What Does the Theme Do for Your Story?
The theme tells you how to design your characters.
Your characters should live either within the code of the theme or outside it. They believe the theme or they don’t believe it. Therefore, you design your characters in relationship to the theme. If you have a theme that deals with authority, you might design a cast like the following:
· The iconoclast
· The defiant
· The narcissist
· The sycophant
· The paranoid
· The nebbish
Each one of these characters will have a different view of authority. Your protagonist does not believe in the theme, and then slowly comes to embrace it. The antagonist is designed in opposition to the protagonist, so there’s your theme at work, too.
The theme tells you how to design the world.
A wonderful example is the movie Yesterday. Jack Malik is lying to the world. But everyone in the world tells him the truth, even his smarmy agent. And only after he tells the world the truth does he find happiness.
The theme tells you how to structure the plot:
· The protagonist lives in a world with an alternative or flawed theme.
· They’re thrown into a situation that challenges their worldview.
· After being introduced to the new theme, they try it but it doesn’t work.
· By the mid-point, they see an example of how their lives would improve if they embraced the new theme, and it inspires them.
· The protagonist half-heartedly embraces the new theme, and it blows up in their face.
· Now they don’t believe in the old theme or the new theme, and they’re about to face their worst fears.
· They understand the theme and embrace it, and are rewarded.
The theme tells you how to design the most emotional moment of the story.
If you know how to properly set up a cathartic moment, and you’ve incorporated theme into the characters, world and structure of your story, you get an emotional release from the audience.
If you’ve incorporated the theme into your story, the audience should “feel” it. But when, and only when, the protagonist has that moment of clarity and understands why they’ve been on this journey… do you earn an emotional release. It’s why grown men cry at the end of Field of Dreams. Ray spots his catcher and says, “It’s my father.”
So what does the theme do for your story? Everything.