Sunday, October 24, 2010

Beyond Good vs. Sucky, the Conclusion: Theme

Okay, so now we’ve arrived at the last and least. No one is ever going to say “I hated your script because I hated the theme.” They might complain about the tone, which isn’t the same thing, but the best way to maintain a consistent tone is to know your theme.

I addressed theme recently and mentioned that the best summation of a movie’s theme should take the form of a question, not a statement. A theme is a sphere of discussion. It’s an organizing principle. Is this vague enough for you? Well, that’s fine, because your theme, unlike everything else we’ve covered, is allowed to be vague. Theme is a feeling, not a fact. When they criticize you by saying, “I didn’t know why I should care about anything that happened”, you may have a theme problem.

So what is theme anyway?:

  1. Something to say: Pretty simple. Why did you write it? Why did you choose characters with these problems? Why did you choose this setting? Are these people and places and problems you know something about? Do you have a healthy respect for the complexities of this problem? Is the problem just an obstacle or is it a real conflict? Does the hero have to confront himself or merely confront someone else? Is there a nut buried deep inside your story that you yourself don’t know how to crack? There should be. Shakespeare was the all-time master of theme. He only wrote tragedies about problems that he had no idea how to solve, and we love him for it.
  2. Morally coherent: Not the same thing as “a moral”. Now, obviously, if you read the latest spec screenplays that sell these days (most of which are helpfully posted as pdfs over at ScriptShadow), you’ll notice that this one has pretty much gone out the window. I don’t mean to sound like a crotchety old man, but you don’t need to be a Calvinist to be concerned about the current trend towards nihilism in big-money screenplays. Producers are betting big on an endless torrent of gung-ho hitman movies, despite the fact that America has shown little interest in this trend at the box office. Of course, you can make a great movie about anybody, even a hitman—just ask the French poet laureate of hitmanship, Jean-Pierre Melville. But Melville was not himself a nihilist. He was making movies about nihilism. There’s a wee difference. You need to have a coherent moral position in relation to whatever subject you’re writing about.
  3. The way the world works: Or another way to put it: sophistication. This one is tricky. Obviously if everybody acted the way real people act, then nothing very exciting would happen. You’re allowed to push that line, but your story becomes much stronger if it still somehow reflects the realities of fate and fortune and human nature. This is why they don’t like to hire writers who have undergraduate and graduate degrees in filmmaking: The fear is that they’ll have no sense of how the outside world works.

So that’s a round up of nineteen different qualities that your readers may have in mind when they tell you your script either rocks or sucks. Remember back when you thought this would be an easy job? At this rate, you might as well work.

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