fight and win.

4. THE LOVE INTEREST: Functions as an impact character, someone who guides the protagonist. They do this by symbolically rewarding (drawing nearer to) or punishing (drawing away from) the protagonist, depending on how aligned the protagonist is with the story’s truth.

That’s it!

And just to give a proper ending to this topic, let’s remember that characters often work not towards a real solution but to a perceived solution. Also, characters frequently grapple with a problem that is ultimately recognized as only a symptom of the real problem.

How to use THEME to build SUPPORTING CHARACTERS that add to your TRUTH.

There’s something to say about supporting characters, think about it as conversations. Yeah, conversations, you know? Like when you’re having problems and you go and ask someone else. They will reflect upon your problem, find their own take on it and offer it back for you to understand a different approach to it.

At their core, supporting characters do exactly this, they support your truth, they expand upon it, offer nuance and possibilities.

They’re the greatest opportunity a writer has to deepen the complexity, maturity and subliminal power of your story’s thematic premise. Just remember, the biggest the character’s role in the story, the more explicit its relationship with the theme should be.

Yet, any character you introduce is an opportunity to reflect upon the theme.

Let’s take for example the following theme.

Being brave no matter what is the key to conquer fear

We have our protagonist, they’re coward, right? That wound would place them as far from the thematic truth as possible (the farther the deeper the conflict).

So, which type of supporting characters could we use to expand upon the theme?

  • A character who doesn’t experience fear for example, are they brave?
  • A character who lost the battle against fear, what can they tell about the theme?
  • A character who battles blindly because of fear, this one can also guide us to be precise in what we choose to battle.

As you can see, allowing each character to approach the subject from different angles gives you a plethora of material to play with in exploring every aspect of your theme.

Just keep your thematic question in mind before deciding upon them. In our case would be something like…

“Is bravery enough to conquer fear?”

Now, are all of your supporting characters answering this question in some way or another? Usually, some of them should argue for it, others should argue against it.

Simplifying the theme into a question gives you the possibility of using the supporting characters to reflect upon it, offering various answers.

One key aspect of supporting characters and their relation with the protagonist, stands from the inherent idea of the protagonist’s arc being the living proof of the thematic premise. Because of this, every other iteration of the truth, meaning all other reflections supporting characters offer, is considered to be a deviation in the protagonist’s path to the truth.

Now, about characterization, you really need to make sure your character’s personal mindsets are demonstrated in scene level, their actions influencing the plot. Pay attention to their scene motivation, their reason to be there (as characters), which stands from their desires.

You should at least give them desire and a plan of action for how they’re going to obtain their goals. And also keep in mind that, most of the time, their goals become serious resistance to the protagonist’s own goals.

Before you get all stressed about it (why should you, aren’t you a writer?) take into consideration that for the vast majority of supporting characters, you can get away with hitting just two major beats:

The setup; introduction of their lie/flaw/want (goal).

The payoff; a hint at their moment of truth.

In conclusion; at the deepest of story levels, the minor characters are there to provide thematic representation of your protagonist’s various fates.

Snake Eyes (2021)

I’m gonna be honest here, I don’t care for GI Joe, I don’t know anyone who cares for GI Joe. To me this is a dead franchise (if it ever was alive). I’m gonna go even further, I remember watching those Gi Joe cartoons as a child, they sucked. No really, I mean these “soldiers” were competing for my attention with some crazy transforming robots, with two different dudes holding a sword, and a bit later with all kinds of Japanese craziness. So, let’s be clear, I don’t like Gi Joe cartoons and stuff, even the toys sucked in comparison with all the others. But… all that said, Snake eyes is a good movie, especially when has nothing to do with Gi Joe, truth is Gi Joe ruins the movie, tones it down, makes it dumber than it has to be and, in the process, kills the creative drive of the production team (this is so palpable through the third act of the movie). And the film has so many good things going on! It’s almost unconceivable that they butchered this action-packed film by adding stupid stuff like giant snakes???? It almost t feels like two different stories nearing the midpoint, where the cobra logo is revealed (a logo that no terrorist organization with any self-proud would use).

Anyway, let’s start from the top, shall we? So, what’s the movie about? Okay, it’s about this dude, Snake eyes, I mean the protagonist. He, as a child, gets to see his father being assassinated and makes a run for it in the middle of the forest at night (more on this a bit later) in the most awful first sequence I can remember in any film. Expository dialogue of the worst kind and cliché stuff all over the place. But I understand it’s workings, because at minute 10 you already know what’s all about (or you think you do). So, in ten minutes the movie sets a revenge path for Snake Eyes, the dude, and then moves some many years into the future without even explaining how the hell a little kid even makes it out alive in the middle of a forest, or how does he manage to stay alive with literally no more family and allies (cause the movie also tells us that the father erases the kid from records to protect him from ugh, Cobra). And I know I’m being a dick about it, I actually remember an interview of Tarantino when he talks about “There will be blood” by Paul Thomas Anderson, he says that he likes the first part of the movie, yet he doesn’t understand how the protagonist survives alone in the desert after breaking his leg falling into a pit, kinda the same thing here. But anyway, the kid grows and now has become a regular cast from Mortal Kombat. He enjoys/works beating people to a pulp, which earns him the opportunity of being scouted by the bad guys. Yet being with the bad guys, Snake Eyes fails to kill a dude which becomes his ally and then a number of plot twists start happening (I’m not gonna talk about it because this is the best part of the movie by far).

So, the story literally dies by the mid-point, the part (as I already said) where the Gi Joe stuff gets forcibly thrown into the plot and instantly destroys everything. And it’s so awful because we just come from an amazing action sequence between the three mayor characters of the movie and the villain’s army, the villain himself even makes an appearance here. I have to talk about the amazing camera work in this part, the action is top notch. And not only on this particular sequence, but since the beginning (and ending where we discussed) all fights are raw and violent, almost too violent for a ugg… Gi Joe movie. There’s Thai action vibe going on all over the place, some Tony Jaa mixed with John Woo style of direction, just really engaging and entertaining stuff. Which later on gets lost into the stablishing the franchise bullshit that ruins everything. I mean, the second half of the movie is so bad that it even adds a jewel that turns people to ashes instantly and the before mentioned giant fake snakes. Some betrayals here and there, more action sequences of the boring and no stakes kind and we get to the ending where the two main guys change roles, because everyone knows that Snake Eyes is the good one and Storm Shadow is the bad one, right? (actually who cares!)

There’s only one thing I want to add before ending this review/rant, I heard somewhere that in the really great movies the plot points are hidden and are difficult to find or to spot when they’re happening. In this case they’re so obvious that a snob writer would say “this movie sucks” without hesitating. Yet for me this is not the case, I mean everyone knows the hero’s journey, it works, okay? It’s kinda childish? Yes, but it hits the right emotional spots every time and Snake Eyes does this really good, until some stupid logo gets thrown into the mix and it becomes Hiroshima all over again. So, should you watch this movie? Yes, but beware of the dumb stuff.

Halcyon Days (Chapter I)

EXT. ROAD IN THE MIDDLE OF THE MOUNTAINS – NIGHT

Echoes of drifting wheels, to one side and to the other. A faint light is lit in the intense darkness.

As we get closer, the light reveals the outline of the street, the rows of trees around it.

It’s a winding road through a mountainous and tree-covered area, seen from the heights.

The light comes from the headlights of a BLUE NISSAN ALTIMA.

We continue to approach from the heights, the echo of a violent blow, the car crashes against the protective barriers and falls in the middle of the forest.

We keep descending, the car crashes into a tree. The horn sounds without stopping.

There’ s a person lying on the grass, bleeding.

We get closer.

To WILL (47), cuts on his face, shards of glass on his body, breathing hard, his eyes still, open.

CUT TO:

OVER BLACK: HALCYON DAYS

INT. BEACH HOUSE KITCHEN – DAY

The waves calmly hit the shore of the beach and recede, their sound is heard faint, low. The image of bluish tones is contemplated by Will from the window partially fogged.

Steam escapes from the neck of the kettle.

Will pours two cups, arranged on the table. He removes the bread from the toaster, places it on the plates.

EXT. OUTSIDE THE BEACH HOUSE – DAY

The door of the house opens and hits the frame, driven by the sea wind. Will comes out covered by a blanket, his bare feet in the sand.

He walks across the sand, ahead, near the shore of the beach, a small boat.

The crests of the waves rise. Cloudy, flat sky.

Will takes a deep breath, turns and looks back.

In the kitchen window of the weathered white wooden house he can see SOPHIA (45) with a cup in her hands. Next to her, CHRIS (8) waves effusively.

Will smiles, continues walking through the sand. He reaches the boat, leaves the blanket inside.

Then pushes the boat into the water, pushes hard against the onslaught of the waves.

He manages to get into the depths, until he can no longer stand up underwater.

Will climbs into the boat, takes the oars and places them in their positions.

He forcefully pushes himself out to sea, paddling again and again, pulling away with each embrace. Until the coast is no longer visible.

The boat stops in the middle of the sea.

Silence.

Will wipes the condensed water from his nose. He picks up the net from the floor, prepares to throw it into the water.

Suddenly.

A slight whistling sound catches Will’s attention, he looks around, he can see nothing but the calm sea.

The whistling intensifies.

From above. Will looks up at the cloudy sky. Nothing.

The whistling intensifies even more.

The clouds open up, a fireball pierces the sky, its downward trajectory takes it towards the sea.

Will watches in amazement, following the rapidly descending fireball until it hits the surface of the water.

The blow causes a wave, which comes rushing towards the boat.

Will has no time to hold on to the boat, the wave hits him and throws him into the water.

As the wave passes, Will returns to the surface, grabs the edge of the boat and climbs back up.

Looking up at the impact site, Will can see a SPACE SHUTTLE floating on the surface of the sea.

CUT TO:

FLASHBACK

EXT. OUTSIDE WILL’S HOUSE – NIGHT

Will’s car pulls up to the curb, he gets out, waves to a neighbor who is walking his dog.

Will walks up to the house, a BLUE NISSAN ALTIMA is parked in the driveway.

Will sighs, walks over to the driver’s window. Inside the Nissan sits Sophia, with both hands on the steering wheel.

Will knocks on the window twice, Sophia lowers it.

WILL
Honey, when did you get out?

SOPHIA
Don’t talk to me that way.

WILL
I just want to know.

Sophia turns to look at Will.

SOPHIA
I’m fine.

WILL
You don’t look fine.

SOPHIA
I just want to talk, okay?

Will nods, he looks to the side, tries to contain his emotions.

SOPHIA
Can you get in the car?

WILL
Why?

SOPHIA
Please.

Will takes a deep breath, walks around the Nissan.

Gets in the passenger side.

WILL
What do you want to talk about?

Sophia starts the engine, the Nissan backs into the street, drives away from the house.

END OF FLASHBACK

CUT TO:

EXT. BEACH SHORE – DAY

The tip of the boat hits the shore of the beach. Will jumps onto the sand, runs toward the house.

WILL
Sophia!

Will stumbles on a mound of sand, but manages to keep his balance.

WILL
Sophia, come out!

He looks toward the—

BEACH HOUSE

Where Sophia walks out the door.

SOPHIA
What happened?

Sophia looks at Will, looks towards the boat, where an ASTRONAUT, with a helmet covering the face, is lying down.

WILL
Come help me! Quick!

Sophia covers her chest with the sides of her vest, crosses her arms, walks towards Will with a serious look on her face.

Will runs back to the boat, grabs the astronaut from behind, tries to lift him up. Sophia reaches the boat.

WILL
He’s unconscious.

SOPHIA
Where did you find him?

WILL
He fell from the sky, take his feet.

Sophia grabs the astronaut by the feet, Will pulls and manages to lift him up. They both pull him out of the boat.

SOPHIA
What are you going to do with him?

Will looks at Sophia in confusion.

WILL
Help him.

Sophia looks away, both continue to move across the sand and toward the house.

(To be continued…)