Ever since I left the Story Seminar I have been trying to figure out the controlling idea of my story. I figure as I rewrite, I should have this clearly in mind, so it can help me guide the changes and ensure consistency. I noodled on it while driving, while cooking, while waiting for a hockey game to start – pretty much anytime it comes to mind, I’m working the problem in my head. As I have a couple of driving reasons to get this rewrite finished, I decided I would sit down once and for all and decide on one. I wrote down a list of potential lines.
Nothing seemed right, and finally, tonight, I understand why. I went back to two books – Story, by Robert McKee, as mentioned a couple times now, and, John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. It’s from McKee that I use the phrase Controlling Idea. Truby calls it a Theme Line. In either case, it is the essence of what your story is about – a value change – Truby would say a moral value – and a cause – the human behavior.
An example from McKee is, for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry – “Justice triumphs because the protagonist is more violent than the criminals.” One of Truby’s examples is, for Four Weddings and a Funeral, “When you find your one true love, you must commit to that person with your whole heart.”
Now, I had this understanding with all of my noodling. But, how you figure it out, well, it differs between these two authors. McKee says that the well written story tells you what it is – by evaluating the climax of the story, seeing what value is brought to the protagonist. Ah-ha – this was a huge relief to re-read in the Story book. I don’t need to get hung up on figuring it out, but the story, when done, should make this easy to state. Now, Truby, if I follow his thinking correctly, presents that this should be tackled fairly early in planning the story, through analysis of other fundamental aspects of the premise of the story. Perhaps when I get to seriously developing one of my other story ideas, I’ll try shaping it up front, but in the case of my rewrite, I think I will go the route of letting the story tell me the controlling idea, rather than trying to retrofit one.