Which Comes First, the Story or the Theme?Posted: September 26, 2016
I asked Robin to do a post on theme for last week’s Writing Memo, as a compliment to my post here. She did a great job of explaining what theme is and how to bring it out in your story. She talked about how to identify your theme, how to bring your theme out in your writing and how multiple themes can be, and often are, woven into a single story. After reading her post, it sounded so easy.
One of the most difficult parts of writing, for me, is determining what my story’s theme is. The theme is what your story or screenplay is really about, and it isn’t always obvious. Often you really have to think about the story as a whole and look for the underlying theme. Or at least, I do.
Die Hard is a story about a man, John McClane, (Bruce Willis), trying to save his marriage, but when her office party is taken hostage, it becomes a story about survival – survival of the good guys, as well as survival of the marraige. (Yes, I see the irony in the fact that Robin and I both chose to use Die Hard in our examples.) Survival is what the story is really about.
Lethal Weapon may be a buddy cop movie about the two cops getting the bad guys, but Roger Murtaugh, (Danny Glover), is struggling with aging and his approaching retirement, and his partner, Martin Riggs, (Mel Gibson), is struggling with the loss of his wife and certain suicidal urges. Dealing with aging and the end of life is what the movie is really about. But the underlying theme is not always easy to pick up on under all the shoot ’em up, good guy – bad guy stuff.
While pursuing my screenwriting emphasis for my M.F.A., one of the things that I was taught was how to breakdown the structure of a movie into different parts, or beats. My professor and screenwriting advisor, J.S. Mayank, had us use the structure model presented in the Save the Cat books by Blake Snyder. Professor Mayank had us watch a lot of movies and read a whole lot of screenplays and break their structures down, and one of the things I learned from this, is that in almost every movie, one of the characters states the theme in their dialog, usually by page five. As a general rule, it’s true. And if you can figure out what the movie is really about, you can put your finger on which line of dialog that is, however, that’s not always an easy thing to do.
For one thing, the line of dialog that states the theme usually doesn’t do it outright. To do so would make the dialog feel forced, untrue to what the character would say. For instance, the line that states the theme in Lethal Weapon is, “Your beard is getting gray. It makes you look old.” Coming from Roger Murtaugh’s daughter, as his family serves his 50th Birthday Cake while he takes a bath works well, but it doesn’t come out and say, “You’re getting ready to retire and your life is coming to an end. How are you going to deal with it?” It’s said and gone, and most viewers probably didn’t even catch that it was the theme stated unless they were looking for it.
These exercises in screenwriting were very helpful to me, but they required that I view movies in a whole new way. (We did a similar thing in my genre fiction classes, dissecting different novels to see what methods the authors used to portray their stories and how effective they are. And when you critique as you read, it’s a lot different than just reading to enjoy the story.) Most people watch movies for entertainment, right? I always had. But when you are doing structure analysis, you have to concentrate more on how it’s put together than you do on what happens in the story. And to figure out what the theme is, you have to watch, or read in the case of screenplays, with a philosophical eye to discover what the story is really about.
That’s where I had problems, especially when I was watching the actual movie, rather than reading the screenplay. I always sat down to watch a movie and immediately immersed myself in the story. Before I knew it, I would look up and realize the first five pages of script must be long past and I had failed to identify the line of dialog in which the theme was stated. It was the thing with reading screenplays. I found myself reading and re-reading those first five pages, searching desperately for the line that would tell me what the whole movie was about. I didn’t understand how I could be expected to pick out a line of dialog that stated what the movie was really about before I’d read the entire screenplay. And the sad thing is, I was no better at picking out theme in my own writing and writing a line of dialog to state it.
Here’s where I digress from Robin. You cannot decide what you want your theme to be and then write a story to fit. At least, I can’t. It won’t work. For me, theme must evolve from the story naturally, not the other way around.
When I decided to write, Bonnie, my screenplay for my thesis, I thought I was writing a story about two young kids who chose to live on the wrong side of the law in order to cope with the circumstances of living in the depression. But Bonnie is different than other renditions of the Bonnie and Clyde story, because it is told from Bonnie’s perspective, and before I had finished it, I found that what it is really about is Bonnie’s love for Clyde. Their love is my underlying theme. Just as love is the underlying theme in a story about a huge ocean liner that hit an iceberg and sank into the ocean, sending most of the passengers to their deaths. And just as it worked for James Cameron, when he wrote Titanic, I think it works for Bonnie. Love is what it is really about, the underlying theme.
The point here is, I didn’t set out to write a story about a young girl’s amazing love. That is what evolved from my story about a young couple’s choice to embark on a life of crime. Love was Bonnie’s motivation. Undying love was my theme and I didn’t even know it until I was more than halfway through writing the screenplay. This is why I say theme is the most difficult part of writing for me, whether I’m writing a novel or a screenplay.
But, I still say writing to the theme is more difficult. The theme must emerge naturally from the story, whether you’re writing for the page or the screen. If I just write the story, being true to my characters, the theme will come to the surface of its own accord. But, that’s me. Obviously, it’s different for Robin, who likes to identify her theme before she begins the story and finds ways to bring the theme out. Which comes first for you?
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