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.