New Writer's Tool: Operational Theme

I attended a writer's conference the other day and while we were there I attended the panel on "how to write a long-running series." The Journal Entries is a very long-running series, and I hoped to learn something from other people who had tried the same thing. Long-running serials are not a new thing, but tools for talking about them certainly are.

One of my favorite ideas for long-running series is the Story Engine, which is the central premise of the story that drives every episode. This weekend I heard about, not so much an alternative, as a different way of approaching the engine that drives your story, one that may appeal to character-driven writers, and belongs in every writers' toolbox: Operational Theme.

Story Engines are not always that hard to write down, but it may be hard to get from your Story Engine to the plot of your next episode. Story Engines often describe a what, but not a who or a how.

Examples of story engines:

  • M*A*S*H: a group of stressed out wisecracking doctors deal with the absurdities of being in the middle of a war.
  • Breaking Bad: a man discovers he has very little time to secure his family's future and embarks on a life of crime. At every opportunity to do right, he chooses otherwise.
  • John Wick: a hitman tries to retire, but chance encounters put him in conflict with his prior life and he must fight his way back out again.

Having a story engine doesn't always mean you know what your characters are supposed to do, and character-driven writing is premised on the ideas that (a) your characters want something, (b) they are proactive in trying to get it, and (c) they are self-aware enough to think about what just happened, reflect on it, and pursue their goals further.

That's where Operational Theme comes in. Operational Theme is the story engine at the level of the character. When you have a long-running series, your main character will, eventually, run out of challenges; you'll have little room for the character to grow further, to become better (or worse), to change. You need new characters with new and different problems (or, maybe, just the same problem for which you write different solutions) to keep the series going. Even if they're not the main character, they can carry a subplot for long arcs.

Operational Theme isn't what drives the story, it's what drives the character. Doctors, lawyers, police officers, fire fighters all have easy, off-the-shelf operational themes that resound with the audience, so they're staples of book and television series.

Examples of operational themes:

  • Hawkeye Pierce (M*A*S*H): "I'm here to save lives, but I'm going to need my wit and charm to put distance between me and the madness of war so I can save myself as well."
  • Max Klinger (M*A*S*H): "At first, I put on a dress to try and convince my superiors that I'm too crazy to be even in a medical unit, but now I've become dedicated to helping the people who depend on me."
  • Walter White (Breaking Bad): "I have to save the family I love, but to do that, I'm going to have to do something my family will hate." Eventually, a lot of things.
  • John Wick (John Wick): "The life I hated is trying to drag me back in, but I'm going to use all the tools that life taught me to get out."
  • Honor Harrington (The Honor Harrington Series): "To protect and honor the country I have sworn to protect, I must somehow become a perfect killer in war and a perfect administrator in peace."
  • Miles Vorkosigon (The Vorkosigan Saga): "To be true to the legacy I have been granted I will do everything I can to overcome my disabilities and prove my worthiness."

Of course, I have to add my own characters:

  • Ken Shardik: "I have been granted as absurd degree of power, but really, all I've ever wanted was to be kind and get laid."
  • Linia Ffanci: "I'm programmed to be the perfect companion, but the person I'm programmed to adore doesn't want that sort of adoration or perfection, and learning to be more than my programming is hard, but I'll try, because that's what I want."
  • Dove san Cioni: "My culture and my mothers taught me contradictory stories about love, devotion, and faithfulness, and I've chosen a course in life that I believe honors the best of those stories, but it angers them. I have to believe my choices are good, and fight for my right to hold dear to them."

Operational theme is, I think, more powerful than story engine as an idea. It describes a conflict your character can face, can react to, and yet a conflict which can return repeatedly as long as the series is alive.

David Mamet was the showrunner for the TV Series The Unit, and in one incredible memo to the writers1, he wrote (and yes, he wrote it in ALL CAPS because he was pissed off at their shoddy writing):


Operational Theme is why that character has their pressing need. It's the engine that drives him or her, rather that the whole series, and sometimes that's enough to drive a whole episode. If you have several major characters, giving them an operational theme is part of the job so do it deliberately and consciously. Your series will be better for it.

1 It really is an incredible document. I recommend reading all of it, because Mamet teaches the core of drama; what a scene is; the difference between infodump, exposition, and wasting the readers' time; the point of dialogue vs description; what "show, don't tell" really means; and how to tell if any scene is actually dramatic.

Earlier: Free Guy, Act 2, Scene 3: A Masterclass in the Power of Dialogue