Whenever you try to take control of your story themes, does it feel as elusive as the Holy Grail? In this post, I’ll share principles to develop your story’s external, internal, and philosophical themes.
The Relationship between Characters, Plot, Theme, and Structure
A symbiotic relationship exists between characters, plot, theme, and structure.
- Characters are who experience the story.
- Plot is what happens within the story.
- Theme is why the story matters.
- Structure is how the story is told.
Multiple Paths Lead to Story Themes
Themes convey universal truth, binding essential elements of your story, and providing insights into how humans behave and the world works. There is no single path to identifying your story’s themes. Instead, there are time-proven principles.
The external theme gives meaning to the overarching narrative relating to what your book is about. For example, a murder mystery is about bringing the killer to justice.
The internal theme gives insight into the protagonist’s life, amplifying conflicts, experiences, discoveries, and emotions, including the change required for the lead character to solve the story problem. For example, the sleuth in a cozy mystery solves the murder when she puts the needs of the community ahead of her personal needs.
The philosophical theme taps into the audience’s collective knowledge of a universal truth, and typically provides the lead character with the motivation to learn the internal theme’s life lesson. For example, the cozy mystery sleuth applies the internal theme only after a friend (foil character) reflects how compromised values hindered protagonist from identifying the killer.
The Story’s Controlling Idea
In Robert McKee’s book Story*, he used the term “Controlling Idea” because “theme” had become rather vague.
“A true theme is not a word but a sentence—one clear, coherent sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning. I prefer the phrase Controlling Idea, for like theme, it names a story’s root or central idea, but it also implies function…”
Themes Resonate with Audiences
Themes make sense of what the story is about and why it matters to characters and audiences. According to McKee:
“A CONTROLLING IDEA may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.”
A Controlling Idea’s Two Components
The Controlling Idea identifies the (1) positive or negative charge of the story’s critical value, and (2) identifies the chief reason (i.e., the cause) this value changed (i.e., why this matters).
Control Your Story Themes
You can use any of the three theme elements as your controlling idea for the entire narrative; however, your audience will have preset expectations based on their preferred genres. You may encounter adverse reactions if you stray too far from the familiar mix of theme elements.
Ultimately, one of the three themes serves as the controlling idea. It’s the combination of characters, plot, theme, and structure that makes your narrative unique and enjoyable to readers.
Examples of Theme Elements
➨External Theme: Justice vs. Injustice
The genre often establishes the external story theme—a single controlling idea that spans the entire narrative. For example, in a crime story, the following positive or negative values align with the audience’s expectations:
- Positive: Justice results when the protagonist succeeds.
- Negative: Injustice results when the criminal succeeds.
➨Internal Theme: Good vs. Evil
The lead character’s ability to solve the story problem often depends on learning an essential life lesson in time to influence the result of the external theme. For example, in a cozy mystery, the amateur sleuth’s choices dictate whether the individual will pursue the murder investigation.
- Positive: Good (moral) results when a person sacrifices for the needs of others.
- Negative: Evil (immoral) results when a person pursues selfish needs ahead of others.
➨Philosophical Theme: Honor vs. Shame
The confluence of characters and plot shape the protagonist’s thoughts, speech, choices and actions. For instance, in this cozy mystery example, the amateur sleuth ultimately pursues the investigation because she cannot bear the shame of compromising her values and letting the killer escape justice.
- Positive: Honor results when a person lives values without compromise.
- Negative: Shame results when a person compromises personal values.
Where to Find Story Themes
I’ve seeded your mind with three common story themes. You’ll find more with a quick search-engine query. Some sites limit the list while others offer dozens of themes.
Consider how external, internal, and philosophical themes work together within the context of the story you want to write. For example, imagine combining historical, romance, and mystery genres.
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What’s your favorite combination of characters, plot, and theme?
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