What if there was a critical story element – an adhesive – that could patch story holes, connect tangential elements, and make sure the story “sticks” with the audience?
That “Magic Story Adhesive” exists, and it’s called theme!
My favorite definition is this…
Plot: What Happens
Theme: What It’s About
Plot is the physical elements of action in the story. The bones. Theme is the ligaments that hold the bones together and make sure they move in unison.
One of the easiest-to-spot examples of theme is in every iteration of Spider-Man. What does Uncle Ben say? With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility. In subsequent reboots, it’s actually been a little hilarious to watch the scriptwriters try to rephrase this very bluntly stated theme in different ways.
Although Spider-Man is about a fifteen-year-old from Queens acquiring the amazing powers of a spider, it’s really about Peter learning to use his power in a good and responsible way. Everything Peter faces – longing to avenge his Uncle’s death, lying to his Aunt, juggling love life, schoolwork and superheroism – adhere thanks to theme.
There’s a lot of talk about “the same, but different”, and finding your “unique voice”. But what does this really mean? What it means is that even though stories are really just the same tropes, reassembled in different ways (TV Tropes taught us that), you can still write a fresh, emotionally resonant story – even using elements we’ve seen 100 times.
Your plot may center around robots, cowboys, earthquakes or quests, but theme is what gives those robots, cowboys, earthquakes and quests meaning. And meaning is what we all crave.
In Hollywood, movies with the widest audience appeal are called “four-quadrant” films, because they reach all four marketing quadrants (male <18, female <18, male >18, female >18).
Have you ever wondered how Pixar manages to consistently produce box-office smashes? Pixar gets theme! And I believe the secret to their four-quadrant success they mostly produce adult themes in family-friendly packages. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some Pixar’s thematic elements.
Plot: Talking fish go on a journey
Theme: Fatherhood, specifically helicopter parenting
Plot: A family of superheroes fights a vengeful villain
Theme: “Specialness” and insecurity, examined through Bob’s mid-life crisis
Plot: Talking fish go on another journey
Theme: Special Needs
Plot: Two robots try to save humanity
Theme: Consumerism; people are more important than objects
Plot: A talking racecar must win a big race
Theme: “Life’s better in the slow lane”, loss of small-town Americana
Plot: An old man and a cub scout venture to South America
Theme: “Adventure is the people you love”, examined through the death of Carl’s wife
And of course the flagship Toy Story, which manages to tell a story about mortality and the meaning of life with talking toys. (If you think Toy Story isn’t existential, go back and watch the scene in the 3rd movie where the toys descend slowly into the trash incinerator and come to terms with their own mortality. #THANKSPIXAR)
“Adult” doesn’t mean inappropriate, and this doesn’t mean that every children’s story must have adult characters or themes. But Pixar’s success does make the point that great stories aren’t just about cowboy dolls, talking fish, robots or superheroes.
In following posts we’ll look at practical ways to apply theme to writing process. For now, challenge yourself. Can you separate plot from theme in your own writing? You may know what you’re writing about, but what are you writing about? The answer is often deeply personal, and may surprise you.
Was this post helpful? Share it with your friends! And stay tuned for Theme #2 – Story Heart.