Thursday, August 16, 2012

Screenwriting Article - The Great Space Tag-Team Theme Coaster

Hello my fellow Scriptshadowians.  So I've wanted to write an article about theme for the longest time now but the truth is, it's not one of my strengths.  I understand the broad strokes but there are times when theme flat out confuses me.  For that reason, I've brought in a tag-team partner, Tawnya Bhattacharya from Script Anatomyto help me out.  She's a theme guru and I figured if I had her, I could at least hide some of my ignorance.  The way I thought we'd do it is this - Tawnya will give you her breakdown on theme and then afterwards, I'll give you mine.  For the most part, we're on the same page, but I feel like my approach is a little less strict.  Afterwards, I'd love to hear your own thoughts on theme.  I often learn just as much from you guys as you do from me. :) With that said, let's bring in Tawnya!

I’m feeling punchy and maybe slightly ornery. It’s hot as hell even with the AC on. I don’t feel like I’m dropping enough L-B-S’s with my latest fad work out. And my writing partner and I have been waiting all summer to hear if “Fairly Legal” is getting the pick up (Magic 8 Ball says, “Outlook not so good”) and lately, we’ve been on pins and needles waiting to find out if we’re going to land a new gig after a series of meetings. I even offered to do a cartwheel during the last meeting to seal the deal. I’m not talking any old cartwheel but an aerial in honor of the recent Olympics. A private closing ceremony, if you will, starring me. This is no small feat as I haven’t done one since 1989, but I’m willing to take one for the team, people! Anyway… The. Wait. Is. Brutal. It’s been 72 hours and counting… One of the fun things you have to try to get used to, because it should happen over and over again in your career if things are going well. If it’s not then something’s wrong.

What’s my point? I almost forgot. Theme! Carson asked me to write an article on theme and I was giving you a little preface (I’m feeling punchy) on why I’ve decided to basically interview myself. So, here goes.


1) Theme is Structure. It is the foundation on which your story is built. In fact, it’s like the gravity of your script holding everything together and in place. Without it, nothing’s anchored and scenes, moments, characters, setpieces will just drift off into space.

2) Theme is not only the spine and core of your movie but the Heart and Soul of your story. It’s the moral and lesson of your story that gives your screen or teleplay universal meaning. Ultimately, it’s what unifies your story and makes it emotionally significant. It’s your “voice” – it’s what you want to say. Stories teach us how to be human through symbolic experiences.

3) Theme is your “Voice” because it is your reflection of humanity – what you have to say with regard to your core beliefs and values. Someone said there are only 7 stories. And we know writers use the same themes over and over again. But it doesn’t matter. It’s all about how YOU tell that story from your unique point of view.

When thinking about theme, I think it’s important to start with yourself. What do you feel strongly about? What are your core beliefs and values? What stories are you drawn to – are there common themes in those stories? Write down a list of all of your story ideas and see if common thematic patterns emerge. Think about your life experiences – maybe start with the major moments of your life – the good and the bad – and see what comes up there. Your passion and voice are stronger when you are writing what is personal to you - what’s “close to the bone.”

Theme is kind of like the subtext of the overall story. You are expressing it through character, relationships, conflict, dialogue, symbolism and visual imagery… but hopefully you’re being subtle about it so you aren’t hitting people over the head. Samuel Goldwyn said: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” I think that’s why it’s important to explore different facets of theme. If you are proving the opposite thematic point of view through a secondary character or storyline as well as your main thematic point with primary characters, then you are giving us perspective and will hopefully steer clear of becoming preachy.

I think the most important and effective way to illustrate theme is through your main character. Theme is expressed through your main character’s transformational arc during the journey. How do you show this transformation? To express transformation, the need for transformation has to be established - hence the Character FLAW. Remember this: Theme is the opposite of the character’s flaw.

Theme is the lesson the character learns from going on the journey. Theme, therefore, must be illustrated through the character’s experience: The character is one way in the beginning of your movie (fully living in their flaw), but the relationships and conflict during the journey of the movie will lead the character to change/grow and end up a different way at the end (cure flaw to a degree) to get to the theme.

Many people have asked me over the years: Can my character be his own opponent? No. They are, in a sense, their own worst enemy because ultimately it is the Character’s flaw that is stopping them from getting what they want. And they will have to cure that flaw to some degree to get the goal in the end. This is why we are on the journey in the first place. This makes sense in life too. We all have certain flaws and misbehaviors that have a way of recurring and creating obstacles on our path, preventing us from getting what we want. In order for us to stop coming up against the same blocks - the same bad relationships, the same job issues, the same insecurities - WE HAVE TO GROW AND CHANGE! If you don’t have an external antagonist (someone or something) you lose the opportunity for your character to grow and change because conflict and obstacles and relationships are what force the character to confront their flaw and either remain the same or grow and change (arc) to get to the goal and the thematic lesson. Conflict and obstacles give your story stakes and momentum. Conflict comes from the fact that there is a FLAW. So…

Theme is directly related to FLAW, BECAUSE FLAW IS OPPOSITE OF THEME. Again, flaw is what the MC (main character) has to confront along the way to get to the breakthrough place, which is the THEMATIC LESSON. Here’s an easy way to approach character flaw, theme and the transformational arc. Think of it in terms of a logline.


If you know the character flaw, you know the theme. If you know the theme, you know the character flaw.


All right, all good points.  I see things slightly differently though.  Not saying it's right or wrong or superior to Tawnya's version, but just how I see it.  Theme is simply the overall "thing" you're trying to say with your story.  Conveying a "message" in a screenplay gets a bad rap, as noted by Goldwyn above, but the truth is, that's what you're doing.  We all have big opinions about the world, about life, about humanity, about society.  It's why we're artists.  We want to express those opinions in our work.  Well theme is merely the focus of those opinions.  You want to pick a core idea you feel strongly about and use your screenplay to express it.  Don't overdo it.  Like Tawnya said - you don't want to sound too preachy.  But that's the basic approach for applying theme.

Now where does theme go bad?  In my experience, it's when writers get too ambitious with it.  They try and make their theme really profound and complicated.  They believe their message must change the world - the very molecular structure of how us human beings interpret life.  So they create some big lumbering thematic point-of-view that's too convoluted to express, leaving their story and message weighed down and unfocused.  You want to know what the theme of Ferris Bueller's Day Off was?  "Carpe Diem."  Seize the day.  That's it!  It's so simple and yet insanely effective.  After watching that movie, you want to go out and live in the moment!

In that sense, one of the best things you can do is pick themes that resonate with people.  They call these universal themes and there's a reason they've been around forever.  Because they affect us.  Because they come up in our lives again and again.  Because they make us think.  With Ferris, I believe the Carpe Diem theme was just as important to the movie's success as its characters.  All of us wish we spent less time worrying about the past and future and enjoyed the now.  So it's those UNIVERSAL THEMES that are going to give you the most bang for your buck.

Even though I prefer a statement, some writers like to tackle their theme in the form of a question.  So for example, your thematic question might be, "Is it ever really possible for someone to change?"  Most people get to a point in their lives where they are who they are, for better or worse, and won't change.  Our story might follow a protagonist, then, who's been selfish and deceitful for the first three decades of his life.  We want to see if it's possible for him to become kind and trustworthy.  But the great thing about theme is you don't stop at the main character.  You also explore this question with your other characters, just in different situations and variations.

For some characters, the answer to the question might be positive.  They can change.  For others, it will be negative.  They always go back to what they're comfortable with.  The up and down nature of the way these characters and scenes explore the question is - you got it - the exploration of your theme.  Then, like Tawnya said, the definitive answer to the question will come via your main character in the third act.  Is he able to change?  This will be your personal opinion, as the author, of the "correct" answer to your thematic question.  You control whether the audience leaves feeling hope or feeling hopeless.  You're telling them whether it's possible to change in this world.

Now how do you find a great theme for your specific script?  It's easier than you think.  Take a second and mentally scroll through all the things that are going on in your life right now.  What gets you riled up?  Passionate?  What recent argument did you have with someone that still resonates?  You should be able to find themes you feel passionately about in those experiences.

For example, the "change" theme I used above.  That came from a friend and I discussing whether it's really possible for people to change.  He stood by as his biggest fault destroyed his relationship. Now he wanted to change it.  But he acknowledged that he'd had this problem for 15 years and didn't think he could change it.

The tricky part is matching up the right theme with the right story.  So let's say I'm writing a movie about aliens trying to hijack a super train. whole "change" theme might be great for a character-driven drama, but not so much for Aliens On A Train.  Which just means I have to go back and explore more themes in my everyday life and find the right fit.  I know of a friend, for example, who recently moved to LA to escape a rocky past.  That's an interesting theme.  "Is it truly possible to leave your past behind or will it always catch up to you?"  So maybe I make the protagonist a guy who's taking this train to escape his past.  And hey, maybe that's what these aliens are doing too!  That's why they left their planet.  You see how the theme is now weaving itself into the story?  That may not be the perfect theme for this screenplay but you can start to see the genesis for finding a theme that fits.

As far as the application of theme, I always encourage writers to go into their first draft with AT LEAST a vague understanding of their theme.  It doesn't have to be rock solid.  But you should have a general feel for what you're trying to say.  The reason it's okay to be vague at first is because your story's going to be changing a lot in those first few drafts, and you have to have the flexibility to let your theme change with it.  Once you get to your fourth and fifth drafts, your theme should be solidifying, and your characters and scenes (and dialogue) should start to reflect that.

I think theme is fascinating because it's one of the more formless aspects of screenwriting.  You can't boil it down to an outline or apply it as a rule.  There's a lot more "feel" involved in it than the average screenwriting component.  You have to "weave" it in as opposed to "place" it in, which may be why there's so many opinions on how theme should be applied.  I know when I hear about writers trying to prove or disprove their theme in every single scene, that I feel that's going too far.  I look at theme as something that should have a dominant background presence but never get too close to the front of the stage.  It should guide your story but never control it.  That's what the plot and the characters are for.  But that's just my opinion.  What about you guys?  What are you thoughts on theme?