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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Theme Schmeme

So a group of Rouge Wavers who are students at the UCLA screenwriting program collectively wrote in and asked me to address the topic of theme.

But listen. Theme is for suckers. Don't worry about it and don't bother. Your story just does not need to have a subtextual or deeper meaning beyond what is going on in the plot. Audiences don't care to be touched or moved in a deeper way than right on the surface. They don't pay to see a movie in order to then have to think, feel and experience the story in a primal way. And they certainly get plenty of satisfaction with themes like "love conquers all" - I mean, that's really engaging stuff for anybody. And if your "theme" - should you choose to be all namby-pamby and have one - is something like "blood is thicker than water" or "you have to earn trust" or "being responsible is a good way to live" I guarantee you that whoever reads your script is going to just really, really connect with that message. It will be so different from any other script they've ever read because the specificity of that - I mean, "responsibility" as a concept, that's just so... maaaan that's just not been done before. No sirree. Rest assured.

So if you feel overwhelmed by the concept of theme, you're just wasting your time, man. It ain't no thang. Just dance your interesting characters through a story for the sake of it and don't worry about what the story means, at the end of the day. Don't worry about giving audiences something to mull over or discuss or have a revelation about. Theme is only for babies who want more out of a movie than fleeting entertainment. It's for people who want their entertainment to be "meaningful" and speak to "humanity" with "universal themes." Can you believe these jokers? Unreal. You'd think that for 12 to 14 bucks a pop, they'd be happy just to sit there and watch whatever is on the screen - a bunch of moving images and plot and explosions. C'mon.

Theme is what intellectual, sensitive writers with no clue sit around and freak out about. What is this story really about? What is WALL-E really about? Oh come on, it's easy, Wall-E is about a lonely robot. Period. That's why it did so well. And THE DARK KNIGHT is just about how Batman battles with crime and the Joker. And the Joker is just the Joker and seriously - why does everything have to mean more than that? NETWORK? Um, angry anchorman goes nuts. JAWS? Battling a big shark. STAR WARS? AMERICAN BEAUTY? LETHAL WEAPON? There are no themes there! That's just good story telling. There is nothing more to observe or discuss when the movie is over. Am I right? I don't know what this world is coming to sometimes.

Oh and get this - there is this crazy cabal of writers, dramatists and teachers who think that "theme" should be present in every character, on every page and in every set piece of your script. So that if your "theme" is related, say, to an entertaining question and therefore is something ridiculous like "what makes us human?" then your script is really like a conversation about that. So then every set piece should have "what is it to be human" in the set piece some way somehow.

So if you actually followed this crazy idea of layering universal theme into your story, you'd actually then have to know what your theme is, know that it is the root of your story and know that the plot just services exploring that theme. Crazy. Total pain in the behind.

So as one example, say you were making a decision about what job your main character had, in a story with this "what it means to be human" theme - so you'd probably want to then make your main character's job dressing mannequins or painting portraits or teaching history - see how each of those could fall into the theme of what it means to be human? So all of your story decisions and details would all be under the umbrella of the theme. Some total nut jobs even name their characters in ways that allude to the theme.

Writers who identify and articulate a complex and yet universal theme, who really know, foundationally, why they wanted to tell this story, they weave that theme into every single page. The theme is a conversation between every character and situation in your script and the audience. Are man-friends important? Why is so hard for men to have emotionally intimate relationships with other men? Do buddy/friendships come between a new couple? So every conversation, every detail, every character and character's job and ancillary characters - everything drops into the funnel of what the theme is. In different permutations. What is your theme? If it's a sappy Hallmark card generalism that's okay. Just dig deeper. Try harder. Get to the slightly more specific, interesting part. Write that theme down on a post-it. Stick it on your computer. And explore that theme in every way possible in your script. The theme is the North Star and the script is a ship sailing under its guidance.

What a buncha hokum, huh? Theme schmeme - who needs it? Theme is for eggheads and intellectuals. Theme is too hard for you to figure out. Theme is something you need to buy 12 screenwriting books to understand.

Phooey. Theme is the fundamental topic of your story. It's what drew you to wanting to write the story in the first place. It's not the purview of intellectuals, it's not rocket science, it's what your script is actually about. You just need to work out what your theme is and articulate it and then every page, every scene, every bit of dialogue you write ask yourself, is the theme present on this page, like invisible ink?

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J.J. said...

So...ummm...what was the theme of your post?

Julie Gray said...

Somebody wants to get spanked. :)

J.J. said...

Nah, I'd rather have an anvil drop on my head.

Trina0623 said...

Or say if your theme was "what does it mean to be human?" your main character's job could be to hunt down rebellious replicant human beings and terminate them. Just an idea... think I could get anywhere with that story? ;)

Anthony Peterson said...

"Some total nut jobs even name their characters in ways that allude to the theme"

Oops! That makes me a certified nutcase.

Tavis Sarmento said...

Best post ever!

millar prescott said...

Yeah, I know... Pussy Galore. Gimme a break.

NYCWriter said...

You are toooooo funny.

Loved this post.
You had me going at first.

But it ain't April fools yet.

Stan said...

I have to agree that theme can be an elusive beast. That's why I don't go hunting for one. But if one shows up, great.

Structure is a pain in the A for me too. I prefer to just write and see what develops from the story and the characters themselves. Everything seems to fall into place by itself anyway.

I guess you could call my approach "naturalistic" or intuitive/follow the gut.

When I go purposely looking for something is when it's mostly nowhere in sight.

E.C. Henry said...

I'm with NYCWriter, this is a funny post, Julie. Though I DO think theme more important than you give it credit. THOUGH I do TOTALLY agree with you that "theme on every page, theme echoed in every character" risks going beyond the bounds of good story telling.

I think most themes are found AFTER a couple drafts. Personally, that's how I approach theme. Let the story speak for itself, then let the characters deterimine the theme. Just a thought.

Had a REAL cool mental image of you yesterday, Julie, that I just gotta share. You're like my Statue of Libery. Barefoot on a rock, green robe, crown on your head only that book you hold to your bossom is "Story" by Robert McKey, and instead of a torch, you're holding up a circus clown hammer konker. Kind of a take-off of the movie poster featuring Laura Dern in "Citizen Ruth." Whaddya think? Am I totally nuts, or could you conceibably fit that bill?

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Julie Gray said...

@EC: re your mental image. Scratch the McKee book. I'm a rebel. There is no one guru out there who has the answers beyond read, write, read more, write more. For the very most fundamental screenwriting how-to, I recommend The Screenwriter's Bible.

TimAu said...

I'm glad I read that. Being a 'newbie' and feeling that I have to adhere all the rules of screenwriting. This has helped me to relax. Thank you.