The Big Takeaway

The next line on our Foolscap Global Story Grid is a space to fill in the protagonist/s Objects of Desire.  Here’s Story Fuel, a post I wrote on these essential choices. It’s worth reading through it again to clarify how best to write it down on your Foolscap.

After Objects of Desire, we come to the big Kahuna of our Story, the Controlling Idea/Theme.

The controlling idea is the takeaway message the writer wants the reader/viewer to discover from reading or watching his story. It’s the whole reason many of us want to be writers in the first place. We have something to say about the way the world is and we want others to come to see it in the same way we do.

Wanting to say something and understanding exactly what that something is and concretely communicating it is the most difficult thing to crack. The truth of the matter is that there is a wide chasm between our rational and deliberately reasoned and specific inner philosophies and our creative energies. Oftentimes, our subconscious creative comes up with a strikingly good idea for a scene or description and we have no real understanding of where it came from.

The more you write the more you discover that those inspirations are clues to figuring the controlling idea/theme of your global story.

Many writers don’t have a clue of what their theme is until far into the writing process. Some even refuse to acknowledge that they have any particular agenda or message to impart beyond keeping the reader guessing what’s going to happen next… One of my clients is David Mamet and he’ll pledge on a stack of bibles that he does not have any agenda in his work beyond keeping the audience transfixed. I absolutely believe him, but to think that there are no controlling ideas in OLEANNA or GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS or SEXUAL PEVERSITY IN CHICAGO is to ignore the very truths that emerge when a writer is busting his hump to keep us guessing. I could devote entire books to these three plays and pull out very clear controlling ideas concerning tyranny, self-deception, humiliation, and the nature of intimacy. Which all three of these plays explore. Mamet would deny that he had any intention of loading these works with any of my takeaways. He would not be lying either. But his work is so damn specific and biting that to deny the truths that lie within the drama (put there intentionally or not) is ludicrous.

So it’s fine if you don’t want to overly concern yourself with the controlling idea/theme. If you can write scenes and structure progressive complications, crises, climaxes and resolutions like David Mamet, you certainly don’t need me to tell you that your work isn’t vital because you won’t spell it out for me. But if you haven’t been sitting at a desk for forty years like he has with a clear intention to keep people guessing no matter what, then you may find that codifying your controlling idea/theme can help direct your work.

This is the beauty of writing, the big payoff that keeps people staring at blank screens for hours on end banging out scenes and chapters that they believe are accomplishing one thing, while underneath the on stage action they are doing something completely different. The creative energy and hard work necessary to bring these bits to life truthfully will eventually coalesce and an “aha, that’s what this is about!” moment will come. Perhaps not even to the writer, but to the reader.

One of the most difficult skills to develop as a writer is patience. And figuring out the controlling idea/theme requires it in abundance.

But once the controlling idea of the story becomes concrete for the writer, and this may take far longer than you can possibly imagine, the Story will come to life. Problems will resolve themselves. Decisions will become much easier to make and the work becomes far more pleasurable.

What exactly is a controlling idea?

I like the approach that Robert McKee takes because it is extremely clear and specific.

  1. A controlling idea must be boiled down to the fewest possible words and cannot be longer than a one-sentence statement.
  2. It must describe the climactic value charge of the entire story, either positively or negatively.
  3. And it must be as specific as possible about the cause of the change in value charge.

For example, the controlling idea of the popular crime novel and film adaptation, The Firm, would be justice prevails when an everyman victim is more clever than the criminals.

That’s a solid controlling idea. Is it incredibly innovative or deep? No. But it is perfectly in keeping with the core value at stake in a crime story—justice.

John Grisham told a wildly compelling story using his deep understanding of the life of a young lawyer. While the controlling idea of his book isn’t internally driven or existentially spectacular, the execution of the important cultural value that “Justice prevails” is very important. Justice is a value that we all want to deeply believe in.

Reading a story like The Firm, gives us an initial anxiety about how Justice can prevail if the stewards of the law are corrupt. But at climax when it does prevail surprisingly but inevitably, we find relief. The fact that a single individual can outsmart and defend an important societal value is a message we all need to hear. That’s what the controlling idea/theme is all about. Taking a value that we all rely on to live peacefully day to day, challenging its stolidity and then paying it off with its confirmation or its vulnerability. So even though you may think the crime, horror, action stories that have no underlying internal messages within are purely entertainments…they serve society as certifiers of our values. When the bad guy is caught, we’re relieved. Justice prevails, Life is precious, Love is sublime…we need to get these messages from our stories or we despair.

Did John Grisham sit down and write out his controlling idea before he wrote The Firm?

My guess is no. Instead, Grisham’s life experience and grasp of compelling characters and scenes all flowed from an internal value that he perhaps never consciously spelled out for himself. He didn’t set out to reassure us that justice prevails.  Instead he wanted to challenge himself to keep us turning pages.

When a writer chooses to have his story driven by a broad external genre, the controlling idea is often inherent in the choice. This is perfectly acceptable and even laudable when well executed. There is no requirement to pound your head on a table to come up with a brand new controlling idea for your particular story. Knowing what the controlling idea is concretely, though, will help you stay on course.

Especially if you get stuck in the weeds on a particular draft.

But is there a way to have a deep controlling idea within a broad external content genre?

The answer of course is yes. The way to pull this off is to drive the internal content genre as hard as you do your external. An example of a very deep controlling idea that is also a straightforward Horror Story is The Shining by Stephen King.

I took away the following controlling idea from his book: Narcissistic self-abuse annihilates all forms of human love. Deep indeed.

The novel is one of King’s masterpieces, written in the midst of his coming to terms with his own alcoholism and cocaine addiction. This story fired on all cylinders because it was deeply horrifying while also being so intensely personal. It didn’t just nail the Ambiguous Horror Story. It was a deeply moving punitive/cautionary tale for the overly ambitious/self loathing striver in all of us…the one who insists that if he were just given the right circumstances to paint his masterpiece, he’d deliver…

Both Grisham and King wrote extraordinarily successful novels. And both men had something very important to say. While Grisham’s was more of a deep dive into the dangers of powerful legal partnerships in the United States and its dominant global genre was the legal thriller, King’s novel was ultimately driven by its internal genre, the Punitive Plot. But he brilliantly wrapped it in the candy of an external Ambiguous Horror story.

King somehow wrote a literary Miniplot novel masquerading as a horror story. That’s extraordinary.

You may have imagined the most charismatic protagonist, the most detailed and inviting setting and the perfect foil, but without a clear understanding of what it is you are trying to get across to the reader, you’ll never hear the magic words…”your book changed my life.” And trust me. Every writer I’ve ever worked with would die happy to hear someone tell him that. Even just once.

There is a reason why writing a novel, or a screenplay, a play, a television pilot or even launching a company is difficult. Practically impossible. You have to make a lot of choices. You have to make value judgments. You have to ask yourself: If I had to boil down all of the events in my story to one sentence what would that sentence be?

That sentence is the controlling idea. Once you figure it out, and again it will not come easily to you, you will gain immeasurable confidence.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.

17 comments on “The Big Takeaway

  1. Joel D Canfield says:

    Sometimes I don’t know what I’m writing about until the entire first draft is sorted, which follows all sorts of prep work.

    Once I know my theme, the controlling idea, I spend one entire rewrite shining a light on it through the whole book.

    Any tips on figuring out my controlling idea earlier in the creative process, rather than when I’m rereading my finished first draft?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      My gut is that your process is the right one for your Joel. To impose a controlling idea/theme on your work beforehand may be a recipe for too much “editor” and not enough “writer.” What I mean by that is that we need both the writer and the editor to do their work separately and to respect the other’s territory.

      So for example, I think it’s worth doing a Foolscap page before you dive into your first draft. When you come to fill in CONTROLLING IDEA/THEME rely on your GENRE. That is use the value that you’ve chosen to be in jeopardy to fill it in and don’t beat yourself up if it reads/sounds cliche. I know you’re a crime fan, so I’d just write down something like: Justice is restored when the hero/victim/protagonist/master detective trusts his instincts. Or something like that. Doing that simple phrase and having it in ink in front of you will be immeasurably helpful. When you get stuck, you’ll look at the foolscap and remember that the “thing/theme/controlling idea” that you are putting forth is about trusting instincts. So when a critical scene is knocking you on your ass, you’ll be able to say to yourself…”oh, I just need to stress the “intuitive” here over the “analytical.” And that will give you the fuel to bang out a whole bunch of scenarios that would do that for you.

      Later on, when you have a first draft, you can then refine and hone and build on that simple (but compelling) idea.
      Hope this helps.

      1. Mary Doyle says:

        Thanks for this response Shawn – I just missed it while I was posting my own comment.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    This is the clearest articulation of theme that I have read Shawn – thanks very much! Renaming it the “controlling idea” helped my brain click the concept into place. I think Joel’s question is an interesting one – I confess that I laid out an entire first draft before I looked at the question of theme. As a result, much of what I wrote had to be tossed and I’m still working on my “second” first draft, but I’m finding that what you wrote is true – decision making is easier, and I don’t feel like I’m out in the weeds (at least not as much).

  3. Mike says:

    Shawn, your book changed my life and it’s not even out yet! Seriously though, these posts are amazing and timely as I’m working on a first novel right now. After reading this post I was able to whittle down my controlling idea/theme to 6 words. It only took a few hundred attempts but something about this post made it just pour out. I wish I wasn’t at work right now haha. Thanks so much for all your insight!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Thanks so much.
      All the best

    2. Shawn, I wholeheartedly echo Mike’s words (except I made fewer attempts at nailing my controlling idea ’cause I’ve been thinking about it for a while now and I came up with a few more words than he did.) Question: Does the controlling idea need to be “discovered” by the reader in non-fiction too or can it be less subtle and perhaps even a bit more blatant? I’m wondering about hinting at it or even spelling it out for the reader in a preface perhaps. Your thoughts?

      1. Shawn Coyne says:

        Well, it depends on the nonfiction Genre Debbie. And there are Genres of nonfiction too. If it’s narrative nonfiction (using fiction techniques to tell a true story) it should be less blatant. If it’s prescriptive nonfiction (like The Story Grid) it should be straightforward and reiterated as many times as necessary to remind the reader why they are reading the book in the first place. Hopefully, I’ve been reinforcing the idea that The Story Grid is a tool to edit and/or inspire an original Story. Same goes with “Big Idea” nonfiction like The Tipping Point. Biography and History can sway either way. My blanket advice for nonfiction would be to clearly state what it is you are trying to prove and then go about proving it to the best of your ability.

  4. Kent Faver says:

    I actually wrote down a quote from David just this morning regarding Henry Fonda and Chiwetel Ejiofor – “they never added anything to the script except the truth of their soul.” Wow! Then I watched a few clips from Glengarry Glen Ross and noted how each actor made what was coming out of their mouths the focus of everything. Brilliant.

  5. Part of me thinks that Mr. Mamet is just so good that his unconscious knows what the controlling idea is before he starts writing, and he probably stays away from defining it to allow for an even better one to emerge from the written words.

    He keeps himself in that “creative” zone and accepts whatever might show up without need to control. A true creative genius.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Alex,
      I’ll tell you his secret. He does the work. Every single day. The man is a Spartan!
      All the best,

  6. PJ Reece says:

    Shawn… Just today I posted a piece on my blog that concerns “how to end a story,” using the film, The Two Faces of January, as an example. I think both the Shining and The Firm would agree with my assertion that many good stories end by “love getting its way with the world.” That’s a big value shift, when you consider that most plots are all about protagonists having their way with the world. I’m keen to know what you think of this.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      LOVE REIGNS is a wonderful controlling idea indeed! I concur Sir. Even wonderfully cheesy miniplot stories like LOVE, ACTUALLY are irresistible because of that truth. I’m a believer.
      All the best,

  7. Michael says:

    This has been a brilliant series of posts. Love the work you are doing, leveraging Story and applying it directly to fiction. I am still thinking about the seeming convergence of commercial genre fiction with literary fiction and wonder how this may engender genre novels with a more considerable interior life (needs-driven) to balance the traditional plot arc in pursuit of needs.
    In any case, it’s been a pleasure to learn from you, Shawn, and to bring your insights into my planning process for my next book.

  8. Jule Kucera says:

    Off topic but belonging somewhere…
    I want to thank you and Steven for The Great Black Irish Christmas Special. The box was so big that at first I thought it must be something other than the expected shipment. But it was! A big box filled with so many presents. Because I am not a golfer, I gave ‘The Legend of Bagger Vance’ to a friend whose son is on a college golf team but the rest of the box is mine, mine, mine. Thank you!
    PS: For some reason I had never read ‘Turning Pro’ and now that I have, I have a new motto: “F*ck the marshmallows.”

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Thank you for buying the big box! And I wholeheartedly agree about the marshmallows.
      All the best

  9. Joe says:

    I’m reading these posts as I publish the second and write the third book of a mystery series. I found these posts at the perfect time. I thought I had a handle on many of the points I’ve read so far. Your series has helped me sharped my focus. And I found out 2nd book is almost a thriller – missing one part! I won’t rewrite it for that part, but it’s good to know as I go forward. Thank you.

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