BUT I HAVE A THEME!? (Classic Post)

This is part two of the last post on theme.

Okay, so now I’ve convinced you that you need to consider theme. I’ve told you that a story without theme is shallow, less likely to sell, less likely to be made into a movie and much less likely to get you noticed as a writer. So you go out and pick a theme. “Make peace not war.” That sounds good, universal, who could disagree with that?

Okay, now you’re ready to write, right?

Not so fast. Theme is not something you pluck out of the air then hang a story onto. Rather, theme is the result of a search, part of which often takes place during the work of creating your story rather than all up front. In developing your theme, you should consider a number of issues: What questions interest you enough to spend nine months exploring them? What type of story are you interested in telling? What elements of the story have you already begun to be interested in? How does the theme support the kind of story you want to tell? How does the theme suggest a complete personal experience for your lead?

Sometimes you will try to answer these questions in advance of outlining. Sometimes you will just play with the story and see how the theme emerges – then solidify it in your mind and hone the story. There is no one way to arrive at theme.

To make matters more complex, theme is defined differently by – well, by everyone. If you pick up six books on writing, look at how theme is defined in each. They are all different. If they happen to analyze the same picture, they will each frame the theme very differently. Which way is right? The answer is the one that helps you the most to clarify and focus your story. The purpose of theme is to help you organize your story around a core question or set of questions about human values that is important to you and that will engage an audience, reader, studio exec or producer at a deeper level than just the immediate cleverness or artfulness of your story execution.

So, we know theme has something to do with core human values. So, what’s wrong with “make peace not war”? Maybe nothing. It certainly reflects a core human value. But, for me, I prefer to consider themes that ask questions instead of answering them. This allows me to explore and have the characters explore different aspects of the question in conflict. No easy answers and the characters can disagree. I prefer a theme like “How far should a person go to preserve peace?” over “make peace not war.” It suggests a much more complex set of emotions and one immediately envisions many possible stories or a number of characters within the same story that each have different answers, answers which might be in conflict with one another and which reflect deeply held values.

To develop your story’s theme, look inside yourself to see what is important to you and what you have to say about it. Be willing to show both sides of the value issues. Be bold. Expose yourself. Your writing will be better for it.

Category: Theme

ARTFUL DEBATE (Classic Post)

I’ve been working hard lately, so I missed the beginning of a great debate at The Artful Writer. For those who haven’t been following, in this column and the one that follows it, the Artful Writer provides nice insight into the experience of being an established, working writer in Hollywood and the issues you will face.

Category: The Business


If you don’t know who Charlie Kauffman is, you’ve been writing in a hole or you’re just plain solipsistic. He’s been nominated for three Oscars and finally won this time. The picture, Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. Not a great commercial success, nor was Adaptation, nor Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, nor even his most popular, Being John Malkovich. Yet, he is the darling of Hollywood, the writer’s writer. The question is, why?

To me, the answer is easy. He’s brilliant. I hate to use a bad word here, but I can’t help it. He’s postmodern. Kaufman understands the conventions of screenwriting backwards and forwards and never fails to twist them on their heads. Sometimes it works, as in Confessions of A Dangerous Mind (I love the way he blends reality and fiction so there is no clean boundary) and sometimes it doesn’t, as in the third act of Adaptation (blaahhhh – a conceit that doomed itself). Always, though, it teases and entertains those who understand story structure and the rules of a screenplay. Does it reach the average Joe in Nebraska? Don’t know, don’t care. Every screenplay is not for every audience member always. In fact, no screenplay is.

There’s a point to this somewhere. Since I get on my sort of soapbox with almost every post, this one will be no different. The point is, it takes courage to do what he does to a story – maybe less courage now that he’s on picture number five and has an Oscar – but somewhere along the line it took a great deal of courage. I look at my own work and ask whether, when it finally gets through development (if ever), it will add anything important to the body of filmmaking as a whole? I’m too chicken to answer honestly – but I can tell you, it’s the drive that keeps me going. It’s a long haul, brother, but man, is it worth it….

Category: People, The Craft