Okay, so you’ve found your story’s theme. But isn’t that just a bunch of feely mumbo-jumbo? It’s not going to help you put scenes on paper, is it?
(spoiler alert: it is)
Once you understand theme = character arc and vice versa, writing becomes so much easier. Why? Because, remember – theme is your glue. It’s how you get all the little bits and pieces to stick together instead of falling apart.
(Calm down – I said easier, not easy!)
While theme is great for analyzing stories at the macro level – charting character arc or structuring plot – theme is just as useful in the micro, when writing scenes. How?
So glad you asked!
Do you remember when we talked about conflict? Conflict is story. But when I tell people that every scene should have conflict, I sometimes get skeptical looks. Really? Every scene? Isn’t that a bit … contrived?
Rightfully so, authors don’t want to press “fake” conflict into a scene. We’ve seen this done poorly – forced arguments (especially due to improbable miscommunication), random crisis, pointless detours and gratuitous tragedies. But what makes these bad examples feel “fake” or “forced”? It’s because they’re serving up conflict for the sake of conflict and not conflict for the sake of character.
Remember “change or die”? Conflict is how you present these choices to your character. So when writing your scene, not only should the scene should have conflict, it should have conflict relevant to the theme.
In Toy Story, after Woody accidentally knocks Buzz out of the window, the other toys – the ones who respected or even worshipped him in the opening act – turn on Woody and condemn him for Buzz’s “murder”. This is escalating conflict that challenges the core of who Woody is – a toy who needs to be admired by others.
When Woody is reunited with Buzz in the Dinoco parking lot, he knows that he can’t return to Andy’s room unless he can prove Buzz is alive. In order to get what he wants, he’s forced to “change” (or at least pretend to have changed) and rely on Buzz to help him get home.
Everything Woody & Buzz face along the way – Sid, who doesn’t love his toys, the scary mutant toys in Sid’s room, getting left behind on moving day – are thematic elements that correlate Woody’s deepest fears of being unloved, obsolete and abandoned. 20 years later, there’s a reason this movie has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes!
Stay tuned. In my next post, we’ll look at how theme shapes character!