As a writer, having an overabundance of ideas may not strike you as the worst position to find yourself in, but as anyone who’s ever given it a cursory thought in time realizes, quality films are clockwork precise when it comes to what is incorporated and what is left out, culled into their essential elements. Exploring concepts outside the realm of the story being told, no matter how intriguing, is a practice fraught with collapsing tension, resumption of disbelief and scenes that stick out like a sore thumb.

Controlling Ideas

Just as common is having an excellent concept or opening, only to find yourself unsure of where to take the arcs, themes, etc. As you set out to shape a concept, logline or whatever scrapings you’ve got to work with into a fully realised script, how do you guide decision-making?

Your foundation is the Controlling Idea, a Rosetta-stone to colour every decision you make during the writing process. Robert McKee defines it so: “One clear, coherent sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning.” That may come across as excessively broad, so let’s clear up a few things. Your controlling idea is not your theme. Your story can have many themes, to be played with, contradicted, explored. Your controlling idea, however, must be unquestionable; it is reflected in the conclusions made by the story. Knowing what you have to say, your ending will become clear to you, and inform all developments to get there.

The controlling idea involves another essential story-element; your value (i.e. love and hate, justice and injustice, etc.) The value is what ideal is at stake, to be refuted or championed by the story’s conclusion. In the case of The Matrix the value is freedom and control. The Wachowskis, equipped with a premise involving a simulation meant to keep the people sedate to be extracted for their value by a machine menace, were interested in an affirmative story which posits that you can break free from control (affirming the value of freedom).

Therefore, their controlling idea became something along the lines of: Neo is able to break free from the control of the Machines and fight to dismantle the Matrix because he is the ‘One’. So, story decisions are made with this in mind; Neo is the hero because, though it is incredibly difficult and many don’t believe it is possible, he rejects the constraints of the Matrix beyond what others are capable of, and refuses to give in. The villainous Cypher, who betrays the revolution in exchange for a cushy lifestyle once he’s plugged back into the system, is therefore his opposite (his motivation is spelled out in a speech about not caring for the difficult fight for freedom because “ignorance is bliss”). This outlines the internal struggle Neo overcomes, whilst Agent Smith, the ultra-powerful arm of the Matrix
sent to eliminate the heroes, stands in for the broader, external threat to overcome.

This is part of why the Matrix sequels are intellectually interesting but come across as tiresome and ruinous to the satisfying ending of the first film. They challenge Neo’s accomplishment by suggesting that the One is just another pawn in the Matrix’s bid for control. We are informed we’ve been watching a different story to the one we enjoyed. You could argue that this is a more complex, intriguing direction to take the series, but it undoubtedly rocks the foundational controlling idea audiences had become attached to. Dissatisfaction ensued.

Find your controlling idea, and your writing process will gain a clarity that can be revelatory (and sometimes downright imperative).

The Matrix and the Controlling Idea
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