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.
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. Yesterday we explored various articulations of what ‘theme’ is. Today we look at some writers who begin the story-crafting process with theme.
Joshua Golden: “I typically start from theme and character. I don’t want to start writing and halfway through, ultimately figure out what the story is about. I mean thematically, what it’s about. I need to know that going in… I want everyone’s journey to be reflective of whatever the theme is. Some might argue that maybe it’s not as important or as necessary. But theme and character, for me, are my two starting points.”
Brian Duffield: “I almost always start with the theme. I can’t even really think of a situation where I didn’t (if it was an original). 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. I think theme is deathly important. I read a lot of scripts and watch a lot of movies where I couldn’t tell you what it was really saying beyond a couple of interesting characters doing something interesting. Which is fine sometimes, but it always feels a little surface level to me.”
Kelly Marcel: “I’m personally a big fan of knowing what your theme is before starting. I think they can arise as you tell the story, but writing within and for a theme seems to me to help the process along. It allows for much more intricate storytelling, ways of speaking to the theme and letting your theme to speak to you, even unconsciously. I said ‘theme’ four times in that last paragraph. I shouldn’t be allowed to be a writer.”
For some writers, whether they start with theme or not is an open question:
Barbara Stepansky: “It really depends on the script. Sometimes I have a very clear theme in mind and I know this is a story about these people discovering a certain aspect about life. Then every scene has to be geared toward that. Then sometimes, like with “Sugar in My Veins,” honestly no, I never spend much time on theme with “Sugar in My Veins.” I just wanted to tell this particular story and so it didn’t bother me that thematically, it wasn’t that clear in my head at the beginning. It became much clearer later on.”
And some may wonder about starting with theme, but it’s just not their thing:
Justin Kremer: “It’s interesting because some guys — like I listened to an interview with Steven Gaghan — he is someone I have in my Writers Rushmore — he operates very much from the theme first. Then he’ll draw his narrative from that. I think what I found to be most helpful is to find the arc and work on the character and then the theme will organically emerge. That’s been my experience.”
* Knowing your theme is important in shaping the narrative, understanding the characters and their purpose in the story, and tying together every scene into an organic whole.
* If you start with theme, you have some company…
…But honestly, most writers I’ve interviewed, like Justin Kremer, discover their story themes in the process of working out and writing the story, seeing it “organically emerge.”
How about you? Do you start with theme?
For Part 1 of this week’s series with Black List writers, go here.
Come back tomorrow for more about this important subject: Theme.