If you read the articles on the site here, you’ve probably notice I’m always emphasizing theme.
Today I wanted to give you an actual example of how theme works as a tool to tie your story together. And why it should be the first thing you figure out when brainstorming a new story.
So on this current project the client approaches me with a core comic concept. (There’s no theme, of course, non-professional writers almost never show up with a specific theme defined in their work. 🙁 In the background to the story there are a number of nations with strong militaries. Eventually the militaries combine into a single, oppressive New World Order kind of military with the main villain taking over the planet as a tyrannical dictator.
Besides not having a theme, one of the immediate problems I noticed with the story was that it lacked conflict. It had the hero and some friends pitted against the villain and some of his friends, and that was about it.
When I sat down with this story, the first thing I needed to do was figure out the story’s central theme. After some back and fourth with the creator, I decided to roll with a version of some Nietzsche “Be careful not to become the very monster you fight.”
I wanted to show the hero abandoning his moral code along the way to stop the villain at any cost, in effect becoming a villain himself. Then at the end, have the hero realize the error of his ways and return to his righteous self.
Armed with a clear theme, I then moved on to take out two birds with one stone. First, to address the lack of conflict in the story and Second, to establish a reason why these nations had powerful militaries to begin with.
In the client’s story set up, the nations weren’t at war. They just sorta had these big militaries hangin’ out. Of course, realistically, you don’t have a giant military industrial complex, unless you’re fighting someone, have fought someone in the past or are preparing to defend against a current threat. (None of that was established in the story… ehh, who needs details anyway…)
After sitting with it for a while, I knew I wanted the main nations of the planet to be fighting an outside threat.
I wanted the threat to be active, so it would give reasoning to why the armies of the nations banded together while also, adding another level of conflict throughout the story. Because now we didn’t just have hero vs. villain, we have hero vs villain vs other bad guys. Threesomes are always better in fiction.
After some more thought I whittled some ideas down to two distinct opponents. First up, an even stronger military. Foreigners. A really well oiled fighting machine. With more advanced technology and a lot of guys. Total bad asses. Definitely air ships… really big air ships.
The alternate opponents were demons. Like Evil Dead demons. Like a rupture in hell popped open somewhere and demons were pouring out onto the land spreading chaos and destruction.
For a while I considered the pro’s and con’s of each opponent, tying them into the plot and seeing how things worked out. My problem in this case, they both worked. I really sorta spun my wheels, stuck, unable to decide which one really worked better.
That’s when I took a shower.
Personal fact about me. I do all my best thinking in the bathroom.
Actually, I had a friend give me a psychic reading once and she said I was a water sign or something and should head to the water whenever I’m having a problem and need to clear my head. Ok, I like the pool, the beach, kayaking, tubing, big puddles… I’m on board.
Well in this instance it definitely worked.
When I jumped in the shower thinking about demons and these military guys, I immediately remembered the theme of the story. Right there, the bill to Con Ed cleared and the lights went on. Can you guess the revelation?
“Be careful not to become the very monster you fight.”
Sure, I could make the military guys murderous, merciless, honorless, scoundrels… that would work. I wouldn’t want to absorb those traits into myself while going up against them…
But clearly Demons are a better fit.
The demon opponent/threat more dramatically reflects the theme.
I mean the demons literally ARE monsters. Not only can the demons have the same horrible traits I might assign to the military opponent, BUT NOW I have the added bonus that the good guys face the possibility of actually turning into demons… into monsters… the very monster’s they’re fighting.
See what I did there?
The theme is revealed and reflected on multiple levels.
It’s engrossing, engaging and adds depth to the story…
This long winded post is a perfect example of how a solid theme works to tie a story together. And the most awesome thing about it, is that theme is a beast of a worker. It never stops. You can use it pretty much everywhere in your story.
Any critical point, decision, event… whatever, fall back to your theme and it will guide you where the story needs to go.
As for the shower part. I highly recommend bringing your work with you into the shower. You may relax just enough to find that missing piece to the puzzle. And if you don’t, well at least you’ll smell better you filthy animal. ▪
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 NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.
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