Pixar Rules of Story #14 – Theme: The Heart of Your Story

Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

While Rule #3: Your theme will out was about finding your story theme and how, for some, knowing how your story ends helps you figure out your theme, Rule #14 is more about the importance of theme and how it informs the rest of your story, the characters and their actions.

Let’s forgot HOW you find your theme for now – you’ll figure out the best way for you to do that as you write, but think about why theme is important.

Theme is the central question posed by your story; its heart. It tells us what your story is all about, WHY you are telling this story. It can be anything you want, from a simple one-word theme such as “Family” or something more complex such as “There is nothing as important as family”. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the main theme can be seen as, “there is no place like home,” and Bladerunner has a theme concerned with what it means to be human, raising questions about existence.

Of course, there can be multiple themes, depending on your story. And your audience may even take away meanings that you didn’t realise were there yourself. I’m still convinced that a key theme in Looper was “motherhood” and what it means to be a mother but I’m not sure whether the writer started out with that in mind.

Your theme is then played out on the page and screen by your characters, their actions and dialogue. You want to populate your story world with characters that are invested, in some way, postive or negative, with the central theme. Their actions and words describe the theme while the theme may well dictate their arc. And, somewhere along the way, your central thematic will be answered by your characters.

Take Star Trek: Into Darkness. To me, the central theme was “friendship and loyalty” – which may be two, but I’m writing this post, so I get to take the odd liberty! And how is that shown through the actions of the characters?

Well, in no particular order:

  •         Kirk saves Spock
  •         Uhura is angry at Spock for his indifference
  •         Scotty is upset at being fired
  •         Admiral Pike looks out for Kirk (and has much respect for his father)
  •         Khan is determined to avenge his people
  •         Kirk’s reaction to Pike’s death – i.e. seeking revenge and justice for his friend
  •         Spock’s explanation for why he appears to not care about his life
  •         Kirk’s sacrifice
  •         Spock’s reaction to Kirk’s death
  •         Saving Kirk

And I am sure there are others, but the film constantly comes back to those themes of friendship and loyalty, ultimately showing us how they win out over evil – looking out for your friends and being loyal to them will help you come together to defeat superhuman clone warriors as well as mad Starfleet Admirals.

The difficulty in doing this is making it subtle. You don’t want characters just blatantly stating the theme over and over again. You do get times when characters can openly state theme (often in the earlier stages of the story) but you don’t want them doing it repeatedly – unless your protagonist is called Dorothy and is desperate to get back to Kansas.

If Kirk and Spock kept reminding us of the theme by telling each other what great friends they are, it would get a little dull. We need to see the theme emerge in the subtext, through reading between the lines of dialogue and seeing the theme in character actions. Subtext is those unspoken messages that we get from the action on screen… characters say one thing, but mean another.  Of course, subtext is probably one of the hardest things to get right and deserves a post all of its own. However, it is another skill that will get better the more you practice… so again, just get out there and write!

Ultimately you just need to be aware of your theme and understand the heart of your story, what it is actually about and what you are trying to tell your audience. And show that theme through your characters, their actions and dialogue. But do it with subtlety, so that the theme emerges naturally from the story, rather than forcing the story into your chosen theme.

How do you show your story’s heart?

Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #15 – Know your Characters

Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!


Posted on June 10, 2015, in Character, theme, Writing, Writing Rules and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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