Theme: What Are You Talking About?

Without theme, a story is just a series of events that proceeds logistically and ends up one way or another. Theme is what gives it all meaning. When encoded, theme will not be a universal meaning for all things, but a smaller truth pertaining to the proper way of dealing with a particular situation. In a sense, the encoding of theme moves the emotional argument of the story from the general to the specific. It the argument is made strongly enough, it may influence attitudes in areas far beyond the specific, but to be made strongly, it must limit its scope to precise encoding.

If our thematic conflict is Morality vs. Self-interest, for example, it would be a mistake to try and argue that Morality is always better than Self-Interest. In fact, there would be few people whose life experience would not tell them that sometimes Self-Interest is the better of the two. Keep in mind here that Dramatica defines Morality as “Doing for others with no regard for self” and Self-Interest as “Doing for self with no regard for others.” This doesn’t mean a Self-Interested person is out hurt to others, but simply that what happens to others, good or bad, is not even a consideration.

As an example, Morality might be better if one has plenty of food to share during a harsh winter and does so. Morality might be worse if one subjugates one’s life rather than displease one’s peers. Self-Interest might be better if a crazed maniac is charging at you and you kill him with an ax. Self-Interest might be bad if you won’t share the last of the penicillin in case you might need it later. It really all depends on the context.

Clearly, the very first step in encoding thematic appreciations is to check the definitions first! Dramatica was designed to be extremely precise in its definitions in order to make sure the thematic structure represented all the shades of gray an audience might expect to see in a thematic argument. So, before you even consider the conflict, read the definition which will help define where the real conflict lies.

Unlike other appreciations which really only need to show up once to be encoded into a story, thematic appreciations will need to show up several times. A good rule of thumb is that each conflict should be explored at least once per act. In this way, the balance between the two sides of the conflict can be examined in all contexts appropriate to story’s message.

Further, it is heavy handed to encode the entire conflict. It is much better to show one side of the conflict, then later show the other side in a similar situation. In this manner, the relative value of each side of the thematic conflict is established without the two ever being directly compared. In each act, then, what are some methods of encoding the two sides of the thematic conflict? This depends on which throughline is in question.

From the Dramatica Theory Book