Deepening Your Story’s Theme With the Thematic Square

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here is the link to this article.

By K.M. Weiland

How can you deepen your story’s theme? This is a question most writers find themselves asking at one point or another. And there are many answers.

As an inherently abstract concept, theme can be approached from many different directions—and still feel hard to get at. But as one of the most important factors in creating a story with meaning, cohesion, and resonance, theme must be approached with practical understanding at least at some point in the writing process. I’ve written extensively on this site and in my book Writing Your Story’s Theme about how writers can use a practical understanding of plot structure and character arc to consciously craft and hone integral themes.

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

Basically, this approach revolves around the realization that character arc reveals and proves theme, while plot structure creates and unfolds character arc. In order for any of the “big three” of plot, character, and theme to truly work, all three must be in alignment. This means that if you’ve got a plot that works or a character arc that works, it’s pretty likely you also have a theme that works. And if any of the three doesn’t work, you’ll at least have clear problems to solve on your way to strengthening all three.

But are there any other practical tools you can use in deepening your story’s theme?

First of all, what does it even mean to “deepen” theme?

It might mean simply to “improve” the theme. But often, writers who are seeking a deeper theme are, in fact, looking for ways to expand upon their thematic argument and delve deeper than simplistic good/bad explorations of moral premises. Good stories will be complex enough to generate many different thematic queries, some only tangentially related to the main premise (which is fine as long as they’re not given major screentime). This, however, can get tricky fast, since sometimes even simple themes can be difficult to execute with cohesion. There is a vast difference between a properly complex theme, in which a single simple idea is explored from multiple angles, versus a complicated theme, in which too many disparate ideas are being thrown at the wall and too few are actually sticking.

Story by Robert McKee

Story by Robert McKee (affiliate link)

In increasing the complexity of a story’s theme, one tool I personally use and love and about which I am frequently asked is Robert McKee’s “thematic square.” He talks about this approach in his exceptional screenwriting classic Story (a must-read for anyone passionate about story theory). Today, at the request of several of you, I will offer a quick overview of this technique, and I how I use it.

What Is the Thematic Square?

The simplest way to approach theme is through the polarity of the protagonist’s view of the world (whether accurate or not) versus an opposing view of the world. In teaching character arc, I refer to this polarity as the Lie and the Truth. However, this is necessarily a very black and white description of any thematic argument. These terms are only meant to be representative of the protagonist’s relative views at the beginning and ending of the story; they are unlikely to represent moral absolutes. To the degree they do, stories can often end up feeling moralistic and on the nose. As McKee points out:

Life … is subtle and complex, rarely a case of yes/no, good/evil, right/wrong. There are degrees of negativity.

He then develops those “degrees of negativity” into three specific categories of thematic viewpoints that progressively distance themselves from a basic “positive” view (what I refer to as the thematic “Truth”). Together, the positive Truth and its three counter-views can be seen to form a thematic square:

Instead of the positive Truth being simply opposed by a negative Lie (or call it a Counter-Truth if you prefer) of equal force, it is instead challenged by many nuanced arguments. Thanks to this realistic variation, the story can explore both clearly awful alternatives to the Truth as well as subtler ideas that may, in fact, offer convincing arguments against the Truth.

Wayfarer 165 Weiland

Wayfarer (Amazon affiliate link)

For example, here is the thematic square I concocted when writing my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer:

Positive thematic Truth: Respect

An aspect that is outright Contradictory to the Truth: Disrespect

Another aspect that is perversely Contrary to that Truth: Rudeness

The Negation of the Negation, which is an atmosphere in which the Truth doesn’t even exist: Self-Disrespect

In his book, McKee offers several other examples, including this excellent one:

Positive: Love

Contradictory: Hate

Contrary: Indifference

Negation of the Negation: Self-hate

Four Corners of Your Story’s Thematic Truth You Can Explore

Now, let’s dive a little deeper and explore each of the corners of this thematic square.

1. Positive

In my explorations of story, I refer to the positive value of the theme as the thematic Truth. Although it may be a relative truth that is pertinent specifically to your character and your story, it will usually be rooted in something deeper and more universal. McKee says:

Begin by identifying the primary value at stake in your story. For example, Justice. Generally, the protagonist will represent the positive charge of this value; the forces of antagonism, the negative.

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

In a story in which your protagonist fulfills a Positive Change Arc, he will start out believing a Lie (probably one of the thematic “anti-values” in the below categories) and, gradually, over the course of his story come to recognize and embody the Truth. In a Flat Arc, the protagonist will embody the Truth throughout the story, using it to combat other characters’ Lies and encourage change in some of them. In a Negative Change Arc, the protagonist may or may not represent the Truth in the beginning of the story, but will eventually fall away from it by the end.

2. Contradictory

The contradictory thematic value is the simple binary opposite of the positive thematic Truth. In a story with a clear-cut “good guy” and “bad guy,” the good guy will usually obviously represent the positive value, while the bad guy will obviously (and sometimes mindlessly) represent a contradiction to that value. McKee puts it:

….the Contradictory value [is] the direct opposite of the positive. In this case, Injustice. Laws have been broken.

Although simplistic, the contradictory value is crucial within the story since it represents the fundamental polarity found within the thematic argument. However, by its very simplicity, it can create realism issues for writers who over-rely on it. After all, in most simplistic situations, most people would easily choose the positive value over the negative. If life were always as simple as that, there would be no struggle to reject Lies in favor of Truths—and thus no stories!

3. Contrary

Now things start to get more complicated—and interesting. As McKee says:

Between the Positive value and its Contradictory … is the Contrary: a situation that’s somewhat negative but not fully the opposite. The Contrary of justice is unfairness, a situation that’s negative but not necessarily illegal: nepotism, racism, bureaucratic delay, bias, inequities of all kinds. Perpetrators of unfairness may not break the law, but they’re neither just nor fair.

The contrary value of your theme is where the nuances began to appear. At first glance, some of the contraries of your positive theme may seem “less bad” than its outright contradiction. Via McKee’s example, we might initially be inclined to say that “unfairness” is not so bad as “injustice.” And yet, here we find the slow fade, the gray areas that can lead us to compromise our own basic values, sometimes without even fully realizing it.

It is in the contrary aspect of the theme that your protagonist will be most tempted to abandon the difficult high road of the positive Truth. Indeed, in not accepting or allowing some contrary aspects, the character makes it all the harder for herself to truly embody the Truth. For instance, a boxer unwilling to compromise his sense of integrity and justice in the face of pressure to throw a fight may find this causes him to become the victim of a true injustice that threatens his very life.

4. Negation of the Negation

Finally, McKee finishes out his square with the “negation of the negation”:

At the end of the line waits the Negation of the Negation, a force of antagonism that’s doubly negative…. Negation of the Negation means a compound negative in which a life situation turns not just quantitatively but qualitatively worse. The Negation of the Negation is at the limit of the dark powers of human nature. In terms of justice, this state is tyranny.

In essence, the negation of the negation is an ideology or state of being in which the theme is flipped on its head: right becomes wrong, wrong becomes right. The negation of the negation is the thematic Lie taken to its furthest extreme. Disrespect of others eventually leads to disrespect of self and of all life. Hatred leads to a total moral vacuum: evil. Injustice leads to unmitigated oppression.

Obviously, this aspect of your theme offers tremendous dramatic possibilities. You may choose to fully portray the consequences your character and the story world will face (or already face) if the protagonist fails to embrace and embody the high side of the theme. Stories such as Lord of the RingsHunger Games, and Schindler’s List come to mind.

But you can also use simply the specter of the negation of the negation in subtler ways to symbolize what is at stake for your character. Even in “quiet” stories, the negation of the negation is usually what shows up, in some form or another, at the story’s Low Moment or Third Plot Point. For example, in a romance where the positive theme might be “love,” the protagonist may have just broken up with her love interest, believing they can never make it work. Now, at this Low Moment, she is faced, however briefly or symbolically, with a horrifying negation of the negation: loneliness as the absence of love.

One More Trick: Combining McKee’s Thematic Square with Truby’s Conflict Square

So how do you apply McKee’s thematic square to your story? Your protagonist’s inner conflict is one aspect of the story in which you can (and should) explore all four nuanced corners of your theme. But you can also powerfully externalize your character’s inner conflict onto the outer conflict of the plot. You do this by identifying certain supporting characters in the story who can represent different corners of the thematic argument.

Anatomy of Story John Truby

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby (affiliate link)

This ties in beautifully with the idea of the “four corners of opposition,” which John Truby presents in his Anatomy of Story. His proposition is that of ensuring that your protagonist is not simply opposed by the antagonist, but rather by multiple characters, who in turn oppose not just the protagonist on some level but all the others as well.

This is an excellent approach for breathing dimension into your characters and your conflict. After all, how often in real life are we perfectly aligned with our allies—or even perfectly opposed to our opponents?

Truby illustrates this idea particularly as a square representing four characters (personally, I always default their identities to the four primary character roles of protagonist, antagonist, sidekick, and love interest—or alternately the contagonist sometimes). However, you can actually apply the idea of “conflict from all sides” to every character in your story. This doesn’t mean your protagonist’s mom has to be coming after him with a butcher’s cleaver. But it does mean that even good ol’ Mom should have some goal or belief that conflicts with the protagonist’s in however small a way.

Overlaying this idea atop McKee’s thematic square gives you a guide for assigning a plethora of worldviews to your characters while still keeping them all thematically pertinent. For instance, as McKee noted in his description of the contrary aspect of theme, there may be many different contrary ideas to the main positive thematic Truth. If your story takes up McKee’s example to explore a positive theme of Justice, then you could choose to develop any or all of his contrary suggestions through individual supporting characters: nepotism, bureaucratic delay, etc.

As with any exploration of theme, you don’t want to get too obvious about this. Characters, including the antagonist, need to be fleshed out beyond serving as basic foils for your protagonist’s thematic exploration. But if you can craft characters who authentically represent differing arguments or aspects of the theme, your story’s complexity and depth will expand almost all on its own.

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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