What I Used to Think: Your theme is a statement of the moral of your story.
- What I Now Realize: The theme of your story is derived from the irreconcilable ethical or moral dilemma that underlies the dramatic question.
- What I Now Realize: A choice between good and evil is a no brainer, so it will be dramatically inert. The hero should be forced to choose between good vs. good, or evil vs. evil.
- What I Now Realize: Your story should make a statement about this dilemma without entirely resolving it. The hero should be forced to choose between those two goods or two evils, and that choice should have consequences, but the dilemma should live on in the audience’s heads.
- What I Now Realize: Sarcasm is the least interesting type of irony. Irony refers to any meaningful gap between expectation and outcome, and it is what gives stories their emotional heft. Every aspect of every story should be ironic in multiple ways. There are at least seven different types of irony that are essential tools for a writer to use.
- What I Now Realize: It is extremely difficult to write a story that reliably entertains large numbers of people. Both great literature and great entertainment are badly needed, very worthwhile, and highly useful to society as a whole.
- What I Now Realize: Just because a particular episode of “Mad Men” may be funny or have a happy ending doesn’t mean that it’s pure entertainment without any literary qualities. Likewise, just because a “Burn Notice” episode ends with that week’s bad guy getting away doesn’t mean it was intended to be literary. The primary distinction is that literary stories tend to be about the unintended consequences of the characters’ actions, while purely entertaining stories tend to be about the intended consequences of their actions.
- What I Now Realize: If you want your theme to resonate with an audience, your story must ring true-- it must reflect human nature and the way the world works.
- What I Now Realize: Human nature dictates that people only want what they want. All characters must be motivated by their own self-interest, as they see it. Heroes and villains should never pursue good or evil as abstract goals. No character should ever ask a co-worker, “What’s wrong?”, or selflessly say, “Do you know what your problem is?” All of these ring phony. Ironically, audiences admire most those characters that care about themselves.
- What I Now Realize: Audiences expect every story to conform to their expectations about human nature, even if none of the characters are human. We expect even elves and robots to be ruled by the iron laws of human nature. This means that every writer must be a student of human nature, and constantly observe the way in which the world works and doesn’t work. All writing must ring true.