Theme Party: 3 Tricks to Staying on Theme

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Ok, I admit it: Mad Men is fun to watch.  Like most of America, I get a kick out of watching Don Draper and his crew toss aside rivals while seducing everyone in sight.  But Mad Men, which has won countless Emmy awards, clearly has something else going for it.  In each of the six seasons, creator Matthew Weiner has added dimension to the characters and taken the audience on a journey through the tumultuous world of the 1960s.  How does Weiner cover so much ground while remaining true to his characters?   

It all comes down to staying on theme.

As I’ve discussed on the blog before, a story’s theme tends to emerge after you’ve told it a number of times.  However, there are ways to shortcut the storytelling process.  To help you shape your own stories faster and make your themes more apparent, here are “3 Tricks to Staying On Theme.”  You may not come out looking like Don Draper, but you’ll at least be able to show the audience the meaning behind your own stories.

1.  Boil it down to a big idea .  The most basic definition of theme is “what the story is about”.  In other words, themes are big ideas that reference the transformation that the central character undergoes.  When thinking about themes in your own stories, look at who you were at the beginning of the story and who you are at the end.  Did you start off as a kid who used to get bullied and end up as a bully?  A class clown who ended up as the valedictorian?  One trick is to identify the transformation in one word  (i.e. Loss, Betrayal, Reinvention, Hope, Power, etc).  Simplifying the theme will help you stay focused.

2. Identify the emotional arc. Behind every big idea is a big emotion.  All stories, big and small, are about the subtle changes in one of the five essential emotions (fear, love, anger, sadness and joy).  Use the emotional roller coaster of the story told to guide you to a new place.  Do you start out happy and end up despondent?  Do you start confused and wind up feeling confident?  Be clear and honest with yourself because this is the journey you’re going to take your audience on when you tell your story again.

3.  Edit.  Once you know the emotional punch of the story, make sure that each scene works in service of the big idea.  Every scene should reveal something new, so when editing it’s important to ask yourself two questions.  First, is this scene critical to understanding the character’s transformation?  Second, does the scene contain anything that doesn’t serve the theme?  If the answers are yes and no, then you’re ready to go.  Otherwise, re-examine and rework.  

Feeling more like a Mad Man now?

Image courtesy of AMC

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