Sunday, January 20, 2013

NOW You Can Revise, Step 3: Build a Theme Tree

It’s very hard to worry about theme when you’re writing the first draft. Yes, you need to have a vague sense of what it all means, but you’ll never be able to make the plot and character motivations make sense if you’re constantly trying to say something profound.

In fact, you may have to allow the meaning of your story to change as you write it. You can’t force your characters to do things that they refuse to do. In the end, their actions may make a different point than you thought they were going to make. Whatever you do, don’t force them to act a certain way because you want to prove a point.

As you write the first draft, simply assume that, if the thematic question is linked to the dramatic question, and everything is sufficiently ironic, then meaning will accrue. As a result, however, when it’s time to tackle your later drafts, you may find that your theme is so indistinct that it’s barely detectable.

But wait, you say, isn’t that good? After all, you want your theme to resonate in the audience’s bones, not rattle around in their skulls, so shouldn’t you pitch it just below the frequency of human hearing? Well, yes, but if that’s the case then, like any good sub-audible hum, it has to be persistent.

Now that your story and characters are set, you should go back and second-guess every minor choice you made and change many of them to subtly reinforce your theme. When we write, we inevitably make a lot of choices at random, just to keep writing: What job does the hero’s spouse have, where are the heroes when they get the big news, which blunt object is used for the killing, etc.

I’ve discussed before the way that a masterpiece like High and Low finds all sorts of ways to weave the the idea of high vs. low into every fiber of the story, but this is something that less ambitious movies should do as well.  Enemy of the State is a fun little thriller about a labor lawyer who receives damning evidence about the NSA from an old friend, then has to go on the run for his life. The movie has the “good vs. good” theme of security vs. privacy. This theme is explicitly stated by the hero’s wife, who works for the ACLU, but it’s also reinforced throughout in subtler ways...
  • In the beginning, he’s trying to win a labor law case by using a secret videotape against some gangsters. It’s not admissible in court, but the gangsters don’t want it exposed.
  • Who got the lawyer the tape? A young woman he once had an affair with. The affair is over, but he now he must hide the fact from his wife that he’s still working with her.
  • Where is he when he runs into his friend? A lingerie store, shopping for his wife, but because of his past affair, he’s afraid that she would assume he’s buying for someone else.
  • Why is he there? It’s Christmastime, which means that they’re hiding presents from their son, and he’s hiding the fact he’s raided their gift stash, which complicates things later on.
These are all things that subtly make that point that we all do things that we don’t want exposed to scrutiny, even if they’re not illegal.

I suspect that none of these details were in the first draft, since they aren’t essential to the story, but once the plot had been worked out, screenwriter David Marconi went back and replaced whatever random choices he had originally made with new details that subtly tied into the theme. I’ve heard this referred to a making a “theme tree”, yoking every detail together into a vast system of root and branch that all feeds into an organic whole.  Every choice is a chance to multiply the meaning.

Next: Strengthening the relationships...


j.s. said...

While I agree that it's certainly easier to refine a script's theme in later drafts, I am curious -- now that you've read Brian McDonald's book INVISIBLE INK -- to know what you make of his rather central assertion that every decision a writer makes in every draft of a script can be strengthened by clarifying and reflecting on the theme. Especially since I've known this to be the case in my own work and others'.

Matt Bird said...

I think that's ideal, sure, but I myself can't pull it off in practice. If I have to keep asking myself "what would be the most thematically meaningful job for the hero's spouse to have?", then I'd never get anything written. Instead, I have to allow myself to wing it through those small decisions, then go back and make them more meaningful later on.

Sometimes it's as simple as writing a scene one way, realizing that it could have more impact, and then re-writing it the next day to be more meaningful before I move on, but it's bad to get into that habit-- Better to push on with the draft.

One good thing about waiting until later drafts to address problem is that it allows you to pair off your problems (as I discussed before) rather than tackle them one at a time.

j.s. said...

I guess I think there's got to be some kind of happy medium. If you keep trying to perfect any facet of the script you'll never get to the end of a draft.

Though I do find it hard to believe that all the branches of the well-crafted theme tree in even an unpretentious thriller like ENEMY OF THE STATE were added after the first few drafts, that some of the ideas weren't there in some form from the beginning.

For me it's not a matter of having something profound to say, of knowing all the answers, so much as it is constantly considering the question. If I start work on something without ruminating on the theme it feels like I'm only working on a plot instead of a story.

I know a number of your readers are working screenwriters and novelists and I'd certainly be curious to hear about how much they consider the theme of their story before and during early drafts. Anyone?

MCP said...

In the past I revised to the theme I discovered post-first-draft, but am currently outlining a book and have a definite theme in mind.

I am using the questions from the Ultimate Story Checklist and making the answers all address the theme in some way. I've found it VERY thought-inspiring (the questions themselves are awesome on their own).

I think giving this extra level of consideration to the outline has led me to more interesting and meaningful choices. But the real proof will be after the first draft is done.

Parker said...

I like to consider theme before starting a draft of a story.

But a lot of times I go into a story thinking my theme is one thing, only to realize by the end of the draft that the theme has gone in a totally different direction. That usually happens when a story choice comes up that I hadn't anticipated before writing the story.

Sometimes I know the theme before I write the story, and then I find the story exploring that same theme in unexpected ways.

I do agree, though, that theme comes clearer in subsequent drafts, when you can really see what's missing and add it in.