A controlling idea or theme is the message that a reader takes away from your story after having read it.
According to Robert McKee a Controlling Idea or Theme is described as follows:
- A controlling idea must be boiled down to the fewest possible words and cannot be longer than a one-sentence statement.
- It must describe the climactic value charge of the entire story, either positively or negatively.
- And, it must be as specific as possible about the cause of the change in value charge.
Which basically means that the controlling idea is a one-sentence description of the change a character faces (and its cause) throughout a story based on the value they face. For action, that value is life/death. Mystery changes on justice/injustice. Love stories shift on the love/hate spectrum.
I’ve already talked about the conventions and obligatory scenes that come with every genre you could want to write in. Should those conventions and obligatory scenes be met, a theme will be obvious once the story has played out. Hopefully, it will keep the reader thinking about your story long after they finish reading.
Though it may not be completely figured out until the first draft is completed, it’s still good to start writing with a general idea of what you want to say. That way, you won’t get too lost in the weeds while you’re working things out. It’s helpful to be able to come back to your theme every time (and yes, it will happen multiple times) you get lost. The theme will remind you of the character’s journey.
So, at least thinking about a theme before you start writing is a good idea.
Luckily theme, at least from the writing side, is dependent on genre. If you’re writing a love story the controlling idea will be something along the lines of “love prevails when…” An action story will be something like “life is preserved when…” And a crime story will probably be “justice results when…”
The same is true for negative values. If you’re writing a tragedy-love story it will instead be “love fails when…” And so on for the other genres.
What’s interesting is that, once a story is written and in the hands of readers, they will interpret it however they see fit. Basically, a story that means something to you could mean something completely different to a reader. To me, that’s what makes stories so important. That’s how stories change people. Specificity in a story will remind a reader of their own life and, perhaps, make them change for the better. It’s not guaranteed, but it is the only surefire way to get someone to even think about changing (because they have to do it for themselves).
Getting a theme figured out shouldn’t be a stressful task. It will depend on what a character wants and what stands in their way. Rather than worry, just use the standard “value your story changes on” + “fails/prevails/perseveres/etc.” + “when” + “something happens” formula. That way you can refer to it during the (many) times you get stuck. It will remind you where your character is headed so that you can keep putting up obstacles in their way.
For example, love prevails when lovers give up their selfish needs for each other. Or, life is preserved when heroes sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Or, tyranny reigns when heroes fail to unleash their special gifts into the world.
Let me know if that helps you on your journey to starting your novel. Also, what would you like to hear about next?