Today we have a look at some very important terms that you should keep in mind while writing a story – namely the premise and theme, the central image and central question as well as the controlling idea. These are valuable tools to make sure that you are creating an engaging and meaningful plot.
Since centuries human kind developed different concepts about storytelling. In this article I want to present terms, that personally helped me a lot to get a better grasp of my stories. I got these from classes of the Filmakademie with Andreas Hykade or Peter Spans. As always these are just guidelines – but very good ones that you should definitely consider if you feel like your story is lacking something.
The premise describes the starting conditions of your story and can usually put in a “what if” form. This can be very vague “What if toys were alive…” or already a little defined “What if a father fish has to find his lost son…”, “What if a retired superhero cannot stop working as a superhero…”, “What if a wooden puppet came to life and wanted to be a real boy…”
Often times this is not only the spark for your hero’s adventure but also the original idea that got you thinking “hey, that would be interesting”. At this time it might just be a vague world or event – you might not even have a single character. If you are a very intuitive person, this might be all you want to have in mind for your first brainstorming sessions, scribbles and drafts.
Another important starting point for your story is the theme. Theme and premise are often mixed up, but the difference is huge. The premise for Toy Story is “living toys”, the themes are jealousy, defending a social status and friendship.
The premise describes what your story is about on the outside, the theme describes what universal human topic the story is based on.
Don’t worry if you don’t know the theme right from the beginning. Sooner or later you will stumble about things like hate, love, friendship, ambition etc. when you set up your story. You can also develop a story starting with a theme.
Central image and central question
If you have a really good idea, it will quickly explode into a loose collection of infinite possibilities. What challenges and decisions do your characters have to make… when? And why? What events are the big plot points? Endless options.
It’s time to boil it down again. You need to set who your hero is and roughly from where to where he needs to travel (this can also be an inner journey). Otherwise you might get stuck in a never ending brainstorming. A great device to give your story a form that’s easier to grasp than a thousand possible plot point is the central image.
The central image is one picture that gives you an overview of the main story event. The direction of your story and the main obstacle should be clearly visible. Now you have set what your hero has to overcome. This is the step that you should make before you can dive into writing actual scenes.
Don’t worry, there are still enough open questions that will give you a headache (how does the hero get to the obstacle in the first place? Why does he want/has to overcome the obstacle that day?), but at least you are no longer feeding a void of what could be… you are now working towards a goal. And be honest if an idea doesn’t fit to your goal! You can already have created a interesting sub-plot or an awesome character, but if it has nothing to do with the path outlined on your central image, it doesn’t belong into this story or has to be changed.
Alongside the central image you will discover the central question. This is the question that you want your viewers to have while watching your movie. This is the question that makes them keep watching it – because you promised to give them the answer at the very end. This is an important rule that you should even follow if you do very abstract or artistic films. The central question for Titanic:
Will the love of this couple survive the sinking of the Titanic?
As you know, the best stories contain more than just the sum of it parts – there is a message, a moral or a catharsis underneath. This part is the controlling idea of your story, because everything that happens in it should be directed towards this claim. Oh and please be aware of your power to make claims especial if you think that you are doing just entertainment. As a story teller you can fullfill the very responsible position of a modern-day shaman – you can and should convey something meaningful (read more about that in this article). The good news is that stories usually develop a core on its own if they are important to you on a personal level, the bad news is that you cannot force a controlling idea (those films often turn out to be terribly preachy) and that often time the controlling idea lingers in your blind spot and is very hard to nail down. You might even be done and then realize “oh yeah that’s what it all means”. Of course, if you know it you can streamline your story and make sure your point comes across more clearly.
Controlling idea of Finding Nemo: You can only be a good father if you let go, Ratatouille: You can make your dream come true no matter where you come from.
Now it’s your turn…
I hope, I could give you a clear introduction to these terms that I find extremely helpful for both analyzing and writing stories. Now it’s your turn! Use them when you feel like your story isn’t working, and keep a sharp eye on what other storytellers hide in their plot. But don’t think too strict… some stories leave room for interpretation and are a little hard to define. It’s especially interesting to discuss different opinions about the controlling idea. What do you think is the controlling idea of Toy Story 1?