E-Learning Module

Unit 3 Grain 9
Theory on the theme creation
60 minutes

The objective of this lesson is to understand the possible methods to develop an idea, so as to start a story.

By the end of this grain, participants should be able to realize “embryos of stories”. They will experiment with different methods thus exercising their imagination and creativity.

What do we mean by narrative?

« The narrative is a communication of experience which at the same time is also communication of meaning » (A.G. D’Ambrosio, Philosophy of the story, 1998).

According to philosopher D. Dennett, “the human brain weaves a web of words and acts, especially narrative, spontaneously, just as a spider weaves its web or the beaver builds its dam” (D. Dennett, Tools for thinking).

Creating stories is a universal phenomenon, an expression of the mind that tries to attribute meaning to what surrounds it. “Each of us builds a story, which is our identity” (O.Sacks, The man who mistook his wife for a hat). The narrative, therefore, represents a moment of personal growth, helping us to find answers and having more confidence in our own means.

In any case, if it is undeniable that narrative is an expressive form strongly inherent in human nature, when we are going to make narration a formal tool for transmitting contents and messages, we must consider that there are certain rules to follow and that the fundamental element, for the writer but also for the reader, is imagination.

What are the indispensable characteristics of a story?

What allows a story to “reach” the greatest number of people? We could say that successful stories are those that manage to create an intellectual and emotional bridge between the narrator and the reader. To succeed in this, quoting G. Bateson (“Where the angels hesitate”, 1989), “of a story not only its content is important, but also its structure and the possibility that it has to communicate something”. Bateson identifies four equally important elements:

  1. the content,
  2. the context,
  3. the plot,
  4. the “weaving”, the narrative structure.

The first aspect that the writer will necessarily come across is the content, which is, first of all, an idea that starts from an inspiration, a creative stimulus. The idea then becomes a concept, then a storyline, a plot, and finally a story.

To make his/her inspiration concrete, each writer must then find his/her style and language. They must allow him/her to create certain suspense so as not to bore his/her interlocutor, and to make appear a reality made of original and intriguing characters, and situations capable of transmitting emotions. In this creative process, the writer must not pretend to define every single detail; on the contrary, the reader will feel more involved if he/she has the freedom to put his/her imagination into play. It is said that Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write the most beautiful and at the same time shortest short story in the world (Gilead A. – How Few Words Can the Shortest Story Have?). Accepting the challenge, he wrote this sentence on a piece of paper:

For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

We can say that the great writer won the challenge with flying colours, managing to convey a strong message capable of reaching the heart while not giving any explanation. The story acquires a profound meaning that goes beyond what appears, opening a great enigma with only six words and necessarily pushes the reader to ask himself questions, to complete his work by putting his imagination into play.

How an idea can be born

The structure of the stories that we have known since ancient times – as Gérard Genette would say the “palimpsests” – are ultimately rather linear and numerically contained but extremely variable, thanks to the creativity and imagination of the writers. In the wake of what Propp also did in his “Morphology of the tale” (1928), in the book “The Seven Basic Plots” (2004) Christopher Booker defines seven types of formulas that are, in his opinion, the basis of all the stories:

  1. The hero defeats the monster/the criminal;
  2. From rags to riches: the protagonist reaches success;
  3. The important undertaking: the character (or group of characters) leaves for a crucial mission;
  4. Round trip: the adventurer travels, has a life-changing experience and returns home;
  5. Comedy: chaos and confusion lead to resolution;
  6. The tragedy: the characters pay the price of having defaults;
  7. Rebirth: the character emerges transformed by a path of self-discovery.

Actually, an infinity of different stories can evolve around these embryonic nuclei of story, each of which can be traced back in principle to one of the seven points.

But how do you find ideas for writing? Let us try to define some paths that can allow us to identify the central theme of our history, in particular by focusing on the theme of our work: the Escape room.

Everything starts from an idea, a creative stimulus, which can come:

  1. From a piece of news read in a newspaper, a dream, a fact or a scenario that we witnessed by chance, and that appeal our attention. Finding the right inspiration can be easier than expected for a mind trained to grasp details, observe, and set the imagination in motion. Looking around us, it is in fact possible to grasp ideas from events that we can only observe from the outside, without knowing the reasons the previous actions that generated them. For example, in 2017, the story of a Canadian couple who had played the lottery was read in the newspapers. Their ticket was a winner ($ 5 million) but when the man discovered the win he disappeared! What if the truth was that the partner who is apparently the victim had locked him up so as not to split the winnings? Where could he/she be hiding? Who could have noticed something and got suspicious? Trying to answer similar questions can lead to a story. We, therefore, exploiting the reality that surrounds us, sharpening our spirit of observation to collect fragments of story and having fun looking for meanings. This kind of inspiration is neither governable nor predictable! Therefore, a tip is to never neglect an idea born by chance and to write down all possible inspirations that sooner or later can come in handy!
  1. An image. Many writers draw their best ideas from an evocative image: a painting, a family photo, etc. In fact, many images allow us to question ourselves through a series of questions. For example, let’s look at the painting: what is happening in this scene? Who is the woman in the foreground? What is she drinking? What’s written in the letter on the ground? What story hides behind the looks of the three women watching the main action? What is the relationship between them? One of them seems worried, another confused, but the third seems to be hiding something… What could have happened before and what is going to happen?

Southall J. E. (1897), Sigismonda Drinking the Poison, Birmingam Museum

  1. One or more experiences lived in the first person or imagined, told in an original way, for example imagining why strange noises always come from the apartment above ours at night-time; or imagine what we would do if we were kidnapped by aliens on the road we travel every day to go to work.
  1. Stories of real people, a famous person or someone you know well (a famous scholar, an ancestor, a neighbor, etc.), whose experiences, characteristics and actions may be the basis for a more or less imaginative rereading of real facts. For example: in 2013 Elif Bilgin, at 16 years won the Google science fair for his project “Can we make plastic with banana peels?” With his participation he invented a method of creating bioplastic using banana peels to replace traditional petroleum-based plastic. What could happen if an unscrupulous company wanted to steal his latest research?
  1. An event that happened in the past, referring to interesting events through an original point of view or perhaps even opening a imaginative scenario: what would have happened if…? For example: the Holy Grail, the Shroud of Turin, the Ark of the Covenant, the treasure of the Temple of Solomon, the Tomb of Christ and the Qumran manuscripts: these are some of the alleged secrets that the Templars would have discovered and kept. It is a chain of mysteries that has lasted for two thousand years. That of the Templars is a myth that challenges time and official historiography. What is the reality behind the legend? What if there was a way to locate where they hid one of these precious relics?
  1. An ordinary situation, imagining however that the expectations related to the routine are broken by the occurrence of a certain extraordinary or unexpected event. For example: it was 8 pm and as usual that day you turned on the television to watch the news. But when you hit the button on the remote, something incredible happened: there was a dazzling purple light and you were right inside the television.
  1. A random combination of elements to be assembled. The Italian writer Gianni Rodari in «Grammatica della fantasia» (1973) suggested to choose two words by opening a dictionary or a book, and then write a story that uses the two subjects.

Defining the theme

The idea alone is not enough, but the author must concentrate on the message he wants to convey through his story. The first step is to define the “concept“: it is an idea with a certain meaning, that represents a message and aims to communicate something, leading the reader from a starting point to a conclusive point.

The concept must start from a message that the writer intends to convey to those who read or listen and which therefore lies behind the idea. We could say that the concept responds to a very specific goal that the writer intends to pursue.

From the idea and concept, we can draw the theme: what is our story really about?

Let’s take a great classic of literature, Melville’s “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale” (1851). What is its real theme? Whaling in the 1800s? Or rather the struggle of man against the forces of nature? How far can human madness go if it wants to affirm its centrality? Moby Dick is obviously a metaphor, an ambivalent symbol in front of which various interpretations are possible.

Thinking about the subject, it is therefore essential to ask ourselves some questions before continuing:

  1. What kind of relationship do we want to establish with our reader? We must not forget that the writer’s goal should be to make the reader identify in the story: identifying with the character of a story means letting oneself be carried away and feel somehow involved in its events. To aim for an intellectual and emotional involvement, our Call-To-Action, therefore, becomes central, which must be suitable for our target group and therefore focus on elements that are attractive to him.
  1. What do we mainly intend to convey? Stories need a development that touches the emotions of those who listen or read. Let’s ask ourselves, in our story, what are the benefits that the user can gain from becoming part of the story, in becoming an ally of the protagonist. It is well established that, to do all this, we have to know our audience well and understand what their needs really are.

Whenever the audience is immersed in a story, living the experiences told in the first person and becoming the main character, the writer must be proud of having achieved his main goal.

In this process that starts from the evolution of the idea and leads to the concept, another fundamental element will be defined, namely the genre of what we are about to write: depending on the path that the author decides to take starting from the chosen idea, we can create a detective story, a comedy, a drama, and so on.

Materials and Resources

Booker C. (2004). The Seven Basic Plots, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.

Gilead A. (2008) How Few Words Can the Shortest Story Have? https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236800836

Melotto R., & Morozzi G. (2017). Manuale di scrittura, Odoya.

Melville H. (1851), Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, La Ragnatela

Propp V. (1928), Morphology of the tale, Kindle Edition

Rodari G. (1973). Grammatica della fantasia, Einaudi Ragazzi.Southall J. E. (1897), Sigismonda Drinking The Poison, Tempera Painting, Birmingam Museum

Q1. Which are the main important elements in a story? 

a. There are no fixed elements, the really important element is the basic idea
b. Not only one but four at least: the content, the context, the plot, the weaving
c. The message that people can receive from it 

Q2. How could we define this story: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”? 

a. An enigma that has more than one answer
b. Not a story, it’s too short to transmit a message
c. A very short story that is able to transmit a strong message putting our imagination into play

Q3. Starting from an idea, how can we construct the theme? 

a. We need to define the concept, responding to a precise objective
b. We need to choose the end of the story, first of all
c. We need to define the main character and have a precise idea of his point of view


Q1: b
Q2: c
Q3: a