More on Master Theme

If you’re not running a Master Theme in your comic, your story will never reach it’s full potential. Period. End of story.

While it’s easy to understand the concept of a theme in a story–which is ultimately the message you want to convey–I realize a lot of writers have difficulty executing theme in their stories.

Avoid these two traps when it comes to themes in your story;

  • First, the writer who writes to multiple themes, ignoring the concept of a Master.
  • Second, the writer who recognizes a Master Theme, but writes heavily to the secondary themes regardless.

Genuine stories are complex.

When you relay complex information, especially information broken up over issues in a series, humans must exert effort to process and retain this information.

It’s just common sense; the more layers you ask a reader to remember, the more difficult the job.

In truth, most people really only walk away with one main message from a story.

Secondary themes, may emerge more clearly over time, especially on repeat readings, but when someone closes a comic (book) and gets up from the couch, they don’t usually think, “Wow, be careful what you wish for, you just might get it… and, with great power comes great responsibility… and two wrongs don’t make a right… and oh yeah, that part where the hero was fighting in the arena, I almost forgot, fortune favors the bold!”

Our brains are hard-wired to decipher the one underlying message defining the narrative and decide if we agree or disagree (in turn validating or invalidating–at least to some degree–the entire story).

The moment you drift away from your Master Theme and focus on other secondary themes, you’re diluting your core message of the story and in turn, the impact of the story. Or, in other words;

The more things you say, the less impact each thing you say has.

When it comes to implementing Master Theme pay attention to its influence at both the macro and micro level.

At the macro level, you want the Master Theme tying everything together. The Master Theme should always be/feel present, no matter where the reader is in the story.

You don’t ever want the reader to lose a handle or forget what the Master Theme is.

Notice, I said “feel”, this is important… 

A lot of times, the Master Theme is not announced. Instead it is revealed slowly, often through subtext of dialogue and action. But if you’re doing your job as a writer, with all points being a logical sequence supported by or expressing the Master Theme, once the pieces of the puzzle start falling before the reader, the reader will have an instinctual feel for the message of the story.

For example, you’re story Master Theme has something to do with “be careful what you wish for…” (not really adequate, but we’ll keep it simple here.) You story sets up a character pining for something, showing jealousy for someone who has that something, etc.  You haven’t come out and said “The Master Theme of the story is, be careful what you wish for…” but once the reader picks up the theme, all the pieces click. With the realization of the Master Theme, everything makes sense… all the puzzle pieces support and strengthen one another.

In contrast, in that same story, if you throw pieces out there that connect to a different theme. If you keep putting the main character in situations where say, a lack of confidence is screwing him up, those pieces suddenly conflict with your “be careful what you wish for message.” The reader struggles to connect the two, or is distracted by the disconnect, unable to see either message.

This latter example, also showcases looking at theme at the micro level or specific instance/scene level in the story. At the micro level, whenever you showcase a theme or message that’s not the Master Theme… it is, by its nature, competing with the master theme.

Be aware of the frequency and transparency in which you reveal your themes at the macro level.

If you show 50 scenes in your graphic novel that showcase and emphasize “be careful what you wish for” and five scenes supporting a subplot that expresses “fortune favors the bold”, your core message isn’t going to be overwhelmed…

BUT, the higher the frequency, the further into troubled waters you sail.

What happens when you reach equilibrium, 50 scenes for the “Master Theme”, 50 scenes for your secondary theme?

In essence, you’re delivering two separate messages. 99% of the time when a writer does this, they’re actually trying to tell two separate stories at once… very ineffective story telling. And of course, many times this writer won’t be working with only two themes, he’ll have maybe three, four, or more… at this point, the reader often gets totally lost thematically.

Perhaps even worse then these instances I just mentioned, when your secondary themes out pace your Master Theme all together. The writer is thinking they’re saying–trying to say–one thing, but the other messages of the story are dominating the stage without their realization. Now everybody is lost.

Of course, weaving effective theme into your narrative isn’t a math equation… Each scene will express, support and showcase a theme to varying degrees, so you can’t judge theme effectiveness by frequency alone. Part of how effective theme conveys is what I refer to as “transparency.”

If you express your theme at the macro level and you make it super obvious, on the nose. Perhaps actually stating the theme in dialogue, that’s transparent.

On the other side of the coin, if every showcase of your theme arrives subtly, through subtext or very soft innuendo, that’s much harder for the reader to see through.

One measure of transparency is not better than another, there’s no concrete formula here, as always you just need to pay attention to what you’re doing.

So many times I’m working with a writer who tries to subtly build a Master Theme in his narrative, but before it’s established, hits the reader with an in your face showcase of a secondary theme. It derails everything.

Or, in other cases, the writer doesn’t even realize he’s breaking away from his Master Theme and showcasing another message in the narrative.

ALWAYS work with a Master Theme. Connect it to everything. Pay attention to how it influences the entire narrative and pay attention to how it unfolds and affects individual scenes. Watch your frequencies and pay attention to how transparent the message is appearing to the reader. Keep all this in mind on your next script and you’ll find a strength in your story, you never noticed before.

About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S.  Visit for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.