Whether you call it the moral, message, or theme, every story has an underlying meaning or idea. Most stories engage either moral and/or philosophical questions, which the plot demonstrates through a series of relatable situations.
For example, Aladdin is a young man struggling to make his way in the world. Jasmine is a young woman struggling against society’s expectations. Both are very relatable conflicts. Fight Club is a more philosophical story, engaging philosophical questions of meaning, value, and purpose. Many TV shows focus on the daily lives of its characters, but underneath there are subtle questions like “What does all of this (recent events) mean? Does it mean anything?”
When creating a story there are two ways to incorporate ideas into the narrative. One is to start with an idea, and build the story around it. The other is to simply write a story, and then look for the meaning embedded within the story during the revision process.
Just as all music is built on rhythm, all stories have an underlying meaning which helps to unite what would otherwise simply be a series of events. Audiences may not recognize the meaning of a story, but they always notice when it’s lacking.
Start with a Story
It’s often easier to simply write a story, and look for the underlying idea after the story is complete. Start with a statement, what is the story about? Avoid any specifics that root the story in a specific time or place. Try to reduce it to a problem or experience that many can relate to.
For example, the film Aladdin is about two characters both trying to escape the rigid roles society has assigned to them. Aladdin is trapped in the role of an impoverished young thief, while Jasmine is trapped in the role of princess. The two have parallel problems while existing at opposite ends of the spectrum. For Aladdin wealth is part of the solution, while Jasmine sees it as part of the problem. This combination of parallel and contrasting views sets the stage for a conflicted relationship.
The two meet and become romantically involved, but social conventions make a relationship impossible. So Aladdin masquerades as a wealthy prince in order to court the princess, creating more conflict. When the truth comes out, Aladdin is brought low, and must work hard to make amends for his deception, and earn Jasmine’s respect and love as himself.
Notice that there’s no mention of magic, Agrabah, or anything else that ties the story to a specific time, place, or genre. Audiences are often drawn to these details, to the medieval fantasy time period, to the whimsical and magical tone of the film, but without strong meaning the story has no substance.
When looking for meaning, look to the conflict. What is the protagonist trying to do? Who or what opposes them? If the protagonist is rewarded with a happy ending, then the story is condoning the protagonist’s choices. If the protagonist is punished with a tragic ending, the story is censuring the protagonist for their transgression.
Starting with an Idea