The Toy Story Guide to Using Theme

Theme. It’s a vague, mystical concept discussed in the halls of universities and remarked upon by literary critics worldwide.

Theme is more than fancy window dressing to make your story ‘culturally relevant’ or of ‘literary merit.’ Theme, in fact, is a tool for writers – a tool that organises your story’s scenes, characters, tone and plot.

So: What is Theme?

While there are lots of ways of defining this vague, mystical, abstract concept that is ‘theme,’ the way I see it is quite simple: it’s a 1-2 sentence summary of your story’s internal movement. Whereas plot is your story’s external movement – that is, the events which happen in your story – theme chronicles the internal aspect of your story.

To make this clearer, lets look at the Pixar animated classic, Toy Story:

  • Plot: two rival toys – a cowboy and a space ranger – must escape from the clutches of a ruthless child to reunite with Andy, their owner.
  • Theme: a selfish cowboy toy overcomes his desire to be Andy’s favourite by becoming friends with his rival space-ranger toy.

Here, the plot follows the protagonist’s actions and experiences. By contrast, the theme follows the protagonist’s growth, character development and change. If plot is the external component of a story, theme is the internal component.

Why Theme Matters:

Plot, character and theme are the three legs of the chair that supports the your story. You can’t write (well) about character without a compelling theme to guide their actions and a plot to show their values, and you can’t construct an interesting plot without interesting characters and an appropriate theme. As much as writers and readers try to separate them (i.e. in the debate of ‘plot-based’ vs ‘character-based’ stories), plot, character and theme are all important, integral and – most importantly – intersecting elements that must all be present for a story to work.

Toy Story, for instance, would’ve flopped if it focussed purely on the action (plot) aspects of the toys trying to escape Sid’s house of horrors. Likewise, it would’ve been a nightmare if it revolved purely around philosophical discussions between Woody and Buzz over whom Andy prefers (character/theme). Instead, Toy Story integrates and intersects character and plot and theme. By telling a riveting story of two rival toys (character/theme) escaping an abusive child’s house (plot) and becoming friends (theme) as a result of overcoming scary events (plot -> theme), Pixar created a classic story chock-full of heart.

How to Use Theme:

It’s all well and good for me to bang on about how much I love Toy Story, but what about some practical advice, huh? Well, I’m glad you asked.

Just like theme’s many definitions, there’s lots of ways to use it. My favoured approach is to – in the same way that you’d write a short synopsis to define your story’s plot – to take time to write a theme synopsis. Much like the theme summary I wrote for Toy Story, this sentence makes it easier to write your story by providing an internal plot that structures the external plot, dialogue and character development.

(As a side note, if you’re struggling to come up with a theme synopsis for your story, try to make one for someone else’s story, like I did for Toy Story. I’ve written about this method when it comes to story titles before, and it’s just as useful here.)

Keep your theme synopsis and your plot synopsis close when you write, you’ll have two super-useful scaffolding tools to help you traverse treacherous plot holes, scale the walls of writer’s block and craft a story that holistically integrates plot, character and theme as well as the classics do. So go forth, and forever remember the importance of theme!

What are your thoughts on theme? Do you think plot, character and theme are (or should) intersect? What do you view as the crucial elements of a story? I’d love to hear your ruminations!

Photo credit: JD Hancock via VisualHunt / CC BY

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7 thoughts on “The Toy Story Guide to Using Theme

  1. I believe this is why I struggled with my first book. I was focused on plots and subplots when one of the subplots was actually the theme. I considered theme to be the ‘color’ of the story – time, place, tone, etc. Guess that’s why I kept digging big holes and falling in! 😉

    Will take a step back from my current wips and add a theme synopsis. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting insight! In terms of time, place and tone, I personally consider the first two as related to the setting, and the tone as more of a thematic concern. However, all three elements form part of the theme – just like character and plot also do. As much as people like me (i.e. writing advice bloggers) try to seperate story craft into discreet elements (posted weekly!), it’s impossible to truly seperate a story into individual ingredients. This ain’t cooking :). Stories are about a whole, not the parts – yet having said that it’s still important to understand those parts, even if making a story isn’t as simple as merely putting those parts together. I realise this has gotten a bit rambling, but I hope it kinda makes sense. Good luck with your wip and thanks for reaching out!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Right — a story’s theme is always in direct correlation with the protagonist’s transformational arc. That’s what the story is “about.” The arcs of ancillary characters, however, don’t need to reflect the story’s theme; they’re just there to give the story greater depth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point – secondary character arcs don’t NEED to follow the main character’s arc, but since they are viewed in comparison to the main character’s journey there’s always room to compare/contrast them against the main character’s arc. This is completely optional, of course, and not always suited to every type of story, but it’s always something to keep in mind. Ultimately, however, I agree with Sean – secondary characters help to make the story more realistic.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. What’s most effective is when character arcs work like counterparts in a Swiss watch. For example, Luke Skywalker’s hero’s journey inspires Han Solo to adopt ethics, and cold-fish Leia is then so taken with Han’s transformation that she is sent on a character arc of her own: She learns to be emotionally vulnerable. So even though their arcs aren’t necessarily “related,” there’s a causality to them that is very satisfying.

        Liked by 1 person

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