I’m one of those writers who has to know what the story is about before I can write it. And not in a general, abstract way, like “It’s about friendship.” No, in a nuts and bolts, specific way, like this: “It’s about the conflict between friendship and family loyalties, as a manifestation of the uniquely human conflict between biological drives and conscious thought.” No one apart from me ever needs to read that sentence. As for me, I can only get down to writing once I’ve formulated this kind of thematic spine for myself.
I know there are those who advise against thinking explicitly about theme at all until the story is finished. But there are also different opinions about outlining, knowing how your story ends before you start writing, and any other aspect of the craft of screenwriting you care to mention. Except, of course, the necessity of frequent breaks for displacement activities such as .. writing a blog. On that we all agree.
To me it makes perfect sense to know specifically what issue you want your screenplay to address, because this is what drives all the characters in one direction or another. It’s what the characters fight about, deceive each other for, challenge each other to disprove, and so on.
Of course, knowing so consciously in advance what you want to say, carries a risk with it. The risk being that your theme isn’t a theme at all, it’s a sermon.
That happens when you hit the audience so hard over the head with the moral point you’re trying to make that you make them feel as if they are being lectured to rather than entertained. Or when you make your message so explicit that you may as well hand out flyers on the street corner saying, “The conflict between friendship and family loyalties is a manifestation of the uniquely human conflict between biology and conscious thought.”
So as far as I can tell, the trick is to be clear in your mind what you want the film to be about before you start writing, so that it becomes an integral part of the story structure. You know the characters are going to be in situations where they’re torn between what their instincts dictate and what their conscious mind is advising. Once that’s in place and the characters begin to “take over,” let them have their say. To me that’s the only real way to discover whether they’re the right characters to express the theme, or whether perhaps I actually want to say something else …
A bit like writing a blog. Today I knew I wanted to communicate something about … well, that would be lecturing, wouldn’t it?