10 Minute Masterclass | What’s the difference between theme and story?

Since closing our doors, the Bush team has continued working hard to bring exciting new voices to the UK stage. As part of this work, we are producing a series of 10 Minute Masterclasses to support anyone who is interested in writing and plays.

In our latest 10 Minute Masterclass, Bush Artistic Director, Lynette Linton, guides you through a series of exercises to help with story structure, including: 

  • Starter questions
  • Beats of action
  • Playing with timelines

Watch the full 10 Minute Masterclass or read the full transcript below.

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Watch our previous 10 Minute Masterclass on using musical showstoppers to improve your writing.

Hey everyone! I’m Lynette, I’m the Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre. Giving you virtual hugs and lots of love and light and Yorkshire Tea during this crazy, devastating, weird, unprecedented time.
And before we jump in to any writing tips I just wanted to take a second and say I hope you’re all being kind to yourselves. It’s ok right now if you haven’t written that full blown play that you’d planned to write during lockdown. It’s ok if you haven’t done all the reading you wanted to do. It’s ok if all you’re doing is watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race and eating loads of crisps! I do that every Saturday. Whatever you’re doing and however you’re coping, it’s ok! And these videos exist to give you some tips when you’re ready for those tips. That can be in a year’s time from now! They’re going to exist forever! Come back to this video whenever is good for you. Ok? So I just wanted to say that.
But with that, shall we get started? So today I’m going to talk about the difference between theme and story and how sometimes they can get confused for each other and what to do when you’re thinking about either. But before I do anything, I always need a cup of tea. So why don’t you make yourself one, strap in, and let’s go for this ride!
Cheers everyone! I’ve got my tea! So we read a lot of plays at the Bush and we talk to a lot of writers and I always try to start a question with “So what is the story?” What is the story that you’re planning to write? And we can get loads of answers from: I want to write a play about sexuality. I want to write a play about sexism. I want to write a play about childhood. I want to write a play about a young woman who’s exploring her sexuality. And I’ll say “those are all amazing themes but what’s the story?” You see the difference there? Because everything I’ve said there is a theme.
What is the story of that young woman who’s exploring her sexuality? What is the story of those
siblings that you’re using to explore childhood? What is the vehicle that is going to help us explore those themes? And that’s your story! What are the series of events that happen and in what order, which then means you’ll be able to unpack your theme. And that’s the difference. And the end of this video, goodbye! Joking! There’s so much more to say. But I hope that’s clear. Your theme is thing, so sexuality, you’re going to explore sexuality. And your story is the series of events that are actually happening and in what order. And through that you’ll explore sexuality. I hope that makes sense and we’ll dive into that even more. And not everybody starts with a theme, and not everybody starts with a story. There’s not one right way or wrong way. Everybody’s different, you know? You might have a character in your head. How you start your play is unique to you. But for the benefit of this video I’m going to try and keep it as simple as possible cos I’ve only got five minutes or so.
Let’s talk about what you can do and the exercises and the questions you can ask yourself if you have your theme.
So let’s decide that I want to write a play about sexism. That’s what I’ve got. I really feel passionate about that topic and I want to write a play about sexism. I have two questions I would then ask myself. First one is actually “What is the question?” So what is it that you want to say about sexuality – sorry sexism. Sexism is a huge huge topic. Huge topic. What is it that I want to say? And I would then ask you to make that into a question. What is the question or the interrogation that you have around that topic? Because then that becomes active. So if I’m going to stick with sexism, maybe I want to… My question is I want to look at workplace sexism and what the differences are between men and women in the workplace. That’s my question. And you could be even more specific than that. But I really want you to dig deep and keep it active. And your play then might unpack that. Your play might answer that question. But it gives you somewhere to go. Your play might not! That might also be the point of it. But if it’s a question that is active then it’s gonna keep moving.
The second thing that I’d ask you to ask yourself is “Why is it a play?” Why does it need to be explored through storytelling? Why does it need to be explored theatrically and on stage? Why is it not a speech? Why is it not a piece of academic work? Why is it not an article? Why is it that you want to use the medium of a play to tell this story? You may not have the answer to that yet. But it’s something really interesting to keep in the back of your head while you’re writing, because if I can turn to you and I can say “this reads like a piece of literature, it’s interesting you’ve chosen a play”, right? And if you have an answer for that then that’s really exciting! It’s something just to think about when you’re on this journey.
Outfit change! Woop woop! Best film of all time! Hercules!
Ok, let’s get back to what we were talking about before and let me give you an example of a play where I can show you the difference between the themes and the story. And the play I’m going to talk a little bit about it Lynn Nottage’s Sweat. Wonder why she’s chosen that? But no, to be honest, I really genuinely think that Sweat is one of the best pieces of writing that I’ve read in the last ten years. It’s such a beautiful masterclass in playwriting, so if you haven’t read it, I would really recommend it. It’s a beautiful beautiful piece of work. But Sweat, if I asked you now, those that have seen it or have read it: what is Sweat about? You know what are the themes of Sweat? It covers so many things. It’s about friendship. It’s about race relations. It’s about class. It’s about the deindustrialisation of America. I’m sure you could name even more.
So what’s the story? Let’s boil that down to a sentence: the story of Sweat. Well the story follows a friendship group in a bar. If we want to be even more specific, we could say the friendship of two women and the consequences of what happens to each of them when they are locked out of their factory, is the story of Sweat isn’t it? It’s about those people in that bar and the thing that happens, the event that happens, is that they are locked out of that factory. Ok? Now I spoke about the series of events and not the order in which they happen so let’s boil this down even further into a thing I like to call story beats, or beats of action. Let’s actually boil the story down, as I’ve just taken that sentence, let’s make it more specific and boil the story of Sweat down into 5 or 6 bullet points. Let’s do this together. So:
1. Lifelong friends who work together in the factory get together to celebrate their birthdays.
2. Friend A gets promoted
3. They get locked out of the factory
4. Friends blame Friend A
5. Their relationships broke down as they lose money and trust in each other
6. This results in a big fight in the bar.
Those are six bullet points. Those are six series of events that happen. And there’s more. There’s a lot more. It’s an ensemble play there’s loads of characters but if we wanted to boil it down to these are the things that happen that lead to the fight – and I’ve not put any politics in there, I’ve not put any race relations stuff in there. I’m just talking about literally what is happening. What do we see happening. And there’s six points there. Sweat is described as a deeply deeply political play but when we talk about story there isn’t really a mention of politics. It’s a personal story about the people in this bar and deals with the tensions of race and class by us physically following what is happening to them beat by beat.
This is an example of the micro addressing the macro because when I talk about Sweat with people they’ll talk about the politics because through these beats of action Lynn is exploring politics. But we are seeing specific moments. And I think it’s really interesting for you all to think about that with your plays. If we took away the themes, completely took away the themes. That play you’re writing about sexism or that play that you’re writing about childhood, take that away for a second and just focus on the beats of action – what is happening?
And I would encourage you as an exercise to see if you can boil that down to maybe 5 or 6 bullet
points. Literally what is happening that means that you can see the story of your play.
Hello! I’m now gonna give another example of a play that many more of you might know. And it’s ok if you don’t but I’m going to use Romeo & Juliet by Shakespeare because that’s a story that quite a few people are familiar with. And I’m going to boil down the story of Romeo & Juliet into a couple of bullet points and not mention theme at all! And what I normally would do if we were together is I would put them up on the wall on Post-It notes so you can see them laid out. But I’m not very good with technology and I’ve tried to do this already doing that and I messed it up. So I’m gonna show you one at a time or maybe in post-production we can add it using title cards. We’ll see. So I’m gonna boil down this story. So let’s start. So there’s a vendetta between two families, which is sort of like the thing that sets it up.
1. A vendetta between two families.
2. Romeo and Juliet meet and fall in love at a party that has been gatecrashed.
3. They marry
4. There is a street fight and Mercutio is killed
5. Romeo in revenge then kills Juliet’s cousin
6. He is banished
7. Juliet fakes her death (in order to get him to come)
8. Romeo doesn’t get the message in time so he kills himself
9. She then kills herself
And then the last Post-It note which I haven’t written is their deaths kind of end the feud. Fuelled? Fuelled? FEUD. Haha! I can’t say that word!
So that is Romeo & Juliet boiled down into 1, 2,3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 Post-It notes. The whole epic story of Romeo & Juliet. And I haven’t mentioned any themes there. And as I said if we were together, I’d put them up on the wall so you could look at them across the
room and literally just see those moments of action. And this is why it’s such an interesting exercise for you to try at home. I feel like I’m on Blue Peter.
The next exercise you can do once you’ve got your beats of action is test yourself. Lay them out and check to see if actually you’ve done them in the right order. So for example, here with Romeo & Juliet, what would happen if we swapped round “street fight and Mercutio is killed” with “Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin”. What happens if those happen in a different order? And this is why Post-It notes are really good to do that cos you can do it quite quickly and it’s quite fun! And those that know the story know that Romeo kills Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, in revenge, you could say, for Mercutio’s death. But if you swap those around, that completely changes the characters, that completely changes the objectives. And you might go “ooh that’s interesting! That might make more sense actually! What happens if that happens this way?” And that’s why the sequence of events is really important, and the order in which they happen that I mentioned at the beginning of this video is as much part of this conversation around the story as the actual events. The order in which they happen has such an impact on your story.
The last thing I wanted to leave you with was this idea of making sure the characters are doing things and things are happening. I’ve written it on a Post-It note so it’s all official. My Post-It note says “Do things”. Don’t just tell us things. So again, coming back to that original question at the beginning of the video: What makes this a play and not a speech or an essay is that things are happening. We’re seeing action. Theatricality is action. So let me see things. These characters are doing things. Events are taking place, and you’re not just telling us about them. And that’s really really key and something that I think is really important.
And I actually want to take this second to shout out Team Angelica, specifically Rikki Beadle Blair and John Russell Gordon cos I learned all of this from them. You know, it’s very easy to get theme and story confused and think you’ve got one and not the other and you’re not really sure what each one is. And they really helped me understand it and actually all of their genius is in this video. So big yourself up Rikki and John and if you ain’t checked out their work you should, they’re wonderful playwrights and incredible inspirations to a lot of writers. Yeah, and I hope you found something useful in this video. And yeah, wishing you lots of love and luck and all of that in your writing and we’ll see you back at the Bush very soon hopefully! Big love! Mwah!