Beyond Theme: Story's New Unified Field
By James Bonnet
What is the true source of unity in a great story and how is that unity achieved? According to the dictionary, unity is the state of being one. And today it is generally agreed that a story should be about one thing - but what is that one thing? Is it the subject, the theme, the central character, the problem, the controlling idea? Or all of the above? And is there really only one source of unity or many different sources working together to create that effect?
After more than 30 years of analyzing patterns in great stories, I have come to the conclusion it's the latter. In fact, I would say there are at least ten different elements that influence the unity of a great story. And while it's true that one of those elements will be dominant and become the story's subject, having these ten elements working together will add significantly to the clarity, meaning and power of your work - and the whole will become much greater than the sum of its parts. In this article I will examine four of the ten sources of story unity.
The Value Being Pursued
The first of these unifying forces is the Value Being Pursued. In real life, either as individuals or in concert with others, we are longing for and pursuing certain cherished values, among them: life, health, wealth, justice, democracy, freedom, honor, wisdom, security, love, happiness, wholeness, and equality. At the same time, we are trying to avoid their opposites, scourges like: death, disease, poverty, injustice, tyranny, ignorance, slavery, insecurity, dishonor, unhappiness, alienation and inequality.
These values and scourges played a major role in our evolutionary path and continue to govern our lives. In fact, we are pursuing all of these values more or less simultaneously. And this makes real life appear, on the surface, to be extremely complex and difficult to analyze and understand. For clarity's sake, story likes to isolate these values, like threads from a complex skein, so that one of these values may be examined in great detail. These isolated components are the stuff that story is made of and the true source of its power.
In the larger frame story of The Iliad, the value being pursued is honor. Everything in that larger whole story is related to that one virtue. It begins with a contest to determine the most beautiful goddess. The contest is rigged and Hera and Athena feel dishonored when Paris chooses Aphrodite over them. Then Menelaus is dishonored when Paris, with the help of Aprhrodite, seduces his wife, Helen, and they run off together to Troy. Then later Achilles feels dishonored when Agamemnon takes away the girl, Briseis, his prize from the sacking of the city of Lyrnessus. And finally Poseidon feels dishonored when Odysseus pulls down his statue during the sacking of Troy. In short, everything in that story is somehow related to the value honor and its scourge dishonor.
The value being pursued in The Silence of the Lambs is justice. In Star Wars, Gladiator, Casablanca, and The Lord of the Rings it's democracy, or at least some form of representative government. In The Sixth Sense, and Ordinary People it's health (the mental health of an afflicted young boy). In Jaws and The Pianist it's life. In The Exorcist it's freedom. In A Christmas Carol it's wealth.
In all of these examples, a single value has been isolated and is being examined in great detail. This adds clarity, meaning and power to the story and makes it a unifying force.
The second unifying force is The Problem, and this problem is the central event and a prerequisite in all great stories. You have a problem and that problem is resolved. It is, in fact, one of the essential elements of a story, without which, there would be no story. These problems stand between us and the achievement of these value goals. Great stories are there to show us how to solve these Problems.
In Star Wars, the Evil Empire has taken possession of the galaxy. That is the central event of that story. And, if the cherished value being pursued is ever to be achieved, this is the problem that has to be resolved. The problem in Gladiator is very similar - a tyrant has usurped the Roman Empire, preventing the restoration of the Republic. That is the central event of the story and the problem that has to be resolved. In The Lord of the Rings, a dark tyrant has designs on Middle Earth.
In all of these stories, a single problem is the central event that prevents the achievement of the value. The story is limited to an examination of that one particular problem, which makes it a unifying force, and adds significantly to the power of its effect. And, if it's a great story, we will learn a great deal about how this particular problem comes into being and how it can be resolved. And knowing this will give us a working knowledge of both story and life.
The third source of unity is The Threat - the agents or perpetrators that create the problem. They perform the inciting actions that create the victims that bring about the changes of fortune.
In The Silence of the Lambs, the serial killer is the threat and the act of murder is the inciting action which creates the victims that bring about the change to a state of misfortune, all of which constitutes the problem that now stands between the community and Justice, the value being pursued. In Gladiator it's the emperor's son, Commodus, who creates the problem. In The Lord of the Rings it's the dark lord, Sauron. In Star Wars it's Darth Vadar and the Evil Emperor.
Equally significant in a great story is the fact that this threat will become the source of resistance that opposes the action when someone tries to solve this problem and restore a state of good fortune. This resistance will create the complications, crisis, climax and resolution of the classical structure that occurs whenever a problem-solving action encounters resistance. The problem, change of fortune and components of the classical structure constitute the very essence of story, without which there would be no story.
In The Exorcist the Devil is the threat. He takes possession of a young girl and that is the inciting action which creates the problem that brings about the change of fortune. He is also the main source of resistance that creates the complications, crisis, climax and resolution when the priest tries to solve that problem.
In all of the stories mentioned above, a single threat - be that an individual, a single group or an army - is being isolated and studied in great detail, which again increases the clarity and power of the story and creates another unifying force.
The next force of unity is The Anti-Threat - the one who opposes the threat and solves the problem. We usually call the person who has that responsibility the protagonist or the hero - the protagonist being the one who initiates the action and the hero being a protagonist who risks or sacrifices himself for the sake of others. And, whereas the threat is the creator of the problem, the anti-threat is the fixer of the problem.
In Gladiator, it's Maximus (Russell Crowe). His Emperor, his wife and his son have been murdered by the new tyrant, Commodus, who has taken possession of the Empire. To make matters worse, he's been taken into slavery and forced into a new profession that has an almost zero survival rate. In Star Wars, it's a neophyte Jedi, Luke Skywalker, facing a vast army of robot-like Nazis. In The Lord of the Rings, it's Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring.
In all of these examples, a single problem-solving force has been isolated and is being studied in great detail, and another important unifying force has been created. Basically what I'm saying here is if you limit your story to one value, one problem, one threat and one anti-threat, even if that threat and anti-threat are groups working together, and you examine those dimensions in great detail, you will dramatically increase the clarity, meaning and power of your story, and you can make a powerful artistic statement.
When I continue, in future segments, we will explore the remaining six elements.
Meet the Author: James Bonnet
James Bonnet is an internationally known writer and story consultant. Elected twice to the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America, he has written or acted in more than forty television shows and features. He created the role of James Roosevelt in the Tony Award winning hit Broadway show, Sunrise at Campobello, and received his first professional writing job at 23. Recently he was honored with a Writer’s Guild of America award for his writing contribution to the hit television series, Barney Miller. His book has been taught in university courses around the world and is having a major impact on writers in all media.