John August has a great article on his website about the idea of writing a script from theme. Some screenwriters like to start from a theme and then develop a story around it, but in a response to a reader question, John questions whether “theme” is actually an essential component of script writing at all:
“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.
John goes on to discuss the DNA — the core idea — that motivates each of his scripts:
Back in 1998, while trying to convince Sony to buy the book rights [to Big Fish] 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.
Read the full article at JohnAugust.com