Part 9 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
The longer I study stories, the more convinced I am that the one single thing that sets apart the great stories from the meh ones is theme. What this means, of course, is that figuring out how to write powerful themes is possibly the most important job of any writer.
Theme is what a story is about. More than that, however, theme is why a story matters. Without a powerful theme that works in cohesion with the plot and the character development to resonate with readers in a relatable way, you will never create a story that lives beyond its two covers (if it actually gets far enough to have a cover, of course).
When, however, you find that sweet spot where theme grows so beautifully and organically at the crossroads of character and plot—the result is a story that instantly multiplies in depth, meaning, power, and cohesion. The biggest of stories without theme will always be a flop. But if you learn how to purposefully write powerful themes, you can take even the smallest, silliest, most escapist of all stories (like, say, a superhero comic book) and turn it into something great.
Why Do I Love Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Let Me Count the Ways
And that, of course, brings me to my favorite of all the Marvel movies to date—Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If Avengers was where the series kicked into high gear, Winter Soldier was where everything finally paid off in a film that is legitimately excellent in nearly every way you could ask for from a story in this genre.
Winter Soldier‘s prowess is due to several factors, including:
- Rock-solid plotting and directing from the Russo brothers, including a taut suspense plot.
- Spot-on placement of humor.
- A well-developed antagonist, who didn’t even need a super-identity to be formidable.
- An excellent sensibility of how to expand the material from the first film into a sequel that took advantage of existing consequences without rehashing old material.
- Some of my favorite action setpieces in the series.
- And then there’s the characters. And the theme. I have to mention them in the same breath, because you can hardly tell where one starts and the other ends. And that is why Winter Soldier is such a powerful demonstration of theme.
How to Write Powerful Themes in Just 3 Steps
Writers are sometimes confused by the concept of theme. It just seems so…. conceptual. So airy-fairy. How can you ever truly get your brain around it?
The matter gets even more complicated when you start hearing advice that goes something along the lines of, “Don’t you dare think about your theme! God forbid you actually write a theme on purpose. If you do anything more than look at your theme crossways out of the corner of your eye, you’ll end up shoving a heavy-handed moral message down your readers’ throats.”
To which I say: Horseradish.
Like any part of the story, theme is just a piece of the puzzle. It is a problem that can and should be solved.
How do you do that?
Easy. By breaking theme down into its three prominent aspects, studying how they work in successful stories like Winter Soldier, and then examining how to apply them to your own stories.
Theme Aspect #1: Thematic Principle
Often, when writers start thinking about theme what comes to mind is a story’s overall thematic principle. Often, this is a general truth, virtue, or evil that can be summed up in one word, such as fear, love, justice, or faith.
If you look at each of the three primary stories within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, up to this point, I think you can make a good case for delineating their general themes as follows:
- The Iron Man movies are about: Self.
- The Thor movies are about: Family.
- The Captain America movies are about: Friendship and Loyalty.
This is most obvious in the Captain America movies because, out of the three trilogies, it’s the one that pulls its theme off most faithfully, most blatantly, and most cohesively.
HOW WINTER SOLDIER GETS ITS THEMATIC PRINCIPLE RIGHT
The secret to Winter Soldier‘s resonant theme is twofold:
1. It builds its theme out of its characters.
That’s the whole secret of theme right there. You can’t just choose an arbitrary message and slap it onto your story. Rather, you must look at your characters, their desires and beliefs, and the journeys they’re on—and suss out what theme is found therein.
The Captain America movies are consistently some of the strongest entries in the series simply because they understand their protagonist Steve Rogers so well and never flinch from portraying him as exactly what he is—in all his stodgy, old-fashioned, stubborn, principled, loyal dimensions. The theme emanates directly from the heart of the main character, and the result is a theme that feels incredibly coherent and pertinent within the story’s action elements.
2. It creates a story driven by those characters.
Once you understand exactly who your characters are and what kind of journey they’re on, you can then consciously and purposefully strengthen that by going back and examining your plot. Are you creating a story that is driven by your characters’ desires and beliefs? When the answer is yes, you will always end up with cohesive trifecta of plot-character-theme.
At every turn, Winter Soldier‘s manhunt suspense plot challenges and reinforces Steve’s beliefs about friendship, loyalty, and duty. His relationships with Nick Fury, Natasha Romanov, Sam Wilson, and eventually his long-lost World War II-era best friend Bucky Barnes fuel every step of this story—both the outer journey and the inner. Everything that happens in the plot influences the development of the characters and the presentation of the theme—just as the characters and theme fuel the plot events right back.
Theme Aspect #2: The Protagonist’s Inner Conflict
Your protagonist’s inner conflict is where you start digging deeper into theme, beyond just the general understanding of its thematic principle. Inner conflict is where you begin your story’s moral argument.
Your story’s general thematic principle will always raise a question (e.g., How far must you go for the sake of loyalty and friendship? or What happens when loyalty and duty collide?). The inner conflict at the center of your protagonist’s character arc is where you then start searching for answers to that question.
Remember, character arc is always fueled by the battle between two opposing moral principles—the Truth and the Lie. Theme is right at the heart of that battle. You must create a deep-seated personal quandary for your character, one that is driven by and in turn influences the story’s outer plot. No matter what you may start out thinking your story’s theme is about, what it’s reallyabout will always be found within your protagonist’s inner conflict.
HOW WINTER SOLDIER GETS ITS INNER CONFLICT RIGHT
Steve is a Flat Arc character. This means he already knows his story’s Truths—about the value of friendship and loyalty, about the necessity of making hard choices in the name of principles and duty. He is challenged in his beliefs, but he also holds fast (unlike a Positive Change Arc character, who will start out believing a Lie and grow into the Truth).
Most importantly, of all, however, he uses his Truth to inspire change in the characters around him—in Fury, in Natasha, in Bucky. Theme is always about change. It does not live in stasis, even in a Flat Arc story. The presentation of a thematic premise isn’t just some nice feeling that floats around in airy-fairy land. The theme is always an active force, that must either be working uponthe protagonist or worked by him. This is where we see theme fully integrating with plot.
Theme Aspect #3: Proving Theme via Action
Now that you understand the mechanics of theme—its overall message throughout the story and its inner workings within your characters—it’s time to put the theme to work within the plot itself. It’s time for your theme to dosomething.
As I said above, it’s not enough for your theme to live in stasis. But it’s also not enough for your theme to simply live inside your character. It has to get out and dance. It has to do something. It has to prove itself via action.
If you think of your plot as an external, visual metaphor for your protagonist’s inner journey, then you can see why it needs to closely mirror and support that journey. Why does you character have to endure this particular plot in order to learn this particular theme? If there is no obvious connection, then either the plot or the theme is the wrong choice.
HOW WINTER SOLDIER GETS ITS ACTION RIGHT
This is where many an action movie goes terribly wrong. It creates an action-packed external plot and maybe (if we’re lucky) tucks a nice little inner transformation into the protagonist’s back pocket. But the two are only tangentially related at best.
Winter Soldier is a story that proves its thematic premise at every juncture in the plot. Every scene in this movie feeds into Steve’s personal quandaries and beliefs about relationships and duty. Every single interaction with Natasha and Fury demonstrates this—and that’s before the film knocks it out of the park by revealing that Steve’s childhood friend Bucky Barnes has been brainwashed into the fearsome Winter Soldier.
Literally everything Steve has been struggling with or defending throughout the story comes to a head when he is faced with the plot’s climactic decision: Do what’s right at the risk of killing Bucky—or not?
The reason this is a great movie in its own right—even apart from the overall series—is because it is a story about theme. It is a story that finds its theme deep within its characters and uses that theme to create its plot. All three thematic elements are integral to each other in a way that presents a powerful and compelling visual metaphor for a deeply personal and relatable moral quandary.
Doesn’t matter what kind of story you’re writing—whether you intend it to be literary or deep, or whether it’s just a fun romantic or action-packed romp. Every story should strive to perfectly balance its three most important elements—plot, character, and theme. Any story that does so, instantly has the potential to matter.