When people watch a movie, they want to FEEL something.
I have nothing against intellect. I love to think. I sometimes joke I like the concept of people better than people! Intellect is a critical aspect to everything we do including the story-crafting process.
However, I am convinced that what is most at work when a moviegoer makes a connection to a film spooling out on screen is fundamentally an emotional dynamic. It is those moments, those characters, those layers which move us emotionally that are the single most important component of why we love a movie.
In other words, when we watch a movie, we want to FEEL something. Laugh. Gasp. Shriek. An emotional response to what we see and hear on screen.
Now let’s be clear: By “emotional,” I do not mean melodrama. Or buckets of tears [although stories can generate them]. Or over-emotional. I simply mean those layers of a story where something is going on that engages a script reader or movie viewer’s emotional self. If the word itself throws you, substitute “psychological.” Your story’s psychological life.
All this is a way of framing a discussion about theme I want to have the next several days. If we were taught anything at all about it in writing class in high school or college, it was probably that theme is the moral of the story. There’s nothing wrong with a story having a moral. But in my view, this definition neuters the potential of what theme can mean to you and your stories.
We don’t emerge from a movie theater and say, “Wow, the moral of that story really moved me.” No, we talk about characters, scenes, moments, events in the story that evoked an emotional response in us.
In other words, when people watch a movie, they not only want to be entertained, they want to be engaged psychologically by what they see and hear.
Why not look at the concept of theme with that in mind?
If you have trouble figuring out your story’s themes, explore the emotional dynamics, and you will find them.
If you have difficulty managing your story’s themes, track the emotional dynamics, and you will get a handle on them.
Theme = Meaning. In particular, theme equals a story emotional meaning.
So as we consider the dynamic of theme, let’s start here:
Your story’s emotional life.