Black List Writers on the Craft

September 1st, 2015 by

In August, I featured many of the Black List writers I have interviewed, zeroing in on their approaches and insights into several key areas of the writing craft.

Black List logo

Here are links to each of those series:

How do you come up with story concepts?

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 1) – Waiting for inspiration to strike

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 2) – Reading to surface story concepts

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 3) – Sourcing story ideas from the real world

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 4) – Finding inspiration for story concepts from feelings

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 5) – Using questions as a starting point for generating story ideas

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 6) – Assessing and developing story ideas

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 7) – Honing one’s skill at generating and developing story ideas

What aspects of story prep do you devote the most time and focus to?

Black List writers on the craft: Story Prep (Part 1) – Research

Black List writers on the craft: Story Prep (Part 2) – Characters as the focal point of prep

Black List writers on the craft: Story Prep (Part 3) – Not using an outline as part of prep process

Black List writers on the craft: Story Prep (Part 4) – “Preliminary” outlines

Black List writers on the craft: Story Prep (Part 5) – Working with an extensive outline

Black List writers on the craft: Story Prep (Part 6) – Comprehensive approach to story prep

How do you develop your characters?

Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 1) – Real people

Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 2) – Brainstorming and asking questions

Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 3) – Biography

Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 4) – Finding a character’s voice

Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 5) – Insider Tips

How do you understand and work with the concept of ‘theme’?

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 1) – What is theme?

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 2) – Begin the story-crafting process with theme

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 3) – Discover theme during the writing process

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 4) – Not come off as “preachy”

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 5) – Being personal

In a few months, I’ll continue the series with more observations from Black List writers. Until then, I encourage you to read what these writers have to say about some key aspects of the craft. Wisdom in their words.

Why haven’t you finished that script?

August 31st, 2015 by

You know, that story you’ve been kicking around for months. Maybe it’s pretty well worked out, but you just can’t summon up the energy to type FADE IN. Or you have a partial draft and you’re stuck, not sure which way to go. Or a story concept you think has strong potential, but you’re battling your own Voices Of Negativity…

The simple fact is an unfinished script is nothing but potential. And nothing but potential is… nothing.

Maybe what you could use is this.

* A structured environment with actual due dates to inspire you to knock out pages.

* A workshop where you receive constructive feedback from a group of writing peers.

* A mentor who is a professional screenwriter and educator to accompany you on your writing journey.

That’s what we offer at Screenwriting Master Class with our Pages I: The First Draft workshop. 10 lectures [written by me] to spur your creativity, 10 teleconferences to review your pages, 10 due dates to motivate you to get from FADE IN to FADE OUT.

If you are comfortable with the sequence approach to screenwriting, you will feel right at home in this course.

If your grasp of story structure is a weak point, this workshop will help you ground your understanding.

If you have trouble finding the discipline to deposit your ‘derriere on chair’ and write, Pages I takes that problem on in a direct, practical and supportive manner.

Some thoughts by writers on the singular importance of the first draft:

“Then comes the great leap which is the first draft, I call it ‘the muscle draft,’ where you just muscle it out. You don’t worry about what you’re missing, you just get through it, get to the end.” — Darren Aronofsky

“Even if you write it wrong, write and finish your first draft. Only then, when you have a flawed whole, do you know what you have to fix.” — Dominick Dunne

“The first draft is nothing more than a starting point, so be wrong as fast as you can.” — Andrew Stanton

“Sometimes you’re swinging your way through a first draft like a blind miner with a pick-axe. That’s OK. Get it done, nothing else matters.” — Justin Marks

“First drafts are for learning what your story is about.” — Bernard Malamud

Winding Road Final

If you’re looking to go on that unique journey of discovery which is a first draft and could use the structure of an online workshop to help guide you through the process, go here to learn more about Pages I.

Our last session for 2015 begins Monday, September 14, so this is a great chance to make this year count in terms of your creative work.

I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

Go Into The Story Week In Review: August 24-August 30, 2015

August 30th, 2015 by

Links to this week’s most notable posts:

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 1)

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 2)

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 3)

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 4)

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 5)

Case Study: Female Driven Comedy

Conversations with Wilder (Part 24): On the final shot in Ace in the Hole

Daily Dialogue theme for next week: Monologue

Go Into The Story Movie Analysis: Straight Outta Compton

Go Into The Story Script Analysis: Nebraska

Great Scene: The Elephant Man

Interview (Video): Luis Bunuel

Interview (Written): Stephen E. de Souza

“Life’s Stories”

On Writing: John Gardner

Reader Question: How to balance screenwriting theory and the actual writing?

Saturday Hot Links

Screenwriting 101: Wells Root

Screenwriting News (August 24-August 30, 2015)

Script To Screen: “Alien”

Style = Voice

Twitter Rant: Gary Graham on Some Keys to Screenwriting

Twitter Rant: Rachael Prior on What Makes a Writer Stand Out

Twitter Rant: Zack Stentz on Being ‘Good in a Room’

Update: September – Classic 40s Movie Month

Writing and the Creative Life: Three types of creators

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (5 Part Series)

August 29th, 2015 by

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I am running a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

Black List logo

This week: How do you understand and work with the concept of ‘theme’?

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 1) – What is theme?

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 2) – Begin the story-crafting process with theme

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 3) – Discover theme during the writing process

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 4) – Not come off as “preachy”

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 5) – Being personal

Once again, we see a variety of approaches to a key aspect of the screenwriting craft. Test out some of these ideas in your own writing. When you find something which works in terms of themes, stick with it.

In my opinion, the Black List is the most important brand related to screenwriters and screenwriting in Hollywood. Therefore it makes sense we should study the creative processes of writers who make the list. More insight and inspiration coming in next week.

Screenwriting Twitter Rants

August 28th, 2015 by

This week, there were three quality screenwriting Twitter ‘rants’ which reminded me of a basic fact about learning the craft in 2015:

THERE ARE SO DAMN MANY RESOURCES AVAILABLE TODAY!!!

Not just resources, but free resources. And not just free resources, but great free resources.

For example, check this out: Here are links to all of the Twitter ‘rants’ by industry professionals I’ve aggregated over the last year or so:

F. Scott Frazier (@screenwritten): On Writing Action Set-Pieces

Katherine Fugate (@katherinefugate): Black Facts About Hollywood

Katherine Fugate (@katherinefugate): On What is “Perfectly Okay” for a Screenwriter to Write

John Gary (@johngary): On How He Used Query Letters to Find New Representation

Gary Graham (@thegarygraham): On Some Keys to Screenwriting

Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer): On Drafts, Parenthicals and Respect

Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer): On Finding the Joy in Your Writing

Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer): On How to Treat a Film Crew

Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer): On Loglines

Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer): On Losing the Love for a Story

Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer): On Minimalist Screenwriting Style

Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer): On Pitching

Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer): On Procrastination, Precrastination and Productivity in Writing

Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer): On Subtext

Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer): On the Current Slate of Action Heroes

Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer): On the Screenwriter’s Creative Power

Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer): On When a Writer Should Walk Away From a Project

Brian Koppelman (@briankoppelman): On Fear and Writing

Brian Koppelman (@briankoppelman): On Writing Advice and the Courage to Risk Failure

Daniel Kunka (@unikunka): On OWAs (Open Writing Assignments)

Daniel Kunka (@unikunka): On Being a Productive Writer

Geoff LaTulippe (@DrGMLaTulippe): On Studio Script Development Process

Justin Marks (@Justin_Marks_): On Script Page Count

Justin Marks (@Justin_Marks_) : On Exposition

Craig Mazin (@clmazin): On the Working Relationship Between Studio Execs and Writers

Craig Mazin (@clmazin): On Script Consultants

Rachael Prior (@ORachaelO): On How a Development Team Works

Rachael Prior (@ORachaelO): On Life as a Development Executive

Rachael Prior (@ORachaelO): On the Self-Delusion Imperative

Rachael Prior (@ORachaelO): On Treatments and Outlines

Rachael Prior (@ORachaelO): On What Makes a Writer Stand Out

Zach Stentz (@MuseZack): On Being ‘Good in a Room’

Mike Sweeney (@Courier12): On Focusing on the Quality of Your Spec Scripts, Not the Quantity

Mike Sweeney (@Courier12): On ‘New Screenwriting Rules’

Mike Sweeney (@Courier12): On Not Writing to Stats, Metrics, and Trends

Jake Thornton (@jakethornton): On His First Two Years as a Hollywood Screenwriter

Jeff Willis (@jwillis81): On Copyrights and Protecting Your Written Material

Jeff Willis (@jwillis81): On Query Letters

Jeff Willis (@jwillis81): On Should You Pay for a Script Consultant

Jeff Willis (@jwillis81): On the Reality of Spec Script Sales

Jeff Willis (@jwillis81): On Writing Compensation

Nate Winslow (@nate_winslow): On the Black List, Uploaded Scripts and Genres

Sure, it’s never been more competitive, trying to break into Hollywood as a writer. But there have never been more resources available to feed your learning process. Hell, Go Into The Story has over 17,000 posts. If you check out the Archive links, the content there just about covers everything you would need to know.

So count yourself fortunate. If you don’t, I’m prepared to bust out my “When I first started out in 1987, I had to slog through five feet of virtual snow with a 28.8 BPS modem” speech.

And you don’t want to hear that!

Let me end by extending our collective thanks to those members of the online screenwriting community who take the time to share their insights about the craft.

Onward!

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 5)

August 28th, 2015 by

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I am running a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

Black List logo

This week: How do you understand and work with the concept of ‘theme’?

The diversity of responses among the Black List writers I have interviewed is fascinating. Monday we explored various articulations of what ‘theme’ is. Tuesday we looked at some writers who begin the story-crafting process with theme. Wednesday we hear from writers who discover theme during the writing process. Thursday we considered writers who carry a concern about theme: Not to come off as “preachy”. Today writers who emphasize the importance of theme being personal.

Stephanie Shannon: “Theme is really important to me. They emerged in my research– learning about what made “Alice in Wonderland” different from other children’s stories and learning about what was really special about Lewis Carroll and what was going on at Oxford at the time. In my research I found so many interesting things to mine in the story. I think I ended up embracing the themes that also meant something to me personally. Father/daughter relationships are an important theme with me. I think it was important to me that the theme not only serve the story but also was something that was close to my own heart personally. I think those are always the stories that I want to tell, that I’ll end up telling the best.”

Brian Duffield: “Usually it’s a theme I want to explore because it’s really locked into my head as a person, as something I’m going through or struggling or interested with, so even if I throw out the characters or genre surrounding that theme a dozen times, the theme stays intact because it’s an itch I need to scratch.”

Seth Lochhead: “I leave theme to my subconscious (I’ll let it come out as I pursue the more tangible elements of the story – although according to my previous answers, tangible doesn’t seem to be one of my writing pursuits). If I’m obsessed with something, if I’ve noticed something, some illness in the world, some crack in reality, I let it in and if it wants to come out in my work so be it.”

Spenser Cohen: “Movies are there to teach us about the human condition, what it’s like to be in difficult or impossible situations… Every writer has their own life experiences, their own point of view, so the way they see the world often dictates the theme.”

Geoff LaTulippe: “The good news is that, in talented writers, I think theme comes out organically. It’s not something you have to force. But it is something you have to consider, or why are you writing the fucking thing in the first place? Why bother?”

Takeaway:

* You are more likely to write an empowered script if you have an emotional connection to its themes.

* You can also reverse this: If you can identify your points of emotional connection to a story, there’s a good chance some of its themes are to be found there.

For Part 1 of this week’s series with Black List writers, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, here.

Twitter Rant: Zack Stentz on Being ‘Good in a Room’

August 27th, 2015 by

Zack Stentz has carved out a 15 year career both as a screenwriter and TV writer-producer. His writing credits include the movies Agent Cody Banks, Thor, and X-Men: First Class , (co-written with Ashley Edward Miller) and TV series “Andromeda,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” and “Fringe”.

Last night, Zack went on a Twitter ‘rant’ with some solid advice about the importance of being ‘good in a room’. Reprinted here by permission:

 

 

I’ve been professionally screenwriting for 15 years & I still am learning things from people who are superlatively good at selling ideas.

A very, very few screenwriters can get away being with “talented but difficult.” Don’t think you’re one of them. Be “talented & delightful.”

Note: none of what I’m saying about being good in the room means “say yes to every note.” It means be prepared, engaged, & a collaborator.

We have a saying re: notes meetings:”A good note can come from anywhere.” The dumbest junior exec can say something that unlocks your story!

There’s a type of screenwriter/director who thinks it’s clever/powerful to essentially run “game” on execs. Negging, etc. DON’T DO IT.

“Game” is bad for writers for the same reason it’s bad for romance–it’s predicated on the assumption every human interaction is zero sum.

Real talk: my worst meetings as a writer haven’t come from being hostile or a jerk, but simply going into the room unprepared.

Thinking you can walk in & win the room simply by being glib, clever & quick on your feet occasionally works but can be disastrous, too.

An addendum from this morning:

When taking a note & listening to criticism it’s important to find out if they didn’t like your idea or just your execution of your idea.

It never hurts in a meeting to say “this is what I was trying to do here. Did that come through?”

They might respond “Yes, we got it. We just didn’t like it.” But often it turns out you didn’t convey your idea as well as you could have.

Zack’s ‘rant’ is a reminder: It’s not just about the script. To have any chance of carving out a career as a writer in Hollywood, you have to learn how to work with execs, producers, and talent. Zack provides some excellent advice on that front.

You may follow Zack on Twitter: @MuseZack.

For all of the Screenwriting Twitter Rants, go here.

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 4)

August 27th, 2015 by

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I am running a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

Black List logo

This week: How do you understand and work with the concept of ‘theme’?

The diversity of responses among the Black List writers I have interviewed is fascinating. Monday we explored various articulations of what ‘theme’ is. Tuesday we looked at some writers who begin the story-crafting process with theme. Yesterday we hear from writers who discover theme during the writing process. Today we consider writers who carry a concern about theme: Not to come off as “preachy”.

Michael Werwie: “I’ll probably get crucified for saying this, but I don’t really think about theme anymore. In my early scripts I put a lot of thought and a lot of energy into crafting and shaping theme, weaving it through the story to the point where it got heavy‑handed and preachy. I just stopped thinking about it and started trusting that it will reveal itself at some point along the way. I trust that it’s going to naturally be within every character and every scene and running through the spine of the script, because it’s this mysterious, intangible element that’s driving the writing already. So I don’t put too much thought into it, at least in the early stages of a script. Once I finish a script, I’ll have read it through many, many times while I’ve been working on it, and certain things will start to emerge and certain ideas resonate, and so I’ll eventually develop or deepen those ideas. Other ideas that seem like they stray from the spine of the story, I’ll take out.”

Spenser Cohen: “For me, theme is very important, but I’m never thinking of the theme right off the bat. I think the theme comes out while you’re writing. But I never go into a project thinking about it.”

Scott Rothman: “I’ve got to say, just as a counterpoint, theme is something that I’ve never thought about that much. I would have it in the back of my mind, or I’d develop a theme as I went. It was never a guiding principle that I had spent any time going back to. I never wanted to appear didactic, or I was screaming in the reader’s ear what the message was or what the point was. It’s something that I really learned from Rajiv [Joseph], and writing with him. He takes theme very seriously, as he’s just pointed out. I’m sure I don’t obsess over it, to the point he does it naturally, but it’s definitely something now I’ve learned to pay more attention to. I do think my writing has gotten that much better because of it.”

Joshua Golden: “I don’t want to beat the audience over the head with it, though.”

Julia Hart: “I think that if you think too much about, at least for me, if I think too much about what my themes are, it becomes laborious, over the top, like hitting you over the head.”

Chris Roessner: “I think one of my deficiencies is allowing theme to drive my story too much from the outset. I think that, from the beginning, you should know what it is, on a very emotional level, about your story that appeals to you. You want to declare it specifically, and then put it away. Then think about character, think about character, think about character. Then theme will naturally start to weave itself in there and give you an opportunity to shape it in future drafts. Theme’s obviously important. It’s what elevates your work. But I think if you let theme drive your story instead of character, you’re going to find yourself in no man’s land.”

Takeaway:

* It’s possible to overthink theme. If you focus so much them that it restricts your creative exploration… stifles your characters and their voices… bogs down scenes and the plot… and comes across as beating the “audience over the head with it,” a good idea to lighten up. Remember it’s a story about characters. Their world, their lives.

I am reminded of a quote attributed to one of the original Hollywood movie moguls Samuel Goldwyn who told the writers he head under hire at the studio: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

After all, movies are ultimately about entertainment.

For Part 1 of this week’s series with Black List writers, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Come back tomorrow for more about this important subject: Theme.

“Life’s Stories”

August 26th, 2015 by

This may be the single best article I’ve read in years. Written by The Atlantic senior editor Julie Beck and recommended by some wonderful GITS reader who has gotten lost in my transition in email servers (if you read this, please email me so I can give you a heart hat tip), I was tempted to do a multi-part series based on its content. Instead I’m going to focus on just one of many fascinating ideas presented in the piece. First some setup:

In Paul Murray’s novel Skippy Dies, there’s a point where the main character, Howard, has an existential crisis.“‘It’s just not how I expected my life would be,'” he says.

“‘What did you expect?’” a friend responds.

“Howard ponders this. ‘I suppose—this sounds stupid, but I suppose I thought there’d be more of a narrative arc.’”

But it’s not stupid at all. Though perhaps the facts of someone’s life, presented end to end, wouldn’t much resemble a narrative to the outside observer, the way people choose to tell the stories of their lives, to others and—crucially—to themselves, almost always does have a narrative arc. In telling the story of how you became who you are, and of who you’re on your way to becoming, the story itself becomes a part of who you are.

“Life stories do not simply reflect personality. They are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personality, along with other parts, like dispositional traits, goals, and values,” writes Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, along with Erika Manczak, in a chapter for the APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology.

In the realm of narrative psychology, a person’s life story is not a Wikipedia biography of the facts and events of a life, but rather the way a person integrates those facts and events internally—picks them apart and weaves them back together to make meaning. This narrative becomes a form of identity, in which the things someone chooses to include in the story, and the way she tells it, can both reflect and shape who she is.  A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they’ll become, and for what happens next.

As storytellers, it behooves us try to understand how our audience use stories in their own lives. And that’s what this article delves into in great depth. But here’s the jewel I want to zero in on:

McAdams conceives of this development as the layering of three aspects of the self. Pretty much from birth, people are “actors.” They have personality traits, they interact with the world, they have roles to play—daughter, sister, the neighbor’s new baby that cries all night and keeps you up. When they get old enough to have goals, they become “agents,” too—still playing their roles and interacting with the world, but making decisions with the hopes of producing desired outcomes. And the final layer is “author,” when people begin to bundle ideas about the future with experiences from the past and present to form a narrative self.

See that, my friends? Another expression of three act structure!

Act One – Protagonist as Actor. Playing roles learned in their lives before FADE IN.

Act Two – Protagonist as Agent. Leaving the Old World and entering the New World, their gauzy Want becomes a Conscious Goal, and the Protagonist becomes an active agent in pursuing that goal.

Act Three – Protagonist as Author. Getting to know and embracing their True Self, the Protagonist writes the ending chapter of their journey as exhibited in the Story.

Actor. Agent. Author. Only works for a story in which a Protagonist has a positive transformation arc… but hello! That happens in a majority of Hollywood movies.

I bet I could use this take and apply it to dozens of movies. Let me take just one: Tootsie.

Act One: Michael Dorsey is literally an actor. A perfectionist at his craft which has created a scenario in which no one will hire him because he is a pain in the ass to work with. In his personal life, he exhibits a significant flaw: An instinct toward chauvinistic behavior viewing women as objects of desire (if you need proof of this, track Michael’s behavior during his birthday party).

Plot Point: Michael Dorsey becomes Dorothy Michaels and ‘she’ lands a job as an actress on a daytime drama.

Act Two: Michael has two goals: To make money which he will do by keeping his job on the soap. And eventually to be with Julie (Jessica Lange), his co-star. Here while still being an actor, he evolves into Agent, making choices and taking action to move him toward his goals.

Plot Point: Julie mistakes Dorothy’s interest in her as a lesbian thing, which pushes Julie away from Michael’s intentions as a male suitor. And Dorothy becomes so popular, she is forced into a two-year contract which means Michael will have to continue his double life for a long time.

Act Three: How to solve his dilemmas? When the soap is forced to shoot an episode live, Dorothy literally rewrites the script on the fly — creating her own narrative — which reveals that she is a he.

In this scene, Michael Dorsey becomes Author, writing a new narrative for his character: “I’m proud and strong and lucky enough to be the woman that was the best part of my manhood. The best part of myself.” A confession directed at Julie. Leading to this denouement:

Booyah, ladies and gentlemen! We have yet another lens through which to look at Three Act Structure and the Protagonist’s transformation: Actor. Agent. Author.

And that, my friends, is just one of the nuggets from this article in The Atlantic. For the rest, go here. Some seriously awesome reading!

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 3)

August 26th, 2015 by

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I am running a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

Black List logo

This week: How do you understand and work with the concept of ‘theme’?

The diversity of responses among the Black List writers I have interviewed is fascinating. Monday we explored various articulations of what ‘theme’ is. Yesterday we looked at some writers who begin the story-crafting process with theme. Today we hear from writers who discover theme during the writing process.

Eric Heisserer: “Theme. That’s something that I have such a hard time engineering. If I were given nothing but the tool of ‘Here’s the theme. Write something with this theme,’ that’s an impossible task for me. I can’t start a story with that. I can figure out later on, after I’ve written a story, what the theme is. I can’t start with that in the forefront of my brain. It doesn’t work for me as a storyteller. I think other people can. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for anybody else. I’m just saying it’s not how I’m wired.

James DiLapo: “I think theme is immensely important, but for me, it’s not always readily apparent when I begin the process. With ‘Devils At Play’ we were talking about the idea of redemption, that there can be angels and devils inside our own personalities and societies. That, for me, is the theme of the story, but I didn’t know it when I began. Eventually the story itself will tell you what the theme is.”

Nikole Beckwith: “I think it definitely evolves over time. I’m sure that there are things that I carry around with me while I’m writing and they emerge on their own, I don’t say, ‘I’m going to write something that explores identity.’ That’s all I do, immerse myself in it.”

Aaron Guzikowski: “Definitely that they emerge whenever I’m writing the story. I definitely think a little bit about it at the beginning, but usually it’s more after you’re writing the story, the theme just emerges. If it’s a story that’s working, then themes generally just start to bleed out of it, and they just present themselves to you. They just appear.”

Julia Hart: “My students would always get frustrated when we would talk about the themes that the author was using. They would always ask, ‘Did they really think about all this before they started writing it?’ And I don’t think that they do or I don’t think that good writers do. Of course when you’re writing a cohesive world the themes are going to rise out of it.”

Lisa Joy: “I don’t necessarily start with theme, but by the time I’m done – I always have one. And often, writing a script shows me what my theme is and allows me to deepen my own thinking on that theme. Writing becomes, in its own way, a philosophical investigation into theme. Sometimes I go back, once I understand the theme more fully and use it in the rewrite to enrich the scenes.”

Chris Borrelli: “If you don’t have a theme as you write, then you are writing blind… Sometimes the theme presents itself. Usually other themes present themselves as I write, and I’ve had a theme or two change as I write, but still become something I care about…I want to say. That’s the jumping off point for me…something I care about…something I want to say.”

Justin Marks: “I think theme comes very late in outlining. I don’t think it comes immediately at the beginning. I think at the beginning it’s a character that you really like, or it’s a hook that you want to figure out.  I don’t think it becomes a movie, though, until you find that theme.  Until it centers on some idea that is not specific to the plot. I think you need to know theme before you start writing dialogue.  I think you need to know theme before you start writing scene work.”

Declan O’Dwyer: “Thematically, I try to be governed by what my character is telling me it should be and not what I’m deciding it is on the outset, because it will grow and it will change as they grow and change.”

Daniel Kunka: “For me, theme is usually something I find as I write through the first draft. I probably have a general idea when I start, but theme becomes the unifying factor as I go. I always work better sort of discovering it rather than coming up with something early in the process or even before I start writing pages. That’s not to say it’s not there, but I don’t consciously make the decision ‘this is my theme.’ I think theme is directly related to voice. A lot of my themes are similar, because those are the stories I want to tell. And it’s not planned, it just is. Because of that I’ll sort of trust my theme to tag along with me until I’m done with the first draft, then the second draft is when I’ll go back in and add a few lines here or there to highlight some things that will help take the piece to the level I want it.”

Brad Ingelsby: “I don’t like to go into a script saying, ‘I want to write a story about forgiveness,’ and then try to fit forgiveness into every single scene. That feels maudlin and a bit silly to try to imbue every scene with a theme. It feels like a homework assignment and it doesn’t allow for much discovery or revelation. After all, you’ve already told yourself what the movie is about. You’ve limited yourself. What I prefer to do is say, here’s a character. I like this character and I know the journey I’d like him or her to go on. And then I write that journey, that arc, and then I let the audience or reader decide what the theme is. Let them take what they want from the story. If you say a movie is about forgiveness, then an audience or a reader is only looking for that theme in the material and there’s no discovery. But if you present them with a character on a journey, they’re able to take away from that character and that journey what they want. It’s less limiting, I think. Stories mean different things to different people.”

Justin Kremer: “With ‘McCarthy,’ people have said things to me on the thematic level — “oh, I enjoyed this thematic element of the script” — and I’m surprised by it. Often, that thematic element wasn’t even something that was intentional on my part. Reading is obviously inherently subjective and people can take away so many different things from a work. As long as you have a strong character and a clear arc, it tends to come together organically. Look at a classic like The Godfather, it can be this intimate father son story or an epic about American capitalism and the American dream.”

And why is theme so bloody damn important? How about this:

Stephany Folsom: “I think when I first find an idea that I’m not like, ‘Oh, gosh, let’s find the theme in this.’ But as I go through my steps to see whether or not this idea is going to be something that can actually make a good movie, one of my steps is, ‘What is going to be the theme?'”

And this:

Jason Hellerman: “I think theme is super important, but I let myself find what I’m afraid to talk about, and I let my fears and my own inhibitions dictate the theme of what I need to get off my chest.”

And this:

Chris McCoy: “A story theme is tremendously important, because it’s what you’re trying to say with the work as a whole. If there’s no theme, there’s nothing holding the script together.”

And there’s this:

Justin Marks: “Look at how Chris Nolan writes. Everything is written to theme.  Everything comes back to that.  That’s what makes the Batman movies so great is that they’re always about theme.  Every scene is about guiding itself towards theme.  When you don’t know what a scene is supposed to be about, the answer is theme. Yeah.  I think if you’re getting away from it, that’s when you ask, why doesn’t this scene feel right?  Or, why doesn’t this sequence feel right? Or, why does the third act feel right?  Oh yeah, because it has nothing to do with my theme.  It has nothing to do with what I wanted this story to be about in the first place.  If a script starts to meander beyond theme, I think you lose your reader.  Because they start to wonder, ‘Why am I reading this? What am I getting from this story?’ You’re getting theme.  If you don’t get it, you’re not going to read it.”

Takeaway:

* Trust the process: If you go in the story… if you engage your characters… if you live in, then reflect upon the narrative… the themes will emerge.

* Use your themes as a touchstone: For everything including how you approach scenes to how you handle character relationships to how you write scene description, from big to small, themes can help you expand your understanding of your story and focus how you convey it emotional meaning to a script reader.

How about you? Do you discover theme in your writing? How is theme important to you in your writing?

For Part 1 of this week’s series with Black List writers, go here.

Part 2, here.

Come back tomorrow for more about this important subject: Theme.