Controlling Ideas in Nonfiction

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A few posts back, I wrote about the conventions and obligatory scenes in a Big Idea work of Nonfiction. One is what I call the Blatant Controlling Idea.

Now we’re at the place on our Foolscap Global Story Grid where we’ll want to jot down the controlling idea/theme of The Tipping Point. Once we’ve completed our Foolscap Global Story Grid and our Story Grid Spreadsheet (I’m working this and will share shortly), we’ll be able to create a Story Grid infographic for The Tipping Point.  Just like I did with The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.

So what the hell is a controlling idea/theme?

To refresh your memory, I wrote a long piece about controlling ideas/theme for The Story Grid. You can read it here.

For our purposes now, though, here’s the three-part requirement for a controlling idea/theme.

  1. A controlling idea/theme must be boiled down to the fewest possible words and cannot be longer than a one-sentence statement.
  2. A controlling idea/theme must describe the climactic value charge of the entire Story, either positively or negatively.
  3. And it must be as specific as possible about the cause of the change in the value charge.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the controlling idea in The Tipping Point, it’s important to note the differences between controlling ideas/theme in fiction and controlling ideas/theme in nonfiction.

In fiction, controlling ideas are beneath the surface.

The writer never explicitly states them. Instead the reader intuits the message from the actions and results of those actions in the Story.

Well, some fiction writers do seem to explicitly state controlling ideas/theme in their novels, but these statements are rarely accurate. I’m thinking of that irresistible Eric Segal novel and the later wildly popular movie adaptation Love Story. The novel’s famous line “Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry,” and the movie version’s “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” seems like the controlling idea/theme of the story…right?

It isn’t.

The controlling idea/theme of Love Story, like a lot of multimillion-copy selling love Stories, is: Love conquers all…but death.

Let’s test it with my 1-2-3 method:

  1. Is the statement Love conquers all…but death as succinct as possible?


  1. Does the statement Love conquers all…but death describe the climactic value charge of the entire story, either positively or negatively?

Yes. Death defeats love at the end of Eric Segal’s Love Story. It ends negatively. As all love stories do.  Someone dies first.  Can’t be avoided.

Of course Oliver still loves Jenny at the end of the book/movie of Love Story, but he can’t actively love her. Nor can she actively love him. While we just don’t know what happens to us when we die, we do know that our bodies no longer work. Spoiler alert. She dies at the end.

A quick sidebar here. In Story (and I believe it’s true too in Life) Love is an action that requires the live beings to be “present.” I don’t mean just being present for the sex act. But like when you pick up your wife’s socks off the floor, take them downstairs to the laundry room…wash/dry them…and then put them in her sock drawer all fresh and clean. Or scrape the windshield of her car after the previous evening’s snowfall and make sure the engine is running well and that the gas tank is never below 1/2.

Those are acts of Love.

You do them because you actually enjoy cleaning her socks. Because you love her and desire to make her life a small bit easier. She doesn’t thank you every time. And you don’t give her crazy thanks for the boots of yours she bought out of her “rainy day” fund to replace your holey ones with the double-knotted laces.  That would be weird. Those are just everyday acts of love that you do for her and she does for you that you both come to rely on. She can count on you and you can count on her.

I’m just saying that the trappings of what we’re told Love is (candlelight and hot tubs and “love meaning never having to say your sorry”) and literal expressions of real love (getting up at 6:00 a.m. to pack your husband’s lunch for the day so he doesn’t have to leave work to grab a sandwich, which means he’ll be home a half hour earlier to catch the last inning of his daughter’s softball game and see her strike out the side or strike out herself and lose the game) are what bind us when the shit really hits the fan.

Because when things go south, and they do every once in a while, few remember that perfect moment in Bali when the moon perfectly illuminated the swell of our beloved’s hip.

No, we remember whether or not our partner helped us plant a vegetable garden to cut down on our monthly expenses. And actually made it fun. Out of that desperate necessity, she brought joy and communion. That’s love.

  1. Is the statement Love conquers all…but death as specific as possible about the cause of the change in the value charge?

Yes. Death trumps love, so death is the cause of change. Death sucks.

Don’t be alarmed when fiction controlling idea/themes reveal themselves as cliché. Things become cliché when they are familiar. And that’s important that they are familiar. There is no need to flagellate yourself because you are exploring a reiteration of a desperately needed statement of truth.

But come on, right?

How more cliché can you get than Love conquers all…but death?

But when the Story delivers, it’s still packs a solar plexus wallop…Midnight Cowboy? Cold Mountain anyone? Titanic? Terms of Endearment?

You gotta love at least one of those and if not one of those, I’m sure you’ll find something in your mind’s vault that turned on this same controlling idea/theme that you will go to your grave decrying a masterpiece.

Crime fiction is another genre that can make a lot out of a fundamental controlling idea/theme that on first inspection seems rather pat.  Here’s an oldie but goodie:

Justice prevails when an everyman victim is more clever than the criminals.

The Firm anyone? North by Northwest? The Fugitive? These are absolutely great stories…even though the controlling idea/theme for all three isn’t earth shaking.

But what of the controlling idea/theme in Big Idea Nonfiction? How is it different than the undercurrent takeaways in fiction

Here’s what’s different. Not only must Big Idea Nonfiction controlling idea/themes be worldview altering statements (I once was blind, but now I can see and I’ll show you how to see like me too…); Big Idea writers must blatantly state them. And writers have to have the courage to throw them down before they actually prove them to the reader.

Does this mean that you, as a hungry reader, can just scan the introduction of Big Idea Books, write down the controlling idea/theme and then skip the rest of the book if you buy in to the ethos/expertise/experience of the writer?

Yeah, sometimes.

In fact, I’d wager that most of the time, what the Big Idea Nonfiction book writer delivers is ON THE SURFACE and that you can get the gist very quickly. What’s important to know is that there is nothing wrong with being ON THE SURFACE in Big Idea Nonfiction. In fact, it’s crucial that you do that very thing!

You understand what ON THE SURFACE MEANS in fiction (a boy likes a girl so he pushes her into a lake…the ON THE SURFACE action is violent, but the undercurrent of the action is based on a desire for intimacy).  But what does ON THE SURFACE mean in Nonfiction? Isn’t that redundant?

What it means is that simply, the writer sets down his controlling idea/theme and then he diligently provides the back up data and/or experiments that support his Big Idea. Then he wraps it up with a reiteration of the Big Idea at the end. The beginning hook is the payoff, the middle build is the supporting evidence for the payoff, and the payoff is the reiteration of the payoff.

Like Love Story and The Firm with their familiar controlling idea/themes, Big Idea Nonfiction can be straightforward narrative from start to finish and still satisfy. PAYOFF PAYOFF PAYOFF.  And that’s okay.

START WITH WHY by Simon Sinek is a great example of a Big Idea Book that delivers in this way. It’s one of my personal favorites. Here’s the controlling idea/theme of that book using my required 1-2-3 list of requirements from above to spell it out.

Business success requires psychological specificity; people buy why, not what.

Sinek tells you what’s he’s going to prove to you…he proves what he wants to prove to you using a lot of very convincing data/evidence…and then he reiterates what he’s told you.  PAYOFF PAYOFF PAYOFF.

But what about The Tipping Point and its controlling idea/theme? Is it ON THE SURFACE too?

Yes it is.

Remember that the Big Idea Nonfiction book requires a blatant statement of the controlling idea/theme.

Here is the controlling idea/theme from Page 7 (1163 words into the book itself):

Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.

Let’s check our 1-2-3.

1. Is it succinct?


2. Does it describe the climactic value charge of the entire Story, either positively or negatively?

Yes. Brilliantly it does.

Now if I had to choose between positive or negative charge for The Tipping Point…and according to this 1-2-3 requirement I’ve put in place for controlling idea/themes in The Story Grid, I must…

 Then I would have to say that the final value charge at the end of The Tipping Point is NEGATIVE. I’ll get into why very specifically down the road.

3. Is the controlling idea/theme as specific as possible about the cause of the change in the value charge?

 My answer to this is also Yes.

 The cause of the change in the value charge is viral in nature. And Gladwell’s use of the words “spread” and “viruses” in this sentence is in no way accidental.

 How many viruses (literal natural viruses, not “safely” DNA manipulated ones) do you know of that we perceive as positive in nature? Not that they’re “bad” for the universe, just bad for our survival as predatory animals on the planet? Maybe that one virus in our duodenum that helps digest our food in coordination with our gut bacteria?

 I don’t remember its name and I used to study that stuff.

So the vector of change in the value charge in this controlling idea/theme is viral. It spreads ideas, products, messages and behaviors. And viruses connote uncontrollable infection and physical decline…  The cause in the change of the value charge from the positive of Hush Puppies blowing up and Crime going down in New York City is a negative vector, one that is uncontrollable.

Let’s back up a bit and remember why we’re doing this 1-2-3 check in the first place.  It is that the conventions and obligatory scenes of Big Idea Nonfiction require a Blatant Statement of the Controlling Idea/Theme.

Does Gladwell do this?

He does.

Her clearly states on Page 7 that

The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea, and the idea is very simple.”

And then he ends his paragraph with that idea.

Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.”

And it is a simple idea. Life is not a linear equation. It’s algorithmic. That might not seem like much, but boy is that a huge statement.

But because of Gladwell’s use of an external action adventure genre in addition to his Worldview Revelation internal genre, we get an undercurrent message that will transform the controlling idea/theme in ways we don’t understand quite yet. This is one element that creates his narrative drive.

The deep meaning and wisdom that results from methodically exploring this “simple” idea, giving it form, looking for supporting data, etc. (following the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, the book’s external action adventure genre) reveal themselves in ways one would never anticipate reading those two great positive “hook” inciting incidents about Hush Puppies and the decline of New York City Crime that Gladwell begins the book with.

Like The Scarecrow, The Tin Man and The Cowardly Lion do, we readers of The Tipping Point will get our ON THE SURFACE wants met. We’ll get the roadmap to create our own Tipping Points.

But we’ll also get what we really need to understand.

Like Dorothy, we’ll discover that while we aren’t in Kansas anymore, there is a way home. But we have to take responsibility to not just find our new home ourselves (without third party intervention) but to make that home uniquely our own.

The way we’ll do that is to follow along as Malcolm Gladwell leads us to our own private Tipping Point.

More to come.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of the Storygridding The Tipping Point posts and The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-outs.

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Shawn Coyne

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the ’70s and the Fight For America’s Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.