Sunday, January 8, 2012

Understanding Theme

When I took a screenwriting class in college, one of the first questions the teacher asked us was:

“What is the moral of your story?”

Somewhat baffled, we exchanged glances and smirks. He surely didn’t mean one of those corny lines they tell you at the end of a fable, did he? He must mean something else.

Faced with a silent class, the teacher blatantly expanded. “You know, like ‘there’s no place like home’ or ‘love conquers all’?”

Most of us rolled our eyes. Yeah, why don’t we talk about something interesting like how do we format our scripts and sell them to start making millions. But the teacher pressed on. “Every story has a theme. Even the most banal ones are trying to tell us something.” He continued with a painful (and nausea-provoking) exposé of the theme of several beloved films.

Appalled, I ignored the guy and drove home.

Years later, after I’d explored novel writing with four drafts of a first novel and two of a second, I came to realize my teacher was on to something. As many of you know, the resolution of both of my novels has been a struggle and I had to rewrite the endings several times. In a desperate search for answers and knowledge (after producing a questionable ending for my latest novel) I embarked on a research odyssey where I read everything and anything with the word “ending” on it. I even wrote this post (shameless advertisement alert!)

Finally, I came across this line:

"You must resolve the core conflict, otherwise your premise will remain unproved.” (Donna Levin, Get That Novel Written.)

(Core conflict being the conflict implied by the premise.)

Ms. Levin cites Cinderella as an example. “The premise for Cinderella is beauty and goodness triumph over evil and ugliness… If the story of Cinderella ended before the messenger demanded to see the third sister, we'd be left with, beauty and goodness do something with evil and ugliness, but it's your guess what.” (Levin, Pg. 83)

Eureka! I’d found the source of my problem. My novel’s final scene had NOTHING to do with the original premise. I had simply written a scene about how I envisioned my main character to resolve her (physical) problem and live happily-ever-after. But it didn’t say anything about the human condition or her inner growth or her understanding of well, anything.

I reexamined my moral premise (because I did have one—I promise!)

Selfishness leads to destruction and pain,
but generosity leads to life and happiness 

So what’s wrong with it? You ask. Well, it sounds very nice on paper, except that it’s a very abstract concept. How could I execute it in a way that was clear and touched my audience in an emotional way? Sure, I could have the protagonist engage in an ultimate, heartbreaking sacrifice in the last scene, but given that sacrifice often leads to suffering, how was my premise going to be proven? After all, my thesis stated that the protagonist had to have a happy ending as a result of her selflessness? And that was when my epiphany came: the problem wasn’t that my novel’s ending was predictable and it belonged to a different genre, the problem was that it had absolutely nothing to do with the premise because the theme was all wrong! There was no way to prove my thesis because I’m not sure that in practice ALL selfishness leads to destruction and ALL sacrifices lead to happiness.

To my surprise and delight, the theme of my novel had always been there. I just had to understand what I had been trying to say all along (I know it sounds crazy, but if you’re a writer you’ll understand what I mean.) Once I recognized the real moral premise, I knew how my novel had to end.

This experience taught me the importance of having a good theme from the beginning—as irrelevant as it may seem. It really does guide the development of your novel and eventually, its resolution.

In The Moral Premise (a book that, in my opinion, every writer should read), Stanley D. Williams states that in every film/novel there are two stories happening simultaneously. One is the physical one (plot) which consist of the actions the hero has to take in order to achieve his goal. The second story (theme) is the emotional arc the hero goes through during his journey, which is actually the “unknown goal” that changes him in an uplifting, touching, irreversible way. What I find interesting is that the emotional storyline may be in direct conflict with the hero’s physical goal—and he may not know it until the end. (In other words, what the hero wants is not always what he needs.)

The success of a work of fiction, according to Williams, is directly proportional to how much the audience agrees/identifies with the premise. If the premise is not considered valid by general consensus, a disconnect may happen between the audience and the story. This is why sometimes we leave a movie theater thoroughly disappointed and may not know the reason. The answer is simple: the message may not have been in tune with our own principles and values. Williams goes as far as assuring us that this disconnect with the audience often leads to box office failure.

I don’t know how true this last statement is, but I recently experienced a disconnect with a film that had a very interesting hook. (SPOILER ALERT!) In "Limitless", a man takes a pill that gives him 100% access to his brain. Assuming it's true that we only use 20% of this organ, the premise is absolutely gripping. Think of all the possibilities! From a starving writer with zero inspiration, he goes on to becoming a bestseller author. (Let’s set aside the fantasy that he has a publishing contract, an editor and an agent without having written a single word of his novel and let’s focus on theme.) As it turns out, literary greatness is not his objective anymore once his mental capacities are heightened. He realizes that his fantastic brain power can make him a lot more money that he ever dreamed possible, and through stock-buying and orchestrating big merges, he becomes a business success in a matter of weeks. Women fall like flies on his lap and he masters several cryptic languages at once. With this much power, you’d think he does something good for humanity, like find the cure for cancer or something worthwhile. But no, he spends his time making his personal fortune grow and escaping some dubious characters who want to steal his drug stack. As a viewer, I can tolerate most excesses in a character with the hopes that in the end, he’ll redeem himself. So I patiently waited for the moment where the self-centered hero would humble himself and change. Not the case of "Limitless." The protagonist eventually comes up with an endless supply of the coveted pill, gets his girlfriend back (plus more money that he could ever need) and crushes/betrays his former mentor. What was the moral premise here? Selfishness and greed lead to success?

"Limitless" had a riveting hook, but what did it say about humans in the end?

In contrast, let’s look at "Pride and Prejudice," a simple story about a man who's quick to judge a woman on her looks and lower social status. As the story progresses, Mr. Darcy realizes there’s more to Elizabeth Bennet than meets the eye and falls in love with her. When he reveals his feelings toward her, she’s too proud to accept his marriage proposal. (Click here to watch the scene.)

In the end, both of them realize how destructive “pride” and “prejudice” are, and “reject these vices” (to use Williams’ terminology). By apologizing and making amends, both of them “choose virtue” and have a happy ending. This premise is identifiable and true. How many of us haven’t, at some point in our lives, been guilty of excessive pride and prejudice?

The proud Mr. Darcy at the ball where he met Elizabeth.

Jane Austen sure understood the importance of a good premise. Two hundred years later, her books are still being read and translated to film, television and plays.

In conclusion:
  • Every story must have a moral premise that rings true to the majority of readers/viewers.
  • Said premise shouldn't be an abstract concept of what the world should be like, but something concrete most people can relate to.
  • The premise must be proven through consequences (good or bad) for our characters at the end of the novel.
  • A moral premise will give the writer a blueprint of where to go with the story, rather than just concentrating on the physical action and “what happens next.”

Can you think of other films/novels where you've disagreed/felt a disconnect with the theme? Can you think of the moral premise of your own novel and put it in one sentence? Do you come up with your premise first and then write your novel or do you realize what it is after you've finished writing (guilty!)?


  1. 'Well, it sounds very nice on paper, except that it’s a very abstract concept. How could I execute it in a way that was clear and touched my audience in an emotional way?'


    L, I have found a stimulating discussion on plot contrivances and narrative pitfalls in the most unlikely place -- an atheist manifesto!

  2. Dear Sister Lorena, forget about the writing craft. Your post reaches beyond it since it encompasses the secret of life. The moral theme is what makes our novels and our lives meaningful.
    Reading your articles made me realize that a plot always has to come a full circle, bring you back at the beginning ato see whether your MC achieved at the end what he/she set to do and how much has she/he grown or evolved through the process
    This has been the most helpful blog entry I have read so far, because it has made me re-think my novel´s purpose.
    Yes, I can think of many fictional works that drift away from their initial purpose. I see it in telenovelas, in TV series that have lasted too long and even in Stephanie Mayer’s vampire saga. Their effort to keep up their fandom, rating, selling rates, etc. forces them to betray their original premise.
    In a nutshell, my novel´s moral premise is the dichotomy between power and gifts. (That is one sentence but let me clarify the concept)
    What do you do with your gifts? What If you are given a supernatural power? Do you use it for good, do you squander it or do you let others use it for wrong purpose? Do you grow arrogant or abusive just because you have a magical talent?

  3. I knew the theme of my recent novel, but after reading your post it just occurred to me that it mirrored my writing journey.

    I think it was Stephen King who wrote about how theme and symbolism comes out in later drafts and revisions. Yet, all good books do indeed have themes the audience can relate to.

    Have a great week, Lorena!

  4. I haven't seen Limitless, but I wonder if the movie was interested less about a moral premise than in an exploration of what a person with ultimate power would do. And maybe the writer believed that human beings ultimately are not generous. I don't know. But I do enjoy when the protagonist experiences growth.

  5. "Limitless" is an interesting example, although I haven't seen it either. But MP brings up a good point. What if the premise in "Limitless" was not that the MC became a good character through his new brain power, but rather to show that having that much power isn't what it's all trumped up to be? Sometimes it's just good to get back at the bad guys in the end? An MC has to grow in some way, whether we like the growth or not, but who decides that? "Limitless" actually did pretty well at the box office, so perhaps it's all a matter of taste in the end.

    Your post, like everyone else has stated, made me reflect on my MC and moral premise. It boils down to this: Even a spoiled rich girl can learn her lesson and grow up and become something useful to society. (Or something like that.)

    I really enjoyed this post, and yeah, it really made me think.

  6. Sister Violante, thank you for your words and I'm glad this post was helpful. I think in the end, the urge to create/write is bigger than just having our names on a piece of paper. It's about leaving a legacy or saying something important about the world/human condition, right?

    Suze, care to expand on "ding"? (or translate? :-))

    Hi Stephanie! I think Stephen King may be right (and I'm glad he said that) because that's how the themes of both of my novels came about (after I'd already written them! Ha ha!) Thanks for stopping by.

  7. MP and Mary,

    "Limitless" is the film version of Alan Glynn's novel "The Dark Fields." SPOILER ALERT! (If you don't want to know the end of this novel, stop reading now! :-)) In the novel, Eddie (the main character) dies in a cheap hotel room after realizing everything he's done and how this drug destroyed his life. So, the original moral premise was different. It actually made sense and made the MC take responsibility for his actions (in a way). It also said something about drug addiction. But in Hollywood you generally can't end a film on such a dark note. This is the problem of mainstream TV and film. They have made audiences always expect happy endings that have little to do with real life. I think as novelists we're allowed and expected to "raise the bar." (I imagine Glynn was probably not too happy with the ending.) Here's a very interesting comparison between the film and novel:

  8. One more thing about the premise of "Limitless." Yes, MP, it's definitely an exploration of what "limitless" power can do. But by giving the MC a happy ending with zero responsibility/consequences, the director and screenwriter are saying that it's ok to do everything he did. It's possible (and it happens) to have a premise that goes against the values commonly accepted as valid, but even if it makes money because of the cute actor/cool effects/action sequences in the end we have to wonder if this story will endure for posterity.

  9. Would "Stop the World, I want to get off" be considered a moral premise?, 'The Dark Fields' sounds like a good example."(Like so many novels lately). As a screenwriter, Lorena's teacher seemed to me to be bound by a different logic and moral compass than some of the more popular novelists, John Irving for example. If there is any moral premise in one of his books except 'life is weird', and 'everybody needs a little sex',please tell me what it is.
    I notice that when a long rambling novel comes to the screen, the screen writers select certain parts, scramble them and produce nice neat stories with moral premises and audience pleasing outcomes. I recently saw the 1930 ? version of Human Bondage with Bette Davis. The writers did a pretty good job of telescoping 100, or so, chapters into 2 hours. The moral premise as I saw it was; if you suffer long enough you'll find love and happiness. Of all the long novels brought to the screen, it seems to me that the writers for "Gone With the Wind" did the best job. A great topic, Lorena. Thanks. Regis

  10. What a great post! Thought-provoking and practical both. I really liked your epiphany about how the theme you *thought* you had turned out not to be the *real* theme. Finding theme is very difficult, and maybe one of the things that forces us, as writers, to reach deepest into our humanity.

    I really like what Stephen King said, too, because I think if you start with theme, you often wind up with a polemic. A lecture, thinly disguised as a book. :)

  11. Regis, I've never read anything by John Irving but I saw the film adaptations of two of his novels: "The Hotel New Hampshire" and "The Cider House Rules." The latter definitely has a message/POV about abortion (I imagine the audience must have been divided here, but the authorial position is clear.) I'm not sure what he's trying to say with the THNH other than showing the effects of a dysfunctional family, rape and incest. I was a teenager when I saw this film so I can't remember how it ends (does anybody remember?) but I don't think it left me very optimistic about life. ("Life is weird and then you die" definitely seems like it could have been the theme here. :-))

    I agree that the film version of GWTW is excellent (I liked it better than the novel.)

    Sister Steph, I agree that if the theme evolves after the novel is complete it will probably be more subtle than if you plan it all along. However, it can also be difficult to figure it out so late because it may require a major rewrite. So there's good and bad in both alternatives, I guess!


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