Many thanks to those of you who attended my workshop ‘Using Theme To Brainstorm Your Story’ at this year’s When Words Collide Conference in Calgary. Several people asked for a copy of my Powerpoint presentation. I am unable to provide that, but here are the main points of my workshop.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THEME AND PREMISE
THEME is what your story is ‘ABOUT’. It’s the emotional heart of your story. It’s the human emotion of your story which creates an emotional resonance within your reader. The theme of your story can be told in one word.
PREMISE is the What If? of your story. It’s your plot. It’s what your story is ‘about’. For example:
This is a story about a businessman who hires a hooker for a week. (Pretty Woman.)
This is a story about a lawyer who cannot tell a lie for 24 hours. (Liar, Liar.)
JENNIFER KENNING QUOTE
The theme is the coded message that you consciously plan and the audience subconsciously decodes. The theme should resonate through all of the characters and subplots and be interwoven into the premise and plot. The theme should be present in some form in each scene
Why does your script need a theme? Because you’ve created this killer premise, but unless there is some emotional logic for the audience (reader) to connect to that premise, the audience (reader) will leave the theatre – (or close your book) – apathetic to what they have just seen or read.
EXAMPLES OF THEMES
Sometimes a good way to illustrate a theme in your story is to contrast it with the opposite. For example:
SINGLE WORD TITLES
Authors sometimes state their theme in their choice of a single word book title. Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Jane Austen’s Persuasion.
I hate sports films with a passion – especially boxing ones – but I love Rocky and will watch it over and over again. Perhaps it’s because the underlying emotion of respect permeates every single scene in the movie, whether through dialogue, setting or action. Take one of the first scenes in the film – Rocky goes to his locker to find his key no longer works. His belongings have been relegated to the hooks on the wall, commonly known as Skid Row. What a display of lack of respect for Rocky, that is. Imagine how he feels? His self-respect must be shattered. Apollo Creed also fails to show Rocky respect in a way that will come back to bite him. He thinks little of Rocky’s boxing skills – even waving off one of his trainer’s concerns when his trainer sees Rocky’s preparation for the match – therefore does not train for the fight. By the end of the match, Creed’s attitude has changed. ‘Ain’t gonna be no rematch’.
Very often you will find that the same recurring theme crops up in your stories because it will be something that is important in your life or your value system.
Back in 1975, Sylvester Stallone was an aspiring actor with dreams of making it big. But he had a lot going against him including a slight paralysis of his mouth which left him mumbling.
Inspired by a boxing match between Mohammed Ali and Chuck Wemper, Stallone wrote the script of Rocky in 3 days. Producers were interested in the script – but not in him. Stallone refused to sell the script unless he played the title character. The film went on to be nominated for 10 Academy Award. It won two, including Best Film.
In an interview about the Rocky films, Stallone said, ‘Until a man – and this means a woman too – has been through a real baptism of fire, when you are scared, when you are hanging on, when someone’s hurting you – then you are going to see what you are really made of and then you are going to get the only kind of respect in the world that matters and that is self respect. That’s pretty much what my journey has been. This has been about getting Rocky self-respect… and maybe a bit of that will rub off on me.’
THEME BRAINSTORMING TOOL
So how can you use theme as a brainstorming tool? Easy. Grab a piece of paper and draw a cross in the middle. At the top, write PHYSICAL, and the bottom, EMOTIONAL. On the right hand side of the page, write your THEME, and on the left hand side, write the OPPOSITE of your theme.
CASE STUDY – TITANIC
James Cameron said that Titanic was about MAKING EVERY DAY COUNT. I hate to argue with such a successful director, but I’m not sure you can can make every day count unless you have the FREEDOM to do so. So for me, I would say the theme of Titanic is freedom, and it is illustrated by depicting FREEDOM and it’s opposite (ENSLAVEMENT) in dialogue, setting, action scenes etc.
So how can you use the above diagram to brainstorm your story?
In the case of Titanic, take a piece of paper, as above, and write PHYSICAL at the top and EMOTIONAL at the bottom. On the RHS of the page write (what I believe is) the theme – FREEDOM. On the LHS of the page, write ENSLAVEMENT.
Then you can brainstorm ideas which you think represent Freedom and Enslavement in physical and emotional forms.
I realise the typeface on the above document taken from my Powerpoint – is too small to read (I’m the very opposite of a geek when it comes to tech stuff), but this gives you an idea of what your page should look like. Below I have listed examples from the individual quarters. (These only a very selected few from my memory of the film. If you watch it, you will find many – many – more.)
TOP RIGHT HAND SIDE. PHYSICAL EXAMPLES OF FREEDOM:
Rose poses naked for Jack.
Rose cuts Jack’s chains with an axe as the ship sinks.
Molly refuses to be confined by a social convention that insists she wait for a porter to carry her bags, instead deciding to carry them herself. (This is an example of the theme being carried throughout the story via sub-plots and secondary characters.)
Jack’s hair streams in the wind
3rd class is stark but full of life and energy.
Rose dances in steerage.
Rose spits into the wind.
Rose smokes a cigarette in 3rd class.
Rose makes love with Jack.
Iconic scene of Jack and Rose on prow of ship.
On the Carpathia rescue ship – Rose refuses to allow Cal to save her and return her to her old life.
Rose attempts suicide – preferring the release of death to living the life proscribed for her.
BOTTOM RIGHT HAND SIDE – EMOTIONAL EXAMPLES OF FREEDOM
Make each day count.
‘I don’t want your money.’
Rose’s love of impressionist painters who paint what they feel rather than exact depictions of their subject.
‘I remember how the sunlight felt – like I hadn’t felt sun in years.’
Rose says to Cal, ‘I’d rather be Jack’s whore than your wife.’
Rose finally has the freedom to tell her story to her granddaughter and the ship’s crew.
TOP LEFT HAND SIDE – PHYSICAL EXAMPLES OF ENSLAVEMENT
Rose ties her mother into a corset.
Cal puts his hand on Rose’s shoulder and tells her he will be her ‘first and forever’. Rose’s expression is bleak.
Cal beats Rose. She cannot fight back and the maid’s subservient position prevents her from intervening to rescue Rose.
Jack is handcuffed to the ship’s piping.
Rose smokes a cigarette and Cal stubs it out
1st class dogs are taken down to the 3rd class deck to piss and poop – a clear visual of the rigid class structure and people’s roles within the class structure.
People cannot move freely from one deck to another – they are held back behind metal doors.
1st class is exquisite, but there are rules to be followed.
Cal has a safe in his cabin.
Rose places Jack’s photo and the jewel in Cal’s safe and writes, Darling, now you can keep us both locked in your safe.
BOTTOM LEFT HAND SIDE – EMOTIONAL EXAMPLES OF ENSLAVEMENT
Rose: ‘It was the ship of dreams to everyone else. To me it was a slave ship, taking me back to America in chains.
Rose: ‘It was their whole world and I was trapped in it, like an insect in amber.
Everyone believed the ship was ‘unsinkable’ therefore Ismay, Smith and Andrews made fatal decisions. Had they not been ‘trapped’ in their thinking, the ship might have been saved.
Rose on the necklace Cal gave her – ‘After all these years I still feel it closing around my throat like a dog collar.’
Rose: ‘Why can’t I be like you, Jack. Just head out for the horizon when I feel like it.’
The sailors manning the lifeboats are so trapped in the British class system, that they allow themselves to be intimidated by the rich into lowering the lifeboats without filling them, even though there are not enough lifeboats for everyone aboard.
These are only a few examples, but hopefully it gives you an idea how using theme can help you brainstorm your own story.