Delivering a Powerful Theme
The most powerful and persuasive stories don’t simply entertain or enlighten – they challenge their readers and audiences to transform – to find the courage to change their thoughts and behaviors in order to achieve a more fulfilling, loving and self-defined existence.
This prescription for how we should all live our lives is what I refer to as a story’s THEME.
The word is used in other ways, depending on the source. Some think of theme as the concept or log line of the story; some use it to refer to the message of the film, or the general conflict it addresses (the insanity of war; the struggles of intimate relationships; the causes and consequences of racism and bigotry).
But to me a theme must be universal – it must apply to anyone who sees or hears or reads the story, regardless of whether they have ever experienced the specific situations the characters face.
Theme relates not so much to the hero’s situation, therefore, but to his or her arc. A well told story tells us we must find the courage the hero exhibits, and transform in the same way.
The key question to ask is, “How does my hero/protagonist transform and grow emotionally during the course of the story?” In other words, what must she find the emotional courage to do in order to achieve her visible goal (such as winning the love of her romance character, winning the competition, or achieving her financial objective)?
And it follows that if there is a particular theme you wish to develop with your story, you must create a hero who lacks that quality at the beginning of the story, and fulfills your theme by the end. So if your theme is “honesty is the best policy”, your hero must begin the story dishonest (due to some emotional fear) and find the courage to exhibit honesty by the end.
Let’s consider Mia (Emma Stone), one of the two heroes of the film LA LA LAND. Her initial goal is to succeed as an actress – specifically to get cast in a major role by putting on a one-woman show (her outer motivation). Her second goal is to win the love of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and as in most love stories, the romantic desire becomes more important. But for now let’s stay focused on her goal as an actress.
When her one-woman show is a disaster, she returns home to retreat into the safe world she occupied before she ever came to Hollywood. But with Sebastian’s encouragement, she finds the courage to go back and give it another try, in spite of her fear of being crushed by yet another rejection and failure.
So her arc is the transformation from a wannabe actress playing it safe to one who risks exposing herself through a self-written show and finally puts everything on the line by returning for one more audition.
Few people watching this film were actresses, or Hollywood dreamers, or girlfriends of Ryan Gosling. But we all have faced fears of rejection and humiliation and failure. So the theme of LA LA LAND is telling us all that to be fully alive and individuated, we must keep going after what we’re passionate about – must keep pursuing our dreams, regardless of whatever setbacks and failures we experience.
And this is a situation we will all encounter, and a prescription we should all live by. It is universal.
The same holds true if you’re writing a novel or an inspirational speech or a marketing campaign. Your audiences and readers may not have experienced the events of your story about running a marathon or becoming an Internet marketer or succeeding at business. But they should all identify with the fears and inner conflicts those characters faced, and they must all benefit from the courage you’re recommending through your story’s theme.
Dear Michael Hauge,
Spring season greetings from India…
Your book has been a source of reference & inspiration for last eight years. I am so thankful to you for replying to me on Twitter. It felt great that, for years, I would refer to your book and get reply from author. Thank you. I read your articles from my mobile phone… I love to understand, expand craft of screenwriting.
I really have no questions to ask…but just love reading articles in this website. Mr. Hauge.. Thank you for writing… God bless you. Have a great week ahead
Mr. Hauge you’re a genious, I had problems finding the theme of my story, after reading this article everything became so clear. Thank you.
Thanks for your insightful article and agree with what you say, storytelling is a major part of our public and private lives – whether we are doing our daily routines or writing a new novel at school or work, it’s what enriches us with experience and knowledge.
Thanks, Michael. This is one of my all-time favorite movies for the very reason that I relate to it on so many levels. And everything you mention is what I do my best to bring across in my writing. I also bring all these elements into my coaching–not overtly, but it’s always about the theme of a person’s life, what they truly value and how it drives them and transforms them. I love in your books how you differentiate between identity and essence. Thanks for all the inspiration and wisdom!
Thank you Michael for your boundless wisdom and willingness to share. Many years ago, I wrote about my life growing up in a dysfunctional family in South Africa and the parallels of the horrors I observed to the life I had survived as a child. The book was written to help me make sense of my life in the first instance and when I was writing it, for a cathartic six months, I was up at 4 a.m. and went to bed in the early hours. When I was ready, I hired and paid for a writer to help me streamline the opening chapter because I had no experience of writing. I then set about trying to edit the book into something that (to me), made sense. The book was in all honesty, very personal to me to begin with and then I began to see that it was a powerful tool that could help people with similar background to overcome and transform through courage, determination and perseverance. Having re-jigged my work, I presented it to the same writer I had hired and she sent me an email saying ‘now you are just dumping’. It crucified me and drove a stake through my heart that was so painful, I never picked the book up again. Your article has inspired me to once again, with much trepidation, pick up the unfinished book and re-examine it, taking your comments and what I have been learning from you into account. Whether I can find the courage to venture into the realms of certain rejection again is debateable but I guess my hero journey is to give myself permission to go there. Once again, many thanks. Much appreciative of the genuine, without loud sales messages, help that you offer. If I had the ability to hire you as a coach, I definitely would.
Stories are about survival and transformation, the beginning and the end. It takes a wounded hero to start the journey in order to discover her true identity and fulfill her dream.
We cannot write better if we don’t overcome our own fears.
Thank you Michael for sharing your wisdom.
Mike, as a writer I value your remarks.Once I took a Michael Hague seminar I knew I could toss out all the other books about writing and focus on the wisdom he is so gracious to share. Like reading the Bible, once you get a surface level comprehension you want to go deeper into what it says.
Brilliant explanation of theme and you hit the nail on the head about La La Land! Loved, loved, loved that movie for that very reason – it’s overarching universal theme. Hope to see you at a conference again soon. So much wisdom!
This is solid gold storytelling wisdom, as always. But I must add one caution: it can be dangerous to start out with a theme in mind before you write the story. You risk hitting that theme too hard and coming across as overly moralistic. (A skilled writer can avoid that trap, but it’s still a danger.)
Instead, I’ve found that it often works best to write your rough draft first, then take a hard look at the protagonist’s story arc and figure out the theme from there. Once you’ve “discovered” you theme, you can strengthen it by shaping the protagonist’s journey.
After many years of rejected manuscripts, I finally learned that lesson, and only then did I get my first multi-book contract from a New York publisher. So, lesson learned! In fact, I guess you could say that’s the “theme” of this comment. 😉
Thank you for the description of the story ark and theme in La La Land . It is helpful to me as a writer and motivates me to finally watch La La.
This is so great, Michael. I will re-read this continually as we write our stories for our book. Your help has been so valuable. Sue
Thank you. Just what I nedded in so many ways…
Thank you, Michael Hauge for all the work you do, & for continuing to inspire us to elevate our game and lives to be consistent with the potential of the medium.
Just finished Dan Brown’s “Origin” and I must say the theme is universal and it definatly engages the brain.
Certainly good to hear from you Michael I’m on such a quest as a story teller and I’m in need of your guidance
Its important to a lot of people that I complete this story in a way that will transform their lives in a positive way I’m getting there but with my deadlines the clock in ticking. Hopefully I can afford to make this step . I read some of your articles already and they have at least help point me in the right direction
Thanks so much
Not hard to achieve a transformational arch when you’re sixty-five years old in your own life. Thank you for the reminder.
I’m not an author.
LOVE a good movie or book, appreciate the craft… but have no desire write one myself.
Having said that, this is the most profound sentence I’ve ever read…
“The most powerful and persuasive stories don’t simply entertain or enlighten – they challenge their readers and audiences to transform.”
Won’t even pretend to comprehend the depth of that sentence. As with most new concepts, I’m positive that as profound as this concept is to me, in this moment, I’ve only got a surface level comprehension of the depths of that sentence.