Opinions are always divided as to whether the screenwriter benefits from focusing on theme ahead of other aspects of a screenplay.
I’ve been thinking more about FilmUtopia’s recent thought-provoking article, inspired by another blog, quoting an interview with screenwriter-director, Paul Schrader. In the interview, Schrader discusses the importance of knowing your theme and finding an appropriate metaphor, before you build your story. This in contrast to many screenwriting books and seminars—at least those I’m familiar with—which discourage the aspiring screenwriter from thinking about theme before knowing what they are going to write in terms of genre, plot, characters, etc. And FilmUtopia builds on this by emphasizing the importance of writing screenplays in order to explore and express something meaningful, rather than simply to create a safe, familiar and readily marketable rehash of existing films.
As Many Screenwriting Methods as Screenwriters
My response was to applaud the validation of screenwriters whose way of working doesn’t necessarily conform to the models advocated by screenwriting gurus or to the logline-synopsis-treatment-outline-first draft step plan taught on most screenwriting degree courses. Screenwriters come from all kinds of backgrounds, and there are about as many ways to write a screenplay as there are screenwriters. Just listen to Jeff Goldsmith’s podcasts, or read books like The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters by Karl Iglesias, and Story and Character by Alistair Owen.
Theme is like Radiation
So why is the concept of theme always so contentious? Why do many screenwriting teachers treat it with such circumspection? Because theme is a bit like radiation: given in the right dosage it’s medicinal, given in the wrong dosage it’s lethal. So, assuming that you don’t want to poison your audience, but rather give them some kind of meaningful experience, what are the main pitfalls to watch out for?
It’s not a simple thing to weave theme into action and dialogue. As a result, what can easily happen, is that a movie spends too much time repeating the same “message,” scene after scene. It’s often a symptom of the screenwriter underestimating the intelligence of the audience, being afraid the audience (or the producer) won’t “get it.” But whatever the reason, once you understand what a film is about, you don’t want to be constantly reminded of it.
We all know it’s not good to cheat, murder, steal and so on. However, it can be very tempting, especially when confronted with people in the film industry who demand everything be spelled out for them, to “dumb down” your theme. For example, instead of, say, writing about how different people deal differently with the responsibility that comes with parenthood, you choose to paint a black and white picture in which there are good and bad parents. In my opinion, a degree of moral ambiguity can turn the audience into active participants in the film, making the experience far more meaningful for them personally.
being up-front about theme is the right way to go, I find as a viewer, that if there are too many explicit references to what everything in the film is supposed to be about, I switch off. I like a nice bit of subtlety! Let the theme go underground, or into the background for a while. My feeling as a screenwriter is, if you know what you’re writing about, then the theme will permeate all the choices the characters make anyway. It’s in these choices that the audience can experience the questions you’re addressing, rather than consume some kind of processed, pre-packaged message.
Personally, when I’m writing, I love nothing more than to ramble on for page after page about a question that intrigues me. At some point, I inevitably find a kernel of a question which then evolves into a story. This may not be the most productive screenwriting method. It’s certainly not the most lucrative and often leads to awkward situations when someone wants to know why I wrote what I wrote. But it does ensure that the writing process itself contains its own, intrinsic reward: I am constantly learning and discovering new questions to explore. That, to me, is what writing is all about.
Well, that’s my two cents for today on theme. Thanks again to FilmUtopia for stimulating my brain on this issue once again.