Thursday, 27 January 2011

The problem with theme

I got thinking about this yesterday, when a writer shot down another's comment about the importance to theme. He said he'd never really given it any thought and that it seems to be a term thrown around by literary/critical types (such as myself, with that ol' English degree).

I first thought he was talking a load of bollocks, because theme is bloody important. It's what your entire script is about! Not what happens, why it happens, or when it happens, but the underlying (sometimes overlying) message/issue etc that the story contains. I don't think I've come across a single screenwriting book that doesn't stress the importance of theme in such a way. But it got me thinking - is it really that important?

For me, the whole issue is very problematic. There are at least two dangers when you think about the theme, with the intention of demonstrating it through the story:
  1. You get so caught up on the theme/message that it completely ties you down. You become inflexible. Say you want to write a story on the theme of outcasts, but as you get writing, the story wants to become a story about religious oppression. Because of your desire to write about a particular theme, you can't see the better opportunity when it arises.
  2. You think you're writing about one theme, but that doesn't come across to the audience/reader. You think your comments on child suicide are perfectly fine. But the audience somehow thinks you're saying it's a good thing.
 So it's tricky.

So I'm currently looking at stories in terms of available themes. Not necessarily what it's about, but what it could be about, depending on what the audience wants to take away from it. A few examples:
X-Men is about a variety of things - oppression/domination, empowerment, the outcast, the "Other", slave/master.

The Terminator - humanity, female empowerment, rape, survival.

A Beautiful Mind - the power of the mind, love conquering all, triumph in the face of defeat.
Blade Runner - what is human?, the right to exist, consciousness.
You get the idea.

All the above themes are available, but not everyone takes them all away. For example, I don't see Gladiator being about female empowerment particularly. But maybe that theme is there and plenty of other people get it.

So maybe it's worth thinking less in terms of what your theme is, and more in terms of what your story has to offer in the way of theme.

If it's about oppression, chances are it's also about survival (Schindler's List). If it's about what death is, it's about what life it (American Beauty). The value of one man's life = the value of all men's life (Saving Private Ryan). Slavery = religion (Harry Potter).

There are loads and loads of things every story could be about. And if you're really, really, really stuck, think about sex. Dig out an Idiot's Guide to Freud and make it all about the Oedipus complex, Penis Envy and whatnot. Can't fail.

Stay shiny!


Saket Chaudhary said...

I find it incredibly tough to construct stories around themes. I find it easier to follow interesting action and let the theme emerge from it. The last piece of information that the protagonist discovers to overcome his biggest obstacle usually becomes the theme

Neil said...

@Saket - I think you're right. I tend to know the ending quite early on, so theme usually presents itself before I start writing the actual script. But the whole thing of the protagonist's biggest obstacle relating directly to theme is spot-on I'd wager.