Controlling theme. Sounds a bit daunting, doesn’t it? As if there’s this point that needs to be made with your story, some lesson that you must prove. Well…there kinda is. But your story doesn’t have to be a grand statement or literary masterpiece, especially if you’re writing to entertain.
The controlling theme is the argument that the rest of the story is going to prove true. It’s the idea of the story, the lesson, in one or two short sentences. Most stories’ controlling theme is set by the genre or is guided by it at the very least. A lot of times the theme of a mystery is that justice prevails. That justice can come in many forms (fines, incarceration, death, etc.), and, not surprisingly, it is also guided by genre.
What if you wanted to write a mystery where the bad guy wins and the good guy loses? You could make a perfectly valid case for a different theme, maybe something like following the rules of society will hold you back.
So if the theme can be different for the same genre, what’s it there for?
This controlling theme is there to guide the character’s actions and motivations, and it’s how you’ll meet the essential scene requirements of your chosen genre. It can also guide you on the best character perspective and point of view to use.
While the genre guides what scenes you must include, the controlling theme guides how those scenes will be executed.
In a murder mystery, there is usually a scene where the head detective chooses whether to kill the antagonist or let him live. The possible reasons why the detective would choose one over the other are endless. The theme will help you narrow down your choices. In a traditional mystery, the antagonist will either be arrested or killed, and justice will be served. But in a nontraditional mystery, with the theme that following society’s rules holds you back, the protagonist chooses to let the antagonist live, hesitates for a beat too long, or is outsmarted or outgunned.
Notice that the essential scene is still valid: the antagonist must live or die.
Write Out Your Theme
Writing out your theme, even loosely, in a few words or a few sentences will help you stay focused in the initial drafts. Once you’ve got your story in an outline, summary, or rough draft, and you’ve figured out your genre, look to see what other themes you may have touched on while writing. You may surprise yourself and find a few hidden lessons. Figure out which ones you want to focus on and write them down.
After writing out your theme, it’s time to revise with it in mind. Take each of your essential scenes and shape them to the lesson the characters are learning.
Don’t forget that the climax must pose and answer a question that relates to the theme. In our mystery example, the traditional question is whether justice will be served. In the nontraditional example, the question may be the same, but the answers to each will be vastly different. The answer, how it all plays out in the climax (one of the Four Requirements) is what will separate one theme from another.
When I receive a manuscript that has a climax that doesn’t match the rest of the story, I ask the author what it is they’re trying to teach their characters. What characters learn, readers learn. We’ll then work together to boil down that lesson so it’s laser-focused, and then base revisions on that.
If you’re struggling to find your theme, try asking trusted friends what they think you’re trying to say. Most will give you an answer pertaining to what the story is about, but don’t let them off the hook that easily! Get them to really dig deep to see the core of the story. Eventually, they’ll come up with something that hits you as spot-on or surprise you with their insight. Take that and run with it.
Sometimes the feedback we receive from our writer’s groups, friends, or even beta readers just doesn’t seem to address what’s not working in an otherwise great story. Let me help you focus your theme! Start with scheduling a FREE draft assessment here.