The Controlling Idea In Storytelling

When I was in school at Florida State University, one of the fundamentals stressed in visual storytelling is the “controlling idea,” the guiding opinion or direction that carries throughout a piece.  The simplest definition of the controlling idea is an answer to the question: “what are you saying about what?”  That phrase was used over and over again by my former professor for narrative screenplay writing and production, Bob Pekurny.  My classmates and I often grew tired of hearing it as we toiled through drafts of screenplays.  Other teachers tasked us with weekly write-ups about films’ controlling ideas.  In short, it’s a very important concept to filmmaking.  And it’s honestly taken me nearly 8 years after college to truly understand what it is, what it isn’t, and how necessary it is to define as entire productions depend on it.

Understanding ‘The Big Picture’

Throughout my life, I’ve often struggled with the concept of “the big picture.”  In high school history classes, it was a common observation from my teachers that I often failed to see the forest for the trees.  I’d fixate on minor details, like Bismarck’s full name or date of birth, but failed to appreciate what was happening with the nation of Germany or the rest of Europe.  I couldn’t account for the major, one sentence explanation of what happened in an eon of history, but I knew the most esoteric facts that happened along the way.   This somewhat crippled my ability to analyze film and literature as well, and that was especially frustrating during college.  It probably even carried into my professional years for awhile too!  While details are of significance, an overarching pattern or broad concept is essential to good storytelling.


As I recently reflected on the concept of the controlling idea, I went back through some of my old essays.  It was pretty much a weekly assignment for Intro to Film that we watch movies outside of class and write our explanations of each’s controlling idea.  I almost want to go back to that class and prove to teachers Beau DeMayo and Rickia Page that I’ve come a long way in grasping a big picture!  The essays that I wrote for them aren’t without merit and critical analyses, but again; they’re more focused on details, hidden messages, and political opinions rather than just concise responses to that key question: “what are you saying about what?!”

Again, Claymaker is a difference made with moving pictures – there is always a message beneath our completed visuals.

— Clay Greenhaw, CEO

Trying to Grasp the Controlling Idea

Here are a few examples I remember from those first classes.  Take the film Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  I remember Beau saying the film’s controlling idea is “communication is the lifeblood of relationships.”  And indeed, look what happens when two people who barely know each other get married and live secret lives as assassins.  Their communication gap leads to them nearly being murdered!  In short, communication is key.  It is truly life or death.  Chinatown, for another example, has the controlling idea that “everyone has skeletons in their closet”.  A classic noir movie that begins with an investigation into shady political dealings is just the beginning of an unraveling shroud of dark secrets.  The key here with both of these examples is that they’re both concise descriptions of what each film continuously depicts.

I’d like to use this opportunity to rewrite one of my old Intro to Film controlling idea papers, and I’m going to use a true classic that happens to be back on Netflix as my selection: The Godfather, Part I.  (Apologies to Beau and Rickia if I’ve not met the word count requirement!)

Revisiting The Godfather, Part I

Here are some excerpts from what I wrote in the fall of 2008: “The controlling idea of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is that a systemization of corruption yields a diminishing sense of guilt… Prevalent corruption is systemized beneath the business veneer that the Italian-American crime lords advocate.  The business mantra is the very concept that enables these men to continue their heinous crimes without being overwhelmed by guilt.  Their continual affirmations of, “it’s nothing personal” and “it’s just business” assure one another, but more importantly, themselves, that they are just like any other American businessmen… Michael’s ultimate transformation is his renouncing of Satan’s works with no inhibition as his henchmen do his wicked bidding.
I wouldn’t necessarily say these observations are inaccurate, but having rewatched The Godfather this last week, and with a more critical eye than I had as a college junior, I think I was a few layers deeper than the most fundamental concept to this movie, on which nearly every plot action depends.

Arriving at the Controlling Idea

Today in 2018, I would say the controlling idea of The Godfather is “family is sacred.”  Period.  The story of The Godfather belongs to a young Michael Corleone, and again, nearly every major action in the story carries with it the notion that family is sacred.  It’s such a precious treasure to the Corleones that they kill for it.  The movie opens with Connie’s wedding, and timeless traditions of the Sicilian family are showcased.  After the wedding, we get our first glimpse of how aggressive the Corleone family can be with the planting of a severed horse’s head in Jack Woltz’s bed after he denied Vito’s godson a movie role.  (Of note, the Hollywood scene isn’t central to the story, but it’s our first representation of what lengths the Corleones will go to protect and defend their family.)
Things get a lot more intense when an assassination attempt on Vito leads a once squeaky-clean Michael into murdering a police captain and a drug lord.  Again, the efforts that a Corleone will make to preserve and protect the family are most extreme.  Michael’s brother, Sonny, loses his life after beating up his brother in law, Carlo, after he abuses Sonny’s sister, Connie.  Despite his noble intentions, Sonny went down after defending his sister at all costs.  And of course, the movie reach’s its zenith with Michael’s first son’s christening, or baptism.  While the sacred sacrament transpires, hired assassins take down the other New York crime bosses at war with the Corleone family.  It’s quite the visual juxtaposition, vicious murders occurring alongside the christening of an innocent babe.  We see how sacred family is to the Corleones as they honor the tradition of baptism, but we also see it as they take down their long list of threatening enemies. And, we hear sacred organ music playing throughout both intercut sequences.  Family is everything.  Beneath the business veneers and organized crime is a family that loves, values, cherishes and defends one another, quite literally until death.  Family is sacred.
I think that notion must have been what stuck with Coppola throughout the making of the film.  I don’t think I can arrive at a more succinct explanation of his controlling idea than that.  Every major plot point is a preservation of the family in some shape or form.  Whether it’s through timeless traditions like marriage and procreation, or whether it’s avenging someone who was wronged, it’s all about family.

Claymaker and the Big Picture

I think I’ve come a long way over the last decade in seeing big pictures.  Nowadays, I try to challenge myself with each film I screen to analyze its controlling idea.  Some overarching thought must be carried throughout a motion picture, or any work of art, because if not, then what’s the point?  Why create?  We try to maintain that fundamental at Claymaker by establishing a guiding vision before proceeding with content creation.  If we don’t have something to say, then we don’t have a purpose to create.  Again, Claymaker is a difference made with moving pictures – there is always a message beneath our completed visuals.
Controlling ideas… they’re important!