Many authors have been taught that a meaningful story must have a premise in the form of “Some human quality leads (or does not lead) to a particular inevitable conclusion.” Such a premise might be “Greed (human quality) leads to Self destruction (inevitable conclusion).”
One problem with the premise concept is that it contains no built-in conflict. Rather, it simply presents a starting point, an ending point, and a non-specific path that might be anything at all.
Adding conflict to your premise can provide a driving force to help move your theme through the “leads to” to the conclusion. To add conflict to a premise, consider the human quality stated in the beginning of the premise. In our example, this was “greed.” Next, determine the “opposite” of greed, which might be “generosity.” Now, restate the beginning of your premise as “Greed vs. Generosity.”
We have now created a thematic conflict between two opposing human qualities, rather than simply exploring the one. But, of course, if we left things in this condition the overall premise would not read very well: “Greed vs. Generosity leads to Self Destruction.”
Since we are now examining the relative value of two alternative thematic approaches to life, we must also provide a judgment as to the outcome of each approach. So, we might say that “When Greed vs. Generosity, Greed will result in Self Destruction while Generosity leads to Success.” Now we have a premise full of potential conflict and a comparative conclusion that brings the audience to think, rather than to simply accept the inevitable.
Of course, Generosity might also lead to Self Destruction in a particular story, illustrating that sometimes there is no way out. Or, Generosity might lead to Love, or Wealth, putting a different spin on the “proof.” It also might be shown that Greed leads to the favorable conclusion, while Generosity is Self Destructive. (For an example of this kind of approach, even though it deals with other thematic issues, view Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”)
There is much more that can be done with a premise to not only provide conflict, but create a complete thematic argument that works with an audience’s heart, rather than through its intellect.
I’ll examine these and other thematic issues in future postings.
As a side note, the Dramatica Pro software fully supports thematic conflict, argument, and emotional conclusion through a number of clever tools designed to spark your creativity and help you build a road map for your theme.
Even when a story has memorable characters, a riveting plot and a fully developed genre, it may still be coming apart at the themes.
Theme is perhaps the most powerful, yet least understood element of story structure. It is powerful because theme is an emotional argument: It speaks directly to the heart of the reader or audience. It is least understood because of its intangible nature, working behind the scenes, and between the lines.
When mis-used, theme can become a ham-handed moral statement in black and white, alienating the reader/audience with its dogmatic pontifications. When properly used, theme can add richness, nuance, and meaning to a story that would otherwise be no more than a series of events.
In this article, we’ll separate the elements of theme by their dramatic functions so we can understand the parts. Then we’ll learn how to combine them together into a strong message that is greater than the sum of the parts.
What do we really mean by the word, “theme?” In fact, “theme” has two meanings. The first meaning is not unlike that of a teacher telling a class to write a theme paper. We’ve all received assignments in school requiring us to express our thoughts about “how we spent our summer vacation,” or “the impact of industrialization on 19th century cultural morality,” or “death.” Each of these “themes” is a topic, nothing more, and nothing less. It functions to describe the subject matter that will be explored in the work, be it a paper, novel, stage play, teleplay, or movie.
Every story needs a thematic topic to help hold the overall content of the story together, to act as a unifying element through which the plot unfolds and the characters grow. In fact, you might look at the thematic topic as the growth medium in which the story develops. Although an interesting area to explore, the real focus of this article is on the other element of theme.
This second aspect of theme is the message or premise of your story. A premise is a moral statement about the value of or troubles caused by an element of human character. For example, some common premises include, “Greed leads to Self-Destruction,” and “True love overcomes all obstacles.”
A story without a premise seems pointless, but a story with an overstated message comes off as preachy. While a premise is a good way to understand what a story is trying to prove, it provides precious little help on how to go about proving it. Let’s begin by examining the components of “premise” and then laying out a sure-fire method for developing an emotional argument that will lead your reader or audience to the moral conclusions of your story without hitting them over the head.
All premises grow from character. Usually, the premise revolves around the Main Character. In fact, we might define the Main Character as the one who grapples with the story’s moral dilemma.
A Main Character’s moral dilemma may be a huge issue, such as the ultimate change in Scrooge when he leaves behind his greedy ways and becomes a generous, giving person. Or, the dilemma may be small, as when Luke Skywalker finally gains enough faith in himself to turn off the targeting computer and trust his own instincts in the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV). Either way, if the premise isn’t there at all, the Main Character will seem more like some guy dealing with issues, than an example in human development from whom we can learn.
Traditionally, premises such as these are stated in the form, “This leads to That.” In the examples above, the premises would be “Greed leads to Self Destruction,” and “Trusting in Oneself leads to Success.” The Point of each premise is the human quality being explored: “Greed” in the case of Scrooge and “Self Trust” with Luke.
We can easily see these premises in A Christmas Carol and Star Wars, but what if you were simply given either of them and told to write a story around them? Premises are great for boiling a story’s message down to its essence, but are not at all useful for figuring out how to develop a message in the first place.
So how do we create a theme in a way that will guide us in how to develop it in our story, and also sway our audience without being overbearing? First, we must add something to the traditional “This leads to That” form of the premise. Beside having a thematic Point like “Greed” we’re going to add a Counterpoint – the opposite of the point – in this case, “Generosity.”
Arguing to your audience that Greed is Bad creates a one-sided argument. But arguing the relative merits of Greed vs. Generosity provides both sides of the argument and lets your audience decide for itself. Crafting such an argument will lead your reader or audience to your conclusions without forcing it upon them. Therefore, you will be more likely to convince them rather than having them reject your premise as a matter of principle, making themselves impervious to your message rather than swallowing it whole.
To create such an argument, follow these steps:
1. Determine what you want your story’s message to be
We all have human qualities we admire and others we despise. Some might be as large as putting oneself first no matter how much damage it does to others. Some might be as small as someone who borrows things and never gets around to returning them. Regardless, your message at this stage will simply take the form, “Human Quality X is Bad,” or “Human Quality Y is Good.”
If you are going to create a message that is passionate, look to what truly irks you, or truly inspires you, and select that human quality to give to your Main Character. Then, you’ll find it far easier to come up with specific examples of that quality to include in your story, and you will write about it with vigor.This is your chance to get up on the soapbox. Don’t waste it on some grand classic human trait that really means nothing to you personally. Pick something you really care about and sound off by showing how that trait ennobles or undermines your Main Character.
As a last resort, look to your characters and plot and let them suggest your thematic point. See what kinds of situations are going to arise in your story; what kinds of obstacles will be faced. Think of the human qualities that would make the effort to achieve the story’s goal the most difficult, exacerbate the obstacles, and gum up the works. Give that trait to your Main Character, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see it take on a life of its own.
Of course, you may already know your message before you even get started. You may, in fact, have as your primary purpose in creating the story the intent to make a point about a particular human quality.
2. Determine your Counterpoint.
As described earlier, the Counterpoint is the opposite of the Point. So, if your story’s message is “Being Closed-Minded is Bad,” then your Point is “Being Closed Minded,” and your Counterpoint is “Being Open Minded.”Similarly, if your message is “Borrowing things from others and not returning them is Bad,” then your counter point is “Borrowing things from other and returning them.”
Note that we didn’t include the value judgment part of the message (i.e. “Good” or “Bad”) as part of the point or counterpoint. The idea is to let the audience arrive at that conclusion for themselves. The point and counterpoint simply show both sides of the argument. Our next step will be to work out how we are going to lead the audience to come to the conclusion we want them to have.
3. Show how well the Point does vs. the Counterpoint.
For example, in A Christmas Carol, we see scrooge deny an extension on a loan, refuse to allow Cratchet a piece of coal, decline to make a donation to the poor. Each of these moments fully illustrates the impact of the thematic point of “Greed.” Similarly, in the same story, we see Feziwhig spending his money for a Christmas Party for his employees, Scrooge’s nephew inviting him to dinner, and Cratchet giving of his time to Tiny Tim. Generosity is seen in action as well.
Each instance of Greed propagates ill feelings. Each instance of Generosity propagates positive feelings. As the illustrations layer upon one another over the course of the story, the emotional argument is made that Greed is not a positive trait, whereas Generosity is.
4. Avoid comparing the Point and Counterpoint directly.
The effect is to have the author repeatedly saying, “Generosity is better than Greed… Generosity is better than Greed,” like a sound loop.
A better way is to show Greed at work in its own scenes, and Generosity at work in completely different scenes. In this manner, the audience is left to drawn its own conclusions. And while showing Greed as always wholly bad and Generosity as always wholly good may create a rather melodramatic message, at least the audience won’t feel as if you’ve crammed it down its throat!
5. Shade the degree that Point and Counterpoint are Good or Bad.
Rather, let the point be really bad sometimes, and just a little negative others. In this manner, Greed may start out a just appearing to be irritating, but by the end of the story may affect life and death issues. Or, Greed may be as having devastating effects, but ultimately only be a minor thorn in people’s sides. And, of course, you may choose to jump around, showing some examples of major problems with Greed and others that see it in not so dark a light. Similarly, not every illustration of your Counterpoint has to carry the same weight.
In the end, the audience will subconsciously average together all of the illustrations of the point, and also average together all the illustrations of the counterpoint, and arrive at a relative value of one to the other.
For example, if you create an arbitrary scale of +5 down to -5 to assign a value of being REALLY Good (+5) or REALLY Bad (-5), Greed might start out at -2 in one scene, be -4 in other, and -1 in a third. The statement here is that Greed is always bad, but not totally AWFUL, just bad.
Then, you do the same with the counterpoint. Generosity starts out as a +4, then shows up as a +1, and finally ends up as a +3. This makes the statement that Generosity is Good. Not the end-all of the Greatest Good, but pretty darn good!
At the end of such a story, instead of making the blanket statement that Greed is Bad and Generosity is Good, you are simply stating that Generosity is better than Greed. That is a lot easier for an audience to accept, since human qualities in real life are seldom all good or all bad.
But there is more you can do with this. What if Generosity is mostly good, but occasionally has negative effects? Suppose you show several scenes illustrating the impact of Generosity, but in one of them, someone is going to share his meal, but in the process, drops the plate, the food is ruined, and no one gets to eat. Well, in that particular case, Greed would have at least fed one of them! So, you might rate that scene on your arbitrary scale as a -2 for Generosity.
Similarly, Greed might actually be shown as slightly Good in a scene. But at the end of the day, all of the instances of Greed still add up to a negative. For example, scene one of Greed might be a -4, scene two a +2 and scene three a -5. Add them together and Greed comes out to be a -7 overall. And that is how the audience will see it as well.
This approach gives us the opportunity to do some really intriguing things in our thematic argument. What if both Greed and Generosity were shown to be bad, overall? By adding up the numbers of the arbitrary scale, you could argue that every time Greed is used, it causes problems, but ever time Generosity is used, it also causes problems. But in the end, Greed is a -12 and Generosity is only a -3, proving that Generosity, in this case, is the lesser of two evils.
Or what if they both added up Good in the end? Then your message might be that Generosity is the greater of two goods! But they could also end up equally bad, or equally good (Greed at -3 and Generosity at -3, for example). This would be a message that in this story’s particular situations, being Greedy or Generous doesn’t really matter, either way; you’ll make the situation worse.
In fact, both might end up with a rating of zero, making the statement that neither Greed nor Generosity has any real impact on the situation, in the end.
Now, you have the opportunity to create dilemmas for your Main Character that are far more realistic and far less moralistic. And by having both point and counterpoint spend some time in the Good column and some time in the Bad column over the course of your story, you are able to mirror the real life values of our human qualities and their impact on those around us.
Develop both sides of your theme with
What moves Theme forward is the Thematic Argument. Why an argument? Because unless the audience shares the author’s bias on the story’s issues, it will not accept a blanket statement that the author’s proposed way of dealing with a particular problem is the best. The audience really does want to be convinced – it wants to learn something useful in real life while being entertained at the same time. But, unless an author can successfully make an emotional argument supporting his bias through his Theme, he will not be able to change the heart of his audience.
Premise and the Thematic Argument
One of the most familiar attempts to describe the nature of the thematic argument relies on a concept called the premise. A premise usually takes this form: Some activity or character trait leads to a particular result or conclusion. An example of this would be Greed leads to Self-Destruction. A premise can be very useful in describing what a thematic argument is about in a nutshell, but provides very little information about how that argument will proceed.
In regard to the example above, there are many ways in which greed might lead to self-destruction. In addition, each of the four throughlines has its own view of the thematic nature of the problem, so each one needs its own thematic argument. The traditional premise looks at a story’s Theme from one point of view only. If greed leads to self-destruction, is this a problem for everyone, just for the Main Character, just the Obstacle Character, or does it perhaps describe the nature and outcome of the relationship between Main and Obstacle? We simply don’t have enough information to determine that. As a result, the traditional premise is fine for summing up a story, but does little to help an author create a thematic argument.
Dramatica’s view of a thematic argument begins not with a conflict – the thematic conflict. Each of the throughlines has its own thematic conflict which we have already described to some degree during our discussion of Range.
The Range itself forms one side of the thematic conflict and the Counterpoint forms the other. As indicated earlier, you won’t find Greed in Dramatica’s thematic structure, but you will find Self-Interest. The Counterpoint for Self-Interest is the dynamically opposed to it in the chart, which is Morality. Thus, the premise of a thematic argument dealing with Greed might begin with the conflict, Self-Interest vs. Morality.
The advantage of the thematic conflict is that it spells out both sides of the thematic argument. Both Range and counterpoint must be played against one another over the course of the story if the author is to make a case that one is better than the other.
The component of traditional premise which describes growth is reflected in the phrase “leads to.” In some cases this may also be “prevents,” “creates,” “hinders” or any other word or words that indicate the relationship of the topic (such as Greed) to the conclusion (such as self-destruction). Again, this describes what an audience comes to understand at the end of a story, but does not give a clue about how to develop that understanding while creating a story.
Because it begins with a conflict rather than a topic, Dramatica’s version of a thematic argument supports an author creating as many scenes or events as he may choose in which the Range is weighed against the Counterpoint. Each time the Range or Counterpoint is illustrated it can be a shade of gray and does not have be shown in terms of all good vs. all bad. Using our example from above, in a series of scenes Self-Interest might be shown to be moderately positive, largely negative, slightly negative, then largely positive. At the end of the story the audience can sum up or average out all the instances in which they have seen.
Similarly, the counterpoint of Morality in its own scenes might be largely positive, moderately positive, largely negative and largely negative again. At the end of the story the audience will sum up the counterpoint and determine whether Morality by itself is a positive or negative thing.
The audience does not consciously work out these averages. Rather, it is simply affected by the ongoing layering of value judgments created by the author’s bias. In fact, audience members are constantly balancing the Range against the counterpoint in their hearts until the story is over and they are left feeling more toward one or the other.
The advantage of this approach is that an author does not have to be heavy-handed by saying only negative things about one side of the thematic conflict and only positive things about the other. An audience will be much more open to a balanced emotional argument where decisions are seldom black and white.
Finally, as reflected in traditional premise, an audience will want to see the ultimate results of adhering to one value standard over another. In our example of Greed, it led to Self-destruction. This is a generic conclusion. It could mean either a failure in one’s goals or a personal loss of the heart.
Dramatica sees goals and yearnings as two different things: one born of reason and one born of emotion. How completely we achieve our goals determines our degree of satisfaction. How well we accommodate our yearnings determines our degree of fulfillment. So, one thing we need to know at the end of thematic argument is whether or not our goals ended in success or failure, and also whether or not things feel good or bad.
The degree of success or failure, good or bad, is determined in storytelling. The thematic appreciations of Success, Failure, Good, and Bad simply indicate on which side of the fence the conclusion settled. As a result, there are two different aspects to the conclusion of a Dramatica thematic argument — the outcome (Success or Failure) and the Judgment (Good or Bad).
From these considerations we can see that four broad conclusions to a thematic argument are possible:
1. The Success/Good conclusion or Happy Ending
2. The Failure/Bad conclusion or Tragedy
3. The Success/Bad conclusion or Personal Tragedy
4. The Failure/Good conclusion or Personal Triumph
It is important to note that a Failure/Good story, for example, does not mean the Failure is Good but that in spite of a lack of satisfaction, the feel of the story is fulfilling. Such is the case in the motion picture Rain Man in which Charlie (Tom Cruise) fails to get the inheritance, yet overcomes his hatred of his father. This is a Personal Triumph.
Similarly, Success/Bad stories are like Remains of the Day in which Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) successfully maintains the household through thick and thin, yet in the end finds himself empty and alone. This is a Personal Tragedy.
Sewing Together The Themes
In this section we have learned that the traditional premise is too blunt a tool to do more than describe the gist of a finished work. In contrast, Dramatica’s concept of a thematic argument is explored through thematic conflict, development of the relative value of different standards, and concluded with an assessment of both the level of satisfaction and fulfillment. Such an approach is much more in line with the organic flow of a story’s emotional impact as felt through Theme, and is much more accessible as a creative guideline.