Rewriting Your Script, Part 4: Themes

January 10th, 2013 by

Since dozens of writers used Go On Your Own Quest to pound out a first draft of their original screenplay, I decided to start off the New Year with a week-long series on rewriting, to honor their commitment and effort, and to encourage them [and everyone else] on their creative journey.

We’ve all heard the adage, “Writing is rewriting,” right? Perhaps nowhere is that more true than screenwriting. Aspiring screenwriters know this because of the number of drafts they go through to whip their script into readable shape. Professional screenwriters understand this because of the multiple drafts they do on any project, whether on spec or assignment.

Rewriting is just the nature of the screenwriting beast.

But that begs the question: How? What are some keys to the rewriting process? Instead of wandering around in the dark not knowing if you’re improving the story or not, is there a coherent approach to rewriting your scripts?

First off, the same thing applies to rewriting as to writing: There is no right way to write. There is no right way to rewrite. Every writer is different. Every story is different. And every rewrite is different.

That said, this week I will lay out some keys to the process. If they help you, great. Use them with my blessing. If they don’t help you, feel free to chuck them.

Part 4: Themes

Theme is much more than the moral of the story, an intellectual premise, or a central idea, it is organic and dynamic arising from the emotional, psychological and spiritual life of a story, conveying a story’s multiple layers of meaning.

Good stories have plots and subplots, primary characters and secondary characters, dialogue and subtext, actions and intentions, Plotline and Themeline. Why shouldn’t they have themes and sub-themes?

To explore this idea, let’s divide story themes into types, two potential ways writers can approach dealing with thematic material in their stories:

Central Theme: The overriding meaning of the story that provides the unifying glue to bind together the entire narrative.

Sub-Theme: A specific aspect or variation of the central theme that sheds a distinctive light on the narrative’s significance.

As an example, let’s consider The Silence of the Lambs:

Central Theme: To silence nightmares from the past, Clarice must confront them.

Sub-Themes: (1) Death – its power to inflict pain [the murder of Clarice’s father]; its power to provide redemption [the killing of Buffalo bill]. (2) Transformation – Buffalo Bill seeks to become a woman (i.e., his obsession with moths, sewing a female body suit made out of his victim’s skin, dressing like a woman); Clarice seeks to resolve the guilt she feels about her father’s death and become a whole person. (3) Father – Clarice’s loss of her own father; Jack Crawford as a substitute father figure; Hannibal Lecter as patriarchal mentor. (4) Blood – the shadow of her father’s death; the scratch on Clarice’s thigh as she crawls into Lecter’s storage unit; the desiccated blood of the victim upon whom Clarice performs an autopsy; the blood on the walls of the pit where Catherine Martin is being held captive; the blood covering Lecter after he slaughters a prison guard; the blood shed when Clarice shoots Buffalo Bill countless times.

Each of these themes provides a window into the heart and soul of the story. No matter the size or scope, each is an entry point for viewers to find their own emotional and psychological connection to the narrative.

What’s more, Sub-Themes support the Central Theme, amplifying its many varied aspects. Look at the themes in The Silence of the Lambs:

Central Theme: To silence nightmares from the past, Clarice must confront them.

  • Death: It is her father’s death that sends Clarice down her life-path of becoming an FBI agent; it is the deaths of Buffalo Bill’s victims that gets her drawn into the case; it is the death of Buffalo Bill, killed by Clarice, that enables her to silence the nightmares.
  • Transformation: It is the clue Lecter gives Clarice that helps her to understand Buffalo Bill’s criminal impulses; the moths [which represent the possibility of change to the serial killer] tip off Clarice that she is in the house with Buffalo Bill; it is her own growth from FBI agent-in-training to righteous ‘angel of death’ that gives her the power to defeat Buffalo Bill.
  • Father: Her father was a sacrificial lamb, an innocent murdered by two burglars, symbolized by the single lamb Clarice scooped up during that horrible night on her uncle’s Montana farm, trying to save the lamb and in so doing, symbolically her father.
  • Blood: What Lecter knows is that Clarice must sacrifice Buffalo Bill and shed his blood in order to wash away the guilt she feels at the death of her father.

For your rewrite, create a master list of all themes present in your script. Then sort through the list:

  • What is your story’s Central Theme?
  • What are your story’s Sub-Themes?

These may not be entirely clear to you. Don’t worry. Thematic content is often the last aspect of a story to reveal itself.

The main goal is simply to engage your thinking about what your story is about, what you are trying to say, and most importantly what is your story’s emotional meaning?

Two ways to surface potential themes: (1) Explore the relationship of each Primary and Secondary Character to the Protagonist. Oftentimes the nature of their respective narrative functions suggests a theme. (2) Look for talismans [physical objects imbued with symbolic meaning]. Those, too, can convey themes.

This is a good way to delve into the possible levels of meaning in your story.

Tomorrow: Structure.

Part 1: Set It Aside

Part 2: A Clean Read

Part 3: Characters

FYI: Tom Benedek will be teaching the next session of Pages II: Rewriting Your Script through Screenwriting Master Class beginning February 18.

Be sure to check out the free Go On Your Own Quest Forums, an online writing community and extension of this blog.

One thought on “Rewriting Your Script, Part 4: Themes

  1. Sabina Giado says:

    It seems to me that what you describe as ‘sub-themes’ might also be described as motifs.

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