Traditionally, most stories are driven by plot. Or, if the plot isn’t the central element controlling the story, it’s at least a key component that drives the structure of the story (exceptions abound, but work with me). Underneath plot lies theme, the central message, subtext, or ulterior motive of the story. Plot is fairly simple to understand. It consists of a series of key points that firmly influence the path the story will take. Theme was always a bit more elusive, at least for me. I understood what it was, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around how to effectively make it function in a story without sounding like an Aesop’s fable.
I recently re-watched Disney and Pixar’s Big Hero 6, and it all sort of clicked. Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d highly recommend it.
On the surface, Big Hero 6 is the story of a kid named Hiro Hamada, who forms a team of heroes to fight a bad guy and avenge his brother. It’s exciting, action-packed, funny, colorful, everything you’d want in an animated movie for children.
Underneath the heroic origin plot lies the theme, what the story is truly about. Big Hero 6 is truly about a teenage boy who copes with his brother’s death through a series of trials which force him to adopt an attitude of compassion and maturity. Because of this seamlessly interwoven theme, the story takes on a robust, emotional quality that elevates it above a simple animated action movie. Hiro is a fantastic protagonist because he begins his journey with clear weaknesses that hinder him from initially achieving his goals, but as he overcomes various physical and emotional obstacles, he grows and changes in a meaningful way that finally enables him to get what he wants and needs.
Since this is a story for children, the theme is presented in a clear and concise way that is easy to grasp and understand, but without feeling overly preachy or unbelievable.
How do your favorite stories handle theme? How do you handle it in your own writing?