Can you answer this question: What is the theme in writing your story? The main idea can become muddy when we get caught up in our own writing. This article will help you pinpoint your theme by using Toy Story I as an example. Keep reading for practical pointers to help you state your theme, then artfully hail back to it.
To give an idea of the danger, I once sat at a writer’s conference with a man who had written a full draft of an epic novel. When I asked what it was about, he gave me many plot points and after listening I responded with intense curiosity, “I would love to hear what the heart of this story is for you, and what it is really about in your mind” During the course of the evening we dug deeper into his book and then magic happened. Tears welled up in his eyes and he shared the most poignant experience of his life that happened in the middle of the night in a faraway village. I was deeply touched. Then he said,
“That night is what this story is about. The thing is, I got so caught up in writing that I had forgotten.”
That was a writing moment I will never forget, namely that it’s all too easy to forget the main point. As we left the conference, he asked, “How did you know to ask me those questions?” I shrugged at the time, but thought about this man a lot afterward. Perhaps it was because I have grappled with theme in my own stories which led me to study how it works. In all the messiness of writing, I’ve come to believe that theme is the glue in a story.
Oh, and one note before we continue. This article is part of a series on writing personal stories and it assumes a basic familiarity with storyboarding. If you’d like to review, here are related topics we have already covered:
- How to Storyboard – click here to read
- Story Structure – click here to read
- What is your purpose and how does it relate to the theme of your story?
Theme is so important that when I made my storyboard template (see pic below) I put a blank line for “theme” right at the top. Here is a visual for what the storyboard looks like. Notice the line for theme right at the top:
What is so important about this story?
In short, what is so important about this story that your character is about to embark on a life-changing journey? What do you have to say that has lit a big enough fire in you to spend all this time planted in a chair? Whatever that important thing is, that’s your theme.
The late-great screenwriting master, Blake Snyder, said this:
“What’s the problem? Why do we need to send them (characters) on the most important adventure that ever happens in their lives?” It’s to change them, and that’s why we want to see these stories. It goes back to the divine. You know, all stories are about transformation and transformation is about rebirth. The old way of life has got to die, and you’ve got to find a new way to live. And we can hear that story forever.”
At what point should you worry about the theme in writing your story?
Here is the big question for you, right this minute: Do you have a clear idea of the theme in writing your story? If not, don’t panic. It certainly helps to know what the over-arching theme is right up front, but it isn’t essential.
If your story has not fully revealed itself, that is okay. Maybe you are a seat-of-your pants writer (“panster” vs. “plotter”) or you believe that ideas are discovered by creatives rather than invented. If this is your style, you may need to follow the trail a bit bit before storyboarding it. That’s cool. The theme may not even be clear until you have a first draft. Once you have it down on paper, you you can go back and make sure the theme is clear in all the important places.
In other words, you totally have my permission to just let ‘er rip now and save the analysis until later. (Okay, I know that sounds funny to say because you do not need my permission or anyone else’s. It’s just that I have noticed when I teach classes that students sometimes need to hear these words).
In a longer biography or memoir I freely admit that I usually just explore and meander for a while. I do a number of interviews and spend time in research before the theme emerges. Then, once I have a grasp of the whole story, my very favorite day in the writing process comes when I finally sit down to sketch all the pieces onto the storyboard. By this time, I have gained a clear idea of the big picture, and the storyboard helps make sure the main idea comes through. This exercise always sparks my creativity and leaves me feeling exhilarated.
The Theme of Toy Story
Now let’s get to analyzing Toy Story 1. In my opinion, the theme of Toy Story 1 is “selfless friendship.” You could say it in different words, but you get the idea. This theme shines through in the way that Woody remains loyal to Andy, and how some of Woody’s friends (Bo and Slink) continue to love him, even after he is implicated in the terrible deed of pushing Buzz out the window. Woody has a thing or two to learn, however as he faces abandonment, jealousy and the drive to save his own skin. Have you ever felt replaced by the latest model? Woody will see what it means when a friend is there when you need help, and the bond that forms when two friends each sacrifice for the other.
Every beat of the storyboard relates to the theme
The theme of your story should shine throughout your story and the screenwriters for Toy Story I did that. In the exercise below, I examine every beat of Toy Story I specifically related to theme. Note that this isn’t a full storyboard or outline; it simply focuses on theme.
Beat #1 – Hero Before
While Andy acts scenes with his toys the You’ve got a friend in me by Randy Newman plays. They call it a theme song for a reason, folks, and it gives us an idea what the story is about. Some of the lyrics say:
“There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you. We stick together, we can see it through, ‘cause you’ve got a friend in me.”
Beat #2 – That’s what it’s all about
One of the great techniques in Hollywood is to have one of the characters state the theme directly through dialogue in Beat 2. That’s exactly how the screenwriters in Toy Story I did it. Woody calls a staff meeting to alert the toys about Andy’s birthday party and in his speech he summarizes the essence of selfless friendship:
“It doesn’t matter how much we’re played with. What matters is we are here for Andy when he needs us.”
Beat #3 – We have a problem:
Andy receives a Buzz Lightyear and Woody’s feelings are hurt when Andy sets him aside. The rest of the toys are impressed, but Woody’s jealousy gets the best of him. It is not his finest hour when he pushes Buzz behind the desk and out the window. It’s a terrible mistake, but still a consequence of his insecurities. In an interview, Tom Hanks, says that Woody is a guy who is about to lose his job. Yes, his job and his best friend.
Beat #4 – Stay or go:
Woody and Buzz end up on the minivan and Woody now has to face the consequence of acting badly, “I can’t show my face without Buzz.” When Buzz appears at the gas station, Woody cries out, “I’m saved!” But Buzz wants revenge and the two get into a fight. Fighting does not help their situation. As a consequence, they both get left behind. Woody cries out, “I am a lost toy!” This becomes the big external conflict of the story –getting back home is a tangible goal. Next, Woody’s words show the heart of Woody’s internal conflict throughout the movie:
“You showed up…and took away everything that was important to me!”
In these words we see what the stakes are for Woody; his friendship with Andy means everything to him. Now, like it or not, Buzz and Woody are in this together. The essence of the “Stay or go” beat is always that the protagonist must make a choice to go on the adventure. Woody isn’t ready to ask for Buzz’s help, however. He makes a choice to go, but it’s by tricking Buzz into thinking the Pizza Planet truck is a spaceship. Buzz falls for it and he chooses to get in the truck. They are off as a pair, and Act I is complete.
Beat #5 – Adventure:
Now they enter the Pizza planet, a weird new world. Note that it is classic story structure when the world turns on its head in the beginning of Act II and Pizza Planet is a strange world, indeed. This is where Buzz and Woody’s saga together really begins. Buzz is chosen by “The Claw” and Woody grabs onto his leg. The two “stick together” as the theme song says.
Beat #6 – I think I love you:
Right at the midpoint and just after it, there are two “love” moments.” Bo Peep and slink have remained loyal to Woody in their hearts, and when Bo Peep hears that Woody is gone, she says, “Oh Slink, I hope he’s okay.” A few minutes later in the movie. Bo Peep sees Andy with his red hat in hand and says into the night, “Woody, if only you could see how much Andy misses you.” This shows that Andy really does still love Woody, and sometimes you don’t really appreciate someone until they are gone.
Beat #7 – Big Trouble:
The neighbor kid, Sid, is a pretty scary bad guy, the mutant toys are creepy, and the dog is a killer. They are in big trouble, indeed. For the first time we see Woody and Buzz working together to escape. This is where their friendship begins to take shape.
Beat #8 – Darkest Hour:
There has been a change in Woody, and in the middle of the night he asks for Buzz’s help. In this scene, Buzz and Woody both admit their self-doubts to each other, and then they take turns lifting the other up. Vulnerability is at the heart of real friendship. Woody and Buzz are each here for the other at their low point.
Beat #9 – Spark of the Divine:
Buzz looks at his shoe where it is labeled “Andy” and realizes that Buzz is right. He is motivated by Andy, but probably more importantly he was motivated by Woody’s words. Buzz climbs onto the window and sees that it is dawn. (Dark and dawn are no accidents in how the moviemakers set up the scene here).
Buzz and Woody are ready to make a run for it together. Then Woody has the genius idea of rallying the mutant toys, who he previously misjudged. “We might have to break a few rules, but if it works it will help everybody.” Again, we see that theme of being selfless come into bloom. Here Woody thinks about the wellbeing of the mutant toys too, not just saving himself.
Beat #10 – Dig deep:
The mutant toys teach Sid a lesson. It is called “comeuppance” in a story when the bad guy’s bad actions come back around, and he gets what he deserves. In Sid, we have seen the polar opposite of selfless friendship; Sid abused his toys. They now stand up to him and teach the lesson. “…Play nice!”
Beat #11 – Go Get ‘em:
As they chase the moving van, Buzz and Woody each have a moment of sacrificing himself to save the other, showing that their friendship has been cemented and they have learned the lesson of the movie. This selfless act shows how much each has grown. The final triumphant moment is when they go up in the rocket together and Woody now repeats Buzz’s words from the beginning, “You’re flying!” and Buzz responds with Woody’s words from the beginning, “This isn’t flying. This is falling with style!”
Note, it is a “callback,” where you refer to something from the beginning of the story toward the end. Readers and audiences LOVE callbacks. Regarding the theme, however, what matters most is seeing that they each used the other’s line from the beginning of the movie. Embracing the other’s words shows acceptance.
Beat #12 – Hero after:
Andy’s room now displays signs that he loves both Woody and Buzz. Woody and Buzz seem to have become best friends. The movie comes full circle from the opening to closing scenes when Andy is opening presents. ‘Now Buzz, what could Andy possibly get that is worse than you?” (puppy barks). “Wow, a puppy!”
What good timing for Buzz and Woody to become friends because now they will probably both get set aside in favor of the puppy for a while. After this phase of life, Andy will grow up and move onto other interests. Buzz and Woody may have two resisted each other at first, but they came into each others’ lives at the perfect time.
My next article in this series will be a follow-up to the topic of theme, examining life purpose through the development of true stories like Memoir and Biography. The article will explore the question: what is the purpose of your life?
Rhonda Lauritzen is the founder and an author at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. Rhonda lives to hear and write about people’s lives, especially the uncanny moments. She and her husband Milan restored an 1890 Victorian in Ogden, Utah and work together in it, weaving family and business together. She especially enjoys unplugging in nature. Check out her latest books: How to Storyboard, and Remember When, the inspiring Norma and Jim Kier story. To read more to to try my templates, click here: