What’s It All About?? 4 Basic Themes for Constructing Stories

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by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

All too often, storytellers deal with the themes in their stories as an afterthought. It’s unfortunate when we fail to realize that the theme is actually what the story is about. It’s the truth that our hero must learn over the course of the story.

It’s easy to confuse the theme with the external goal. Sometimes storytellers will say a character’s external goal is to “learn” or “realize” something. But we can’t see someone learn or realize anything. Those things take place in someone’s head. When our hero learns or comes to realize something, we are in the domain of the theme, not the external goal.

The theme also embodies what the storyteller has to say to the world through their story. The theme should be something that the writer has personal connection to. It’s a truth that has become real to them through experience. There’s a common old adage that tells writers to write what they know. Many mistakenly believe this means that if you haven’t lived in space, drawn a gun in the old west, or walked in the shoes of a gangster, you shouldn’t write about it. The saying isn’t meant to apply to the details or setting of the story, it’s meant to apply to the theme.

Write the THEMES that you know. Write the truths that you have experienced. Write what you KNOW to be true. While the theme should come across through the action of the characters, it’s sometimes directly spoken by a secondary character to the hero early on in the story — when the line of dialogue seems unimportant. It risks being on the nose, but occasionally a character will state directly what they learned in a story – and thus the theme –  as Dorothy does in The Wizard of Oz, when she declares, “There’s no place like home.” Here are four categories of themes to consider when constructing your story.

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1. ADDITION BY SUBTRACTION

The biggest gains in life sometimes come through the experience of loss or giving something up. This is a hard lesson that almost every human being experiences at some point in his or her life. It’s no wonder it remains such a popular theme in stories. In Southpaw, Billy Hope learns that acting on everything you feel will cause immeasurable tragedy in your life that takes months, if not years, to repair, if it can be repaired at all. He only learns this through the tragic loss of his wife and daughter.

Joy learns that we need all our emotions to be healthy, not just the ones that make us feel good, in Inside Out. She must give up control in order to fully grasp this truth. Films like Bruce Almighty, Liar, Liar, and Shallow Hal demonstrate that you can’t use magic to solve your problems. You must give up the magic and solve problems by dealing with them head on if you want to succeed. In Paper Towns, our protagonist comes to realize the biggest miracle in life is not a special person, place, or event. It’s the journey we take to get to these people, places, and events. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl backs the same theme.

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2. IT TAKES A VILLAGE

We can’t do it alone. It’s a lesson so many people never learn. We need each other. We will always be capable of so much more when we combine our forces than we ever were flying solo. This theme plays out in a great number of sports movies, as it could be argued that this theme is actually the point of all team sports. We see it in Hoosiers when the team realizes they need more than their superstar, Jimmy, to go the distance. Friday Night Lights, Remember the Titans, and We are Marshall also play out this theme.

In Million Dollar Arm, we see this theme apparent not with the players themselves but with the people surrounding the players. The theme often finds its way out of the sports genre also. In Mr. Holmes, Sherlock Holmes learns just how much he needs his housekeeper and her son. And in the comedy classic, Funny Farm, Chevy Chase and his wife learn how much they need the townspeople they had come to hate.

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3. DON’T COUNT ME OUT

An old prophesy sates a child shall lead them. Sometimes that child is not a physical child, but a mental child or an inner child. Sometimes this theme reinforces the joy we experience in watching “the court jester” act as king. Other times, showing the unexpected victory of the underdog or fish out of water reinforces the theme. In Dope, the victors are the kids at school that everyone thinks are weird. In Forrest Gump, Napoleon Dynamite, and Bean, the fool turns out to be not so foolish after all. Storytellers owe it to themselves to watch Peter Sellers master this sort of story in Being There. His Pink Panther films always reinforce this theme as well.

More recently, we’ve seen Paul Blart: Mall Cop attempt to pick up this mantle and reinforce this popular theme. In many of these types of stories, our hero is not a fool at all, but an underestimated underdog. We see this in Finding Forrester and The Devil Wears Prada. Occasionally, it’s a literal child who leads those around them to success. Elliot brings his family together; despite being the least likely in E.T. Sean Astin accomplishes this in both Rudy and The Goonies. And in Big, a child is responsible for great successes, even though he inhabits the body of a grown man.

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4. LOVE WINS

This theme communicates one simple idea: love conquers any obstacle in its path. Richard Gere’s love overcomes the fact that Julia Roberts is a prostitute in Pretty Woman. Ben Stiller’s love overcomes time, distance, and embarrassment to unite with Cameron Diaz in There’s Something About Mary.  In Knocked Up, Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigel overcome unplanned pregnancy to find love. Eddie Murphy overcomes the trappings of his riches to find love with an average woman in Coming To America. Hugh Grant overcomes the trappings of being average to find love with a woman who is rich and famous in Notting Hill. The greater the obstacle or sacrifice in your story, the more enchanting the theme becomes when your characters make their sacrifices and learn their lessons — all in the pursuit of true love.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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