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Monday, November 18, 2019

How to Add Dimension to Your Story's Theme

A lot of writers believe you cannot intentionally write to a theme. I completely disagree. And I'm suspicious that those who say that, just don't understand how to write to theme intentionally. They claim that if you do, you'll just become preachy. Sure, that can absolutely happen, but it only happens when you don't understand how theme actually works in a story.

You see, for a theme statement to be powerful, it needs to have opposition. Who cares if the tortoise in "The Tortoise and the Hare" wins, if he isn't racing the hare to begin with? No one. The thematic statement ("It's better to move forward at a steady pace than go so fast we burn ourselves out") is only powerful because we see it paired up with its opposite (the hare).

Often it's helpful to breakdown how theme functions, like I did in this article. But here is a quick recap.

Every story has a thematic statement.

A thematic statement is essentially the teaching of a story. So for the Good Samaritan, the thematic statement is, "We should love, be kind to, and serve everyone."

The Little Red Hen: If you don't contribute or work, you don't get the rewards of those efforts.

The Ant and the Grasshopper: If all we do is have fun and entertain ourselves, we won't be prepared for difficult times.

Harry Potter: Love is the most powerful force in the world

On a broader scope, we have a theme topic. The subject or topic about which something is taught. It's the concept, without the teaching attached. It's what the theme or story is "about," in an abstract sense.

Here are the theme topics of those stories:

The Little Red Hen: Contribution and work

The Ant and the Grasshopper: Preparation

Harry Potter: Love

In a strong story, the theme topic will be explored during the narrative, through plot or character or both. The story will ask (directly or indirectly) questions about the theme topic. This can happen through main characters and main plots, or side characters and subplots, or all of the above.

Often, in most stories, the protagonist's character arc starts an a false or inaccurate idea about the theme topic and ends on the true thematic statement. Example: Harry starts unloved and powerless, living in a cupboard. By the end, he's surrounded by supporters, and he's willing to sacrifice himself (the ultimate manifestation of love) to pave the way for Voldemort's defeat. 

Between the false thematic statement and the true thematic statement is the struggle that leads to transformation, or at least, demonstrates a point. 

Sounds great, right? But what do we put there? After all, that transition part of the story will take up most of the story, and so far, we only have black and white: false thematic statement vs. true thematic statement. I mentioned that the theme topic needs to be questioned and explored. And by the climax, it needs to be proven. Do we just reiterate the same false statement and true statement over and over?

Life is rarely so black and white. It's more complex.

To get ideas, it's helpful to give your theme topic more dimension.

Luckily, Robert McKee (who I've been re-studying, as you may have noticed) has a method that will help you do just that. He doesn't technically relate this to the term "theme," but he relates it to what he calls a story's "value," but I consider that concept nearly the same thing as "theme topic." (He's just coming at it from a different angle.) So, I'm going to show how it applies to theme.

I'll be honest, this was hard for me to wrap my head around, at first. But over time, the idea has become clearer to me.

So here is how this goes, from my perspective, in relation to theme (I've altered it slightly).

First, identify the theme topic of your story.

Then identify its opposite. Its contradiction.

From there, you have what he calls the "contrary." It's not really the theme topic's exact opposite, but it's not the theme topic either. It's contrary to the theme topic. It's not the thing, but it's not the direct contradiction of the thing. It's different, in some way.

Then we take it a step further. We look for something more negative than the negative. What is worse than the opposite? What is a step more extreme? McKee calls this the "negation of the negation."

 Let's fill this in with the theme topic of love, so you can see how this works.

The opposite of love is hate. Simple. But then it gets more complex. What is contrary to love? It's not the same, but it is not a direct opposite either.

 Indifference isn't love, but it's not really hate either. It's in between.

What is worse than hate? What is a step more negative? Or more extreme? What is the negation of the negation?

As McKee explains, it's one thing to be hated and to know it. But to actually be hated by those who you think love you? People who want to pretend they care about you, but actually wish and do you ill? Now that gives me shivers.

It's important to know that it's okay to come up with variations. Real life is complex, so there can be multiple answers. This is just an exercise to help give dimension to your theme topic.

For example, another negation of negation could be this:

If you think about it, hating yourself is even worse than hating other people, in some ways. You are always with yourself. You can never get away. Now that sounds like living H-E-double-hockey-sticks. And also, if you can't love yourself, you can't love other people, or at least, not as well.

When I was learning this method, I was super confused by how to come up with the negation of the negation. Part of it is because I've never had to practice that. I mean, who has? (I also altered these charts a little from McKee's version, to try to make it clearer.) Luckily, he literally gives over a dozen examples, and here is what I've learned to look for in a negation of negation:

- Deception. Something being bad is one thing. Something that's truly bad pretending to be good is even scarier.

- Self-damning. Having to work against a damning force is one thing. When you are damning yourself and don't see it or can't get out of it, you're screwed.

Grotesque or More Extreme. It's bad to murder people. To murder people then eat them? Bleegh, that seems too unnatural to even mention in this post! It's bad to torture people. But to torture children? Not even the scuzziest criminals will let that slide.

Here are some other examples.

Theme topic: Truth

If you are believing your own lies? Well, you're never going to get to truth.

Theme topic: Freedom

 What do you mean North Koreans are enslaved? They love their country!

Theme topic: Justice

Sure, we all need to obey the law. But some of us can change the law whenever we want.

Now, I want to acknowledge that in some stories, the theme topic may be an inherently "negative" value. Maybe the true theme topic isn't justice, but injustice. In cases like that, I think it's still probably best to start with the "positive" value.

If you are still confused, no worries. I had to think and play with this for several days until I got it down. And don't forget, you can have variations, or perhaps, even more than one answer.

In a future book I want to write, I'm pretty sure the theme topic is going to be "control." Here is how my chart looks.

Responsibility is similar to control, but not the same. If you are responsible for something or someone, that doesn't necessarily mean you have full control over it. So I put it for the contrary.

What's worse than things being out of your control?

You being out of your control. What if you lose control of your own actions? Or your own thought patterns?

Alternatively, I also came up with this variation.

Authority is similar to responsibility, but not exactly the same thing. Maybe I want that value to be my contrary. Heck, or maybe I want to explore both concepts.

And likewise, what's also scary is when you have perceived control. We all want to believe we have some control over our own lives. What if in reality, you thought you did, but you didn't? And all your choices were actually meaningless, or perhaps worse, someone else was being your puppet master the whole time? Maybe I want to explore both of those alongside a lack of self-control. Maybe I want to explore all those values. After all, this is just an exercise to help me come up with them.

And if I wanted to take this further, I could look at a secondary theme topic to generate ideas. Most novels have more than one theme. Love is the primary theme of Harry Potter, but choice is a secondary theme.

A secondary theme I see emerging with my future book is sacrifice. So I might brainstorm this.

Interestingly, I can look at how these play into the values of control. If people are self-indulgent, they lack self-control. If someone has authority or responsibility over something, they may need to make sacrifices or compromises. Or maybe someone thinks they are controlling an outcome by making a sacrifice, but in reality, something higher up is in control, rendering the sacrifice meaningless--now that's painful.

Once you've brainstormed four slots of your theme topic, you have plenty of dimension to explore, plenty of hard questions to ask, during the middle/struggle/transition part, which makes up most of the story. (And this may be doubly true if you incorporated a secondary theme topic.)

So how do we get that into the actual text?

Well, like I said before, through plot and character. It will be the main plot and main characters, but can also be subplots and side characters.

I recently saw The Little Mermaid musical, which varies a bit from the movie, but is similar enough. So I'm going to use it as an example.

The theme topic of The Little Mermaid is belonging. From the beginning, Ariel feels drawn to the surface, in fact, she's already convinced she belongs up there.

Here is what our chart might look like.

But despite aching to live on the surface, Ariel begins stuck under the sea, where her desires leave her isolated and alienated from her own kind, even her own family. She starts in a state contrary to the thematic statement.

In order to feel isolated--like you don't belong--you have to be around people who don't understand you. Cue Triton, who despite being her only parent and favoring Ariel above his other daughters, understands her least of all the characters. This brings in father and daughter conflict that escalates through the first act.

But other characters tolerate Ariel and/or her fascinations with humans. Sure, she has friends, but none of them are her own species. Sure, others understand that she likes human things, but they don't share her need to be a part of them. Even her sisters, who dislike her, ultimately tolerate her to some extent. But toleration, even when well meaning, is ultimately weaker than belonging. Flounder says too much; Sebastian betrays her collection.

What about the negation of the negation? What about when people feel they are elite? Supreme over others? They don't want to belong to something. They want to rule over something. Ursula fits that. She preys on unfortunate souls. In the musical, she sings about how she killed all her sisters to try to get the throne. She is the negation of the negation.

And the plot moves through all these characters. As Ariel feels like she belongs with Eric, those who tolerate, alienate, and want to rule over her, all react in their appropriate ways, creating more conflict. As the story progresses, Ariel moves permanently into the positive value. She belongs on the surface, with Eric.

On Halloween, I watched Signs with my family. I know some people hate that movie (*cough cough* Blake Snyder from Save the Cat *cough*), but we love it! Afterwards, I made a theme topic chart of it.

The protagonist, Graham, used to have faith, but at the start of the story, he's faithless. By the end of the story, his faith is restored. In between faith and faithless fits agnostic. It's neither fully one or the other. While no one character embodies that value, it's still explored and questioned near the midpoint of the story (interesting, since it's a great transitional state to be in, smack in the middle of the story), in a conversation between Graham and Merril.

What's the negation of the negation? Well, not having faith is one thing, but when you don't have faith in yourself, you're screwed. How can you do anything if you don't believe at least a little you can? Graham hits this point when he doesn't believe any of them will survive the night. He doesn't have hope or faith in anything anymore. Not even himself or his loved ones. Notice this is around plot point 2, which is technically the "Dark Night of the Soul" moment for protagonists.

Unlike The Little Mermaid, in Signs, separate characters don't embody each value, but by the end of the movie, we've encountered all four as the plot unfolds.

Often in the plot, the values will escalate. We might go from the topic, to the contrary, to the contradictory, to the negation of the negation, before finishing back on the topic.

Coco does this well.

Theme topic: Remembrance

Remembering someone on the Day of the Dead is intentional.

Indifference is when you recall them, but don't really care about them.

Forgetting is when you unintentionally don't remember someone.

And intentional erasure is when you want someone to be forgotten.

At the beginning of the movie, the family is all getting ready to remember their ancestors for the Day of the Dead. But drawn to music, Miguel is indifferent to this, even when they try to explain it to him.

He ends up in the land of the dead, where, at the midpoint, he learns that there is a second death, one that happens when the living no longer remember you. This is a real death, and why Hector, in part, is frantic about being remembered by the living.

As the story moves toward plot point two, we learn that Ernesto de la Cruz is doing the worst of the worst--he's intentional trying to erase Hector from history!

By the time Miguel returns home, all of the values have been reconciled back to the first. He is no longer indifferent. He keeps Coco from forgetting her father. And within a year, everyone knows the truth about Hector's role in history.

Interestingly, all of this is foreshadowed through the characters before the inciting incident.

It's important to note that you do not have to go in that escalating order to write a powerful story. Lots of successful stories don't.

The point is to hit and explore different values of your theme topic. When you do that, the true thematic statement will shine all the brighter. A lot of people forget to consider the negation of the negation, which is really, the end of the line, the worst of the worst, and including it can really strengthen a story. Remember, it's the struggle and transformation that make the it powerful.


  1. Thanks for this September. The diagrams help those of us who are visual to better understand the concept.


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