When you consider the people in your life that you know really well, many times you can see that one issue that controls their life, even if they can’t.
For example, there’s a certain someone I have known for thirty five plus years who has this habit of believing the sky is falling, that every worst case scenario is coming for him.
Another one of my familiars has this annoying blindspot. She cannot see how magical she is, even though she’s charisma incarnate, so she goes around with perpetual short man’s syndrome.
Another magical person in my life can’t get over a fear of being hurt by other people and lives in a state of perpetual fight or flight whenever she’s around other people.
In writing there’s something called the controlling idea. It’s the core theme of a good book. Everything that happens in the story relates back to this one big idea.
From a writers perspective, once you know the controlling idea, it’s much easier to tell a story because you’re no longer floating around in a sea of “anything goes” and oddly, the story sort of tells itself.
I just so happen to be writing a book about my life so I’m aware of my life’s controlling idea but it took me, like, over five years of writing to finally see it. More on that in a minute…
Along with a controlling idea, any good story has to have antagonistic forces. These are the things that challenge the main character in the story, aka the protagonist. It’s how the protagonist responds that makes the reader want to keep turning the page.
Look at any story and you’ll find that it starts out with a protagonist who is pretty darn clueless. They do all these misguided, effed up things to deal with their problems. These are what we call first level responses.
At some point in the story though, the protagonist has to get smarter, learn better ways to deal with their shit otherwise the antagonistic forces win. These are called second level responses.
Now that I know the controlling idea of my own life it’s all so obvious. And I doubt it comes as a surprise to anyone who really knows me well.
The controlling idea in my life and the one I am writing my book about has to do with an obsessive need over the years to appear successful fueled childhood trauma.
It took a lot of digging to figure it out and by digging, I mean healing. And a lot of humility to own up to it. Which is why a controlling idea can be tricky to put a finger on. Most of the time we’re blind to it, while the people around us are like, “oh yeah, duh.”
But once you’re privy to your controlling idea, and you think of your life like a story, you start to see some patterns: where you’re still doing misguided, effed up stuff to deal with your problems, where you need to get bigger, faster and stronger to deal with your problems that are the cards you have been dealt in this life, and where you actually are stepping up with those second level responses.
I’m taking some time away this weekend to work on my my book. I’ll be detailing the the first level responses on my path and, ultimately, because bless my heart, I’m not a fast learner, how I found my way to the second level responses that allowed me to overcome my shit — addiction, self doubt. trauma. fear, shame, sorrow– and ultimately find my way to love.
So think about it. What’s your controlling idea?
It might not come to you right away, but I bet you could figure it out. It takes courage, humility, curiosity and self compassion.
But remember one thing: YOU are the hero of your own story. and this life, like any good story, is full of antagonistic forces. Your job is to find your way to those second level responses that will lead you to a happy ending.
And, by the way, should you need some support, I can help. Click here to set up a time to chat about how I can help you become the hero of your own story.
For more about controlling ideas and stuff, check out Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McAfee or sign up for The Bones of Storytelling over at Blackbird Studio for Writers.