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

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. 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.

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