Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Controlling Idea

I'm in Hampton, VA, today giving a talk on Mars and doing a teacher-training workshop. I'll be headed home this afternoon. I had to take four different airplanes and two different airlines to get here, but miraculously, I got here without any problems at all. Of course, that means that I'm doomed when I go home, particularly since I have to go through Chicago. Ah well, I'll get home eventually. The hotel has high-speed Internet access, so I'm able to get email, upload to the blog, etc. Internet access is getting more nad more common in hotels now. I've gotten to where if they don't offer Internet access, I'll stay somewhere else. Ah, the modern life we lead...

I was reading Robert McKee's Story on the plane out here. His writing style is a bit ... opaque ... but he does have some very profound ideas about story structure. One of the topics that particularly struck me was the concept of a "controlling idea." The controlling idea is what drives your story forward. It's always a short sentence that contains a value change (positive to negative or vice versa) and a cause for that change. For example, the controlling idea of Dirty Harry is "Justice will prevail (negative to positive value change) because the protagonist is even more violent and ruthless than the criminals (cause)." Every scene should be interpreted in terms of either the controlling idea or its opposite, the counter-idea. By showing the audience how the counter-idea could win the day, you reinforce the drama of the idea succeeding. Of course, in a downbeat story, it's the other way around, and in an ironic story both idea and counter-idea win in the end. It's an interesting way of looking at it. I found I really had to think about it, and using this as a yardstick immediately pointed out some scenes I had in mind that don't really support either the idea or the counter-idea. Unless they become part of a sub-plot (which has it's own controlling idea), then under McKee's structure, they should be cut. I can see where you can a much stronger story by going through the process of explicitly writing out the controlling idea for the story. Can you write the controlling idea for your latest story?

1 comment:

Ris said...

I've been working with the one-sentence summary idea for almost a year now, and while it has helped keep my overall goal in mind, it has fallen short of everything I've heard about measuring it up against each scene to see if the scene works to propel the plot. Since it's a summary, most of the scene fits. It's been frustrating and I've felt as though I've been missing the secret formula to making it work.

Thank you for the secret formula! :-)

Rather than using a summary sentence, I'm going to recast it as a controlling idea and see if that will do what I've been trying to get the poor little summary sentence to do. But I'll hang on to my summary sentence, because it makes a handy little answer to the 'so what are you working on?' question.

Have a good flight home!