Nearly all stories used to be single-themed. They might have been action or romance, but there was no such thing as an action-romance. Times have changed, and writers have stepped up to create multiple story themes. A classic example is the buddy police officer theme. This is where two friends (partners) solve a crime (with lots of action) and have fun along the way. This super popular theme bridges the gap between raw drama (police work) and humor, making the raw drama (crime and suffering) easier to handle. Are buddy police officer themes realistic? Who cares because people like them.
There are a few rules to follow when creating a multi-theme story. The first is to limit the number of themes to two. Readers and viewers only tolerate so much combination.
The second is to balance between the two competing sides. In the buddy police officer theme, for example, the action and friendship would not run too deep. On the other hand, the humor would suffer if the story focused on violent, gritty police drama. The audience or readers might ask, “Why are you laughing at a time like this?"
Writers must also take a high-level view to evaluate the two themes for compatibility. For example, in the buddy police officer theme, it would not be appropriate to have comedy surrounding dead children.
The themes must be complementary and appropriate. But, of course, this means not taking risks. Mystery-western? Mmm, it does not sound good. Comedy-tragedy? Keep going… Science fiction-western? Tried and failed. Dystopian romance? Wow, that is off-target.
Another rule to follow is to keep the themes balanced and consistent. So, they must be present from start to finish. For example, in the buddy police story, it would not work to have a funny first half and an action-paced second half without humor.
There is a crucial distinction between a dual theme and a story that takes turns. For example, a character can go from a dramatic scene to romance, to action, and so on. This would not be a multi-themed combined story but would instead be an unfolding story.
What is an excellent example of a failed dual theme? The dreadful 1984 film Exit to Eden, starring Rosie O'Donnell and Dan Aykroyd, pops up on my list. It was supposed to be a buddy police film where two strait-laced police officers investigate a murder on a sexy fantasy island with hilarious consequences. The primary problem was that they slapped together the themes. The main characters did not bond, the sex/romance was super awkward, and the crime-solving was unrealistic/implausible. If they separated the movie into two (a buddy police film and a sexy fantasy island), then it is likely the two movies would have been good. Yet, I still remember a great quote from the movie, “What is my biggest sexual fantasy? Paint my house.” Did you laugh? I guess you had to sit through a terrible film to appreciate this quote.
I have never tried a dual theme, yet my plots have many elements. My first book contains big thrills, confrontation, and drama. Its sequel is a drama, romance, and travel. My second book is even worse. It contains drama, romance, sci-fi, and survival.
I’m probably deluding myself into thinking that these are not competing themes. My (imagined) distinction is that I did not start off with a single theme. Instead, I had a story that evolved and took an organic approach. Yeah, I am deluded and have taken a deep dive into multiple themes. Fortunately, my blogs stick to one theme.
You’re the best -Bill
August 24, 2022
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