THEME: What Ties it All Together

If plot is what’s on the surface of a film, easily visible to the audience, then the theme is what’s under the surface… kinda hidden like a secret gem, waiting to be uncovered. Themes are sometimes called a life lesson or a message, and the best ones are always subtle.

Some authors claim that themes are one word long:


“The theme of a story is the aspect of the ‘human dilemma’ that it will explore. Betrayal, loyalty, self-worth, ambition, jealousy, hypocrisy, obsession, alienation — these are all valid themes that could explore. Note that there are no verbs involved, no value judgements inherent in potential themes. Something like “love conquers all” or “jealousy destroys from the inside” is a value-charged thesis rather than a theme.” – David Howard, author of How to Build a Great Screenplay: A Master Class in Storytelling for Film

While other authors argue that themes could be a sentence long:

“WITNESS has a point of view. Love cannot bridge the gap of two different worlds. In THE AFRICAN QUEEN, the opposite is true. Love can bridge the gap of two different worlds. […]  The message in CHINATOWN is this: You can get away with murder if you have enough money.”- David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script.

Though these two writers define theme differently, their interpretations are still pretty similar. Notice how Trottier’s examples still have  thematic words like “love” and “money” that  define what the movie is about. And regardless of what you call it, your film will always have a moral and a message. The important thing is that you know what you are trying to convey with your film, so that you can be consistent and effective.

However,  Trottier urges your caution: “This moral is not a sermon and it is not preached. Often, you don’t know that this moral or message is when you start scripting your story. Not to worry – you’ll know before you’re through. Just keep writing. CAUTION: There is a danger in focusing on the movie message. You run the risk of writing a preachy script.”

And on this  point both writers agree. Howard calls it a “thesis” and you don’t wanna bang your audience’s head too much with it. They paid $20 for entertainment, not a sermon.

Theme is NOT the Same as Conflict!

I wanted to make a special mention of this because I have seen many professors and publications make this error. If you ask someone for an example of a theme, they might answer: “Man vs. Nature” or “Man vs. Himself.” In my opinion, these are not themes but types of conflict. Types of conflict are the framework for any plot, but they are different from the theme. Below are the four most famous types of conflict:

  • Man vs. Man (Dirty Harry, The Terminator, Witness)
  • Man vs. Himself. (Finding Forrester, The Truman Show)
  • Man vs. Nature (Dante’s Peak, Noah)
  • Man vs. Society (High Noon, Milk)

Some of these overlap. High Noon, for instance, is both a Man vs. Society and a Man vs. Man kind of plot.

Theme as Unity

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) tells the story of a handicap photographer (James Stewart) who suspects a murder has happened in his apartment complex after noticing abnormal events unfold from his living room window. This is the forefront of the movie; its plot. Nobody gets out of the theater not knowing that.

The theme, however, is subtle. Most people that have watched Rear Window may or may not have grasped what its theme is. Since themes are delicate and subjective, scholars and critics may occasionally debate. But I think that in Rear Window, the prominent theme is relationship. Even more so than romance because romance implies good moments. But relationship also contains the nitty-gritty stuff: arguments, despair, and solitude.

In Rear Window, the apparently disjointed string of events is held together through this theme, which furnishes it with unity.

The romance between Jeff and Lisa (Grace Kelly) is too obvious an example, but even a superficial analysis of some of the neighbors is enough to elaborate the underlying relationship theme:

  • In the beginning of the movie, a newlywed couple moves into an apartment. All joy. Blinds drawn implies a honeymoon in progress. But as the story unfolds, their marriage deteriorates.
  • Miss Torso, a lovely ballet dancer, is often “doing a woman’s hardest job: juggling wolves.” With so many suitors, her options are plenty, though she often dismisses them all.
  • Mrs. Lonelyhearts is an old, single woman who seemingly failed to attract a man into wedlock during her prime years. Clearly disturbed, she hosts dinners for two even though no one joins her. Alone, she addresses an invisible man, product of her imagination, with whom she dines.

Clearly all these side characters and sub-plots were created to develop the theme. Furthermore, the heart of the plot – the murder – also draws a parallel to it, as one of the possible causes for the assassination was the bitter relationship in which the murderer and his victim lived in.

Theme as a Lesson

Besides providing unity and tying the story together, theme can also exist to send a message or teach a lesson to the audience. In the 2009 movie (500) Days of Summer, one of the lessons expressed is: if someone wants love, then they need to take action and chase it.

500-days-of-summer

Like in Rear Window, one of the themes in (500) Days of Summer is relationship.

From the beginning, the movie builds this lesson until it’s clearly stated in the ending: “Love doesn’t just happen.” This concept also illustrates the main character’s arc. At the movie’s beginning, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the type of guy who waits for love instead of making it happen. At the end, Tom finally takes action and is rewarded.

A Little Trivia

“If you have a message, call Western Union” is a famous sentence sometimes quoted by producers to express their disdain for  themes or messages or lessons in the movies. Some producers simply don’t like to talk about it because it’s too brainy.

The quote is often misattributed to the famous producer Samuel Goldwyn (The Best Years of Our Lives, Guys and Dolls), but there’s no consensus as to who said it first.

I wish I would know how most producers, directors, and writers approach the idea of theme. Is that a priority in their movies? Or do they just allow a theme to emerge as the story progresses?

Do you agree with the themes and lessons above? Or could (500) Days of Summer be about something else? What about Rear Window? As I mentioned, themes are subjective and open for interpretation. I would love to hear your thoughts below.

 

MAIN CHARACTER: How Many Protagonists Should My Story Have?

Movies tell stories about people. In every script, the writer has to create one character (or a set of characters) that the audience will root for or hate. This special character is known as the main character, often referred to as the protagonist. He or she will be the character with most obstacles to overcome and normally the one with most screen time.

Creating interesting, realistic characters is an art in itself. Finding the right amount of realism and uniqueness to form an exciting, plausible character ranks as one of the hardest tasks in screenwriting.

Traditionally (if not statistically), the norm is that  main characters be good guys on the right side of the law, heroes like James Bond or regular citizens with big dreams like Rocky. Nowadays, however, as the industry breaks barriers, writers have enormous freedom to use anti-heroes or even bad guys as their main characters. Ocean’s Eleven (1960, 2001), for instance, romanticizes criminals and turns them into the protagonists.

Scripts and stories can be categorized by the number of main characters they present. The next section examines the most common possibilities.

Yes, you got it right, the following contains story spoilers!

A Single Main Character

Although most screenplays have dozens of characters, as a general rule, the story revolves around only one person. Even romances, in which the story wouldn’t exist without the significant other, have just one main character. Love Story (1970), for instance, opens with Oliver Barrett IV, alone, mourning the loss of his loved one. He is the character who faces more physical and psychological challenges throughout the movie.

In some films, the main character is quickly noticeable, such as in The Graduate (1967). Both the title of the movie and the first sequences leave no doubt that Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is the main character in that picture. He is the one returning to LA, dealing with his parents, worrying about his future, and avoiding Mrs. Robison (Anne Bancroft). The story is told from his perspective, and every scene links to him or his objectives or his problems.

In other movies, the true main character is overshadowed by secondary characters until the time comes for the protagonist to reach his intended purpose. This happens in Francis Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), which opens with a frantic pledge to Don Corleone ( Marlon Brandon), one of the heads of the Italian mafia in New York. At the movie’s very beginning, his son, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) seems like a minor role. In fact, he is considered by other mafia families as a “civilian” disinterest in mob business. Only when Don is murdered, is Michael dragged into his dad’s affairs as a mobster.

Killing the Main Character: A Good Idea?

I have always found this to be an interesting topic of  discussion: can you kill your protagonist? In Godfather, that kind of happens if you consider that Marlon Brandon’s character was the protagonist of the story during the first half of the movie.

A more interesting example, in my opinion, happens in Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho (1960), in which the main protagonist is murdered around halfway through the movie.

What is the risk of killing off your main character? The main problem is that usually audiences hold the protagonist’s hand to follow the plot. So when they are dead, your spectators may not be hooked enough to follow the story without the main character.

Psycho is a great of example of how to keep the audience intrigued through the loss of the main character. Two techniques used in the film are:

  1. Introduce a second main character, the protagonist’s sister.
  2. Create a mystery that drives the remaining of the film: who is the killer?

 

Two Main Characters

“Buddy” movies are the ones mostly likely to contain equally important characters. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) is the classic example that tells the story of two outlaws that live, work, run, and die together. They complete and contrast each other. Whereas Sundance is deadly with guns, Butch has never shot anyone. Whereas Butch is sociable and talkative, Sundance is unfriendly and laconic. But in spite of their differences, they both share sheer pleasure in breaking into vaults.

Thelma and Louise (1991), labeled by some a modern version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is also another great example of a “buddy” movie with two main characters that roughly share the same amount of screen time and story relevance.

Other examples of 2-main character movies are: Lethal Weapon (1987), Midnight Cowboy(1969), and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989).

Ensemble Cast

Rare movies successfully manage to have more than two main characters. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) is a great exception to the rule, and one that excels with refreshing artfulness and humor. It tells the story of a dysfunctional family forced together into the family RV as they travel to Redondo Beach for a beauty pageant. The characters are so meticulously elaborated that each one has their own arc. Unity is supplied by the RV bus that takes them to California and family ties.

A similar structure is found in Network (1976). Although Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is the character that sets the story in motion, he hardly has enough screen time to earn him a main character status. He is indeed very prominent, but he functions more as a plot device. His colleagues Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), Max Schumacher (William Holden), and Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) are the real main characters. Unity is supplied by the TV network where they work.

Word of Caution

Movies with ensemble casts can be beautiful masterpieces, as the two titles above illustrate, but if you are just starting out as a screenwriter, I would recommend focusing on writing stories with one main character because an ensemble piece has too many protagonists who have to share screen time, exposition arc, and more. This can be daunting enough for one character, imagine doing for two or three or five.

(This just a piece of advice. If you have a strong story, then go for it!)

Screenwriting Basics

Humans have an almost unreasonable and insatiable craving for stories. They surround us night and day, every day of the week. The stories. At home, work, school, parties, malls, diners… People are always narrating and listening to anecdotes and chronicles. It may be something as notorious as the Madoff scandal or as trivial as a mean cab driver who refused to give the right change. Regardless of their nature, relevance, or truthfulness, stories have permeated society. And we love them. Movies tell stories, so we love them as well.

In filmmaking, the story is first developed in the screenplay. Every movie, short or feature, starts with a script – the blueprint for the construction of the motion picture. The screenplay furnishes the framework for every movie production; it is the basis for the decisions made from the early stages of pre-production to the final phase of post-production.

The Process

Writing a screenplay is no easy task, especially features. Those blank sheets of paper are intimidating. Characters, locations, plot, genres… The variables are one too many.

Attempting to follow a current trend is usually a big mistake and a waste of time. Today’s gold is tomorrow’s trash. Plus, after you take the time to write and sell it, the producers will take from several months to a few years to actually finish the movie. By then, there will be another demand in town.

If you have an original story that is remarkably executed, buyers will come sooner or later. Rule #1 is to be true to yourself. Don’t write a screenplay because you think it will sell, and you need money. Write it because you love the story and characters. Write it because you want to entertain or instruct or move an audience.

The Rules

Screenwriting has no hard and fast rules, not even the one mentioned above, so ignore it if you want. Writing for the screen is a subjective craft in which anything might work, but probably nothing will. William Goldman said: “Nobody knows anything.” That is the greatest truth in the business.

However, in the absence of rules, we’re left with the norm – a set of guidelines that has proved valuable and efficient throughout the years of filmmaking. The main concepts to fathom are: the 3-act structure and character arc. Those two are standard in the industry, followed practically by every movie, both commercial and independent. Another nugget of knowledge is high-concept, though those are much rarer to find.

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