questionmarkI’m a produced screenwriter, repped at a big agency. I work regularly, just had a movie released to good reviews, and am fairly confident when talking about the craft. And so it is with some professional embarrassment (and using a pseudonym–he he) that I admit I am plagued by what seems like a rather rudimentary question.

Long ago someone I trust read a script of mine. Something was missing from this script, I knew it, I felt it, I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. I read it and re-read it. Structurally it seemed fine, scene by scene it felt like it was working, the dialogue was tight, the characters well drawn. I took it apart and put it back to together again a couple of times. That missing thing was still missing.

So I gave the script to this trusted person and this trusted person read it and gave me this advice: WRITE FROM THEME. Okay. Now, that sounds very simple. And maybe it is for clever people like you. But I don’t seem capable of integrating this approach into my writing. And the reason, I’ve decided, is because I don’t really know what it means — at least in any practical sense.

Complicating matters further, a friend of mine, a better writer than I will ever be, the late novelist Lucy Grealy, shrugged off the notion of writing from theme. We were sitting in an airport bar drinking beer and I said, hey, so, do you write from theme? No, said she without hesitation, tell the story honestly and its theme will emerge. Trying to impose theme on story gives the story an agenda. She accented the word agenda with a dubious little rise in her voice.

Ten years later, as I sit down to write, wishing I were better than I am, hoping the next script will be the one where everything finally clicks and art is achieved, I hear a voice in my head saying, Write from Theme. Write from Theme.

Please make the voices stop, John. Do you write from theme? If so, how?

— JT
Los Angeles

“Theme” is a word screenwriters use without defining it clearly, so yes, it’s bound to be frustrating. But I’m not sure we should be using it at all.

In high school, we were taught that a theme is usually about opposing forces, e.g. “man vs. nature” or “the struggle for independence.” I don’t know that this kind of analysis is all that useful when you’re talking about a screenplay, however. It’s helpful for writing an essay about a movie, not for writing the movie itself.

I suspect what your pro-theme writer friends were talking about was some essence that permeates every moment of a good film. Something that’s in its DNA. You feel it when it’s there, and notice it when it’s missing — even when the script otherwise seems solid.

Think back to one of your favorite movies. Chances are, you could pick any moment in it, and it would “feel like” the movie. That is, you could take that little slice of it, plant it in some cinematic soil, and it would grow into something resembling the original.

My favorite movie is Aliens, and it meets this test easily. Pull out any sequence — even before Ripley has agreed to join the mission — and it would grow into a story that fits its universe.

I don’t know that “theme” is really the best word for this DNA quality I’m describing. But I think it’s what we mean when we say it.

Theme as the essential idea

At the Austin Film Festival this year, I’ll be doing a detailed breakdown of Big Fish and my process writing it. Back in 1998, while trying to convince Sony to buy the book rights for me, I had a lot of conversations about “what it was about.” Not the plot, really, but what the point of it all was. I talked about the difference between what is true and what is real.

I don’t know that I ever articulated it quite that way, but this was definitely the underlying idea that informed every moment and every character in the script. And for most of my projects, I can point to the DNA ideas:

  • Charlie’s Angels: Three princesses must save their father, the King.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Charlie Bucket was lucky even without the ticket, because he was surrounded by family who loved him.
  • The Remnants: The end of the world isn’t so bad.
  • Snake People: Mother is a monster.
  • The Variant: You are still your younger self.
  • The Nines: A creator’s responsibility to his creations.
  • Go: You cross a line, then your only way out is to accelerate.

For the first four projects, I remember saying these things aloud before I started writing. For the others, I probably didn’t. But I could definitely feel the edges of their core ideas before I put pen to paper. I won’t start writing until I know it.

When you really understand a project’s DNA, it’s much easier to write and rewrite. You know exactly what types of scenes, moments and lines of dialogue belong in your movie, and which don’t.

Every scene in your screenplay can change, but it still feels like the movie.

I think one reason movies with multiple writers often feel disjointed is because the writers aren’t working from the same DNA. They might agree on “what it’s about,” but they’re never going to emotionally approach it the same way. They can’t.

TV series, which by necessity have a bunch of writers, benefit from having a few filmed and finished episodes to create a baseline. We all know what an episode of Friends is supposed to feel like. But those first few scripts? Those can be brutal, and it often takes a lot of rewriting from the showrunner.

From that point on, “theme” is often what drives a given episode — storylines will radiate out from an abstract idea like “hope” or “false promises.” All shows work differently, but if you peek in a writers’ room, you’ll often find a theme word written high on the whiteboard, circled a few times.

Theme as a shibboleth

Like “structure,” I see theme thrown around as a term meant to separate artists from hacks. So my eyes generally narrow when someone uses it, because I’m not sure exactly what they mean, or why they’re using it.

One screenwriting teacher made us state the theme of our scripts as a question. Which was difficult and, in my opinion, pointless.

The alternate version I’m positing above — the core idea or DNA — is practical and actionable. Once you feel confident what your unwritten movie wants to be, you make sure every scene and character and line of dialogue services that ideal. That’s the work of screenwriting, and it’s hard, to be sure.

But if you don’t pick a target, you’re unlikely to hit anything worthwhile.