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!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Forgive me, for I have sinned.....

......just not, y'know, much. It's been a week and four days since my last blog post, and I know you're all desperately awaiting my next lot of brilliant insight. No? You're not? Well poo to you then.

The reason I've not posted sooner is cos of that thing called work. You may have heard of it - always gets in the way, huh?

I managed to get my Firefly essay finished. It was on feminism (so fairly easy in terms of finding stuff to write about) and we all know how much I like Joss Whedon. I also wrapped things up with my TV drama script ready for submission. I'm quite proud of it. Obviously I need to do plenty of polishes, but it's going well.

So now I have a week and a half relatively workload-free (besides the usual), so I can spend time on preparing the children's fantasy feature I'm going to bash out for my next writing project. Raring to get going, since I started thinking about it over a year ago!

Random Musings:
  • Really looking forward to seeing Black Swan at the cinema as soon as it comes out - Natalie Portman is a great actress and it looks disturbing as hell! Definitely my cuppa tea.
  • I watched the first episode of Breaking Bad - liked it, not majorly, but some good writing there. I think it's on its 3rd season or something now, so I'll probably have to dedicate some time to catching up.
  • Hated Ricky Gervais' speech at the Golden Globes - he's still a humourless arsehole, it seems. But loved the digs that Robery Downey Jr & Tom Hanks got in at him.
  • Rewatched Taken last week - still a feckin' awesome film and the sequel should be filmed soon.....
  • Got The Time Traveler's Wife playing in the background - make sure you watch it for some clever narrative crafting.
  • Reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins at the moment - a great book, appeals to everyone 10+ in my mind. Making me think a lot about book-to-film adaptations and how you would work this one (apparently one is already in the works). It would be very tricky, but is visual enough to work really well.
Now here's a cute picture for your amusement:


Friday, 7 January 2011

Dialogue: less is more

Let's talk dialogue. Because it's one of the least important aspects of a script. Yep, least important, way behind structure, plot, character, action, audience etc. (Note the honest in keeping with my award thingy)

Everyone knows that one of the biggest issues with "aspiring" writers is that they overwrite, especially dialogue. This is also the case with first draft scripts - my first drafts are always riddled with unnecessary, expositional dialogue. But, in later drafts, you have to accept that less is more.

With dialogue, it's not about what's said, but about what's not said. Subtext. Which is better:

"Please shoot that woman, giving me an excuse to put a bullet in your brainpan."


"Go ahead....make my day!"

And which is shorter?

There are two films that I think nail the "less is more" dialogue rule. The first is Wall-E.

The poor little dude can hardly say anything anyway, but all his emotions are done through actions (such as watching TV and making substitute skyscrapers) and through the way he says things. "Eeeeeeva?" he wails, desperately. So simple. So subtle. So emotional. It just works. So if you haven't watched Wall-E before, go away and give it a viewing. If you have, watch it again and make a note of how much is actually said by the two main characters.

The second film is Conan the Barbarian. It is, hands-down, one of the best written movies around. Conan isn't a talker. He's a do-er. He acts (usually with a heavy broadsword). One of his lines is actually "Enough talk!" before hurling his sword into someone's chest.

Conan, the protagonist, doesn't say a word until 23 minutes into the film. 23 minutes! And it's this:

Slave-driver: Conan, what is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women.

For the next seven minutes, the only word even uttered by Conan is "Crom!" (which, to those who don't know, is the equivalent of "God!")

Conan's last word is spoken at the 01:44 mark. It's a prayer to Crom, which pretty much says "Give us a hand. If not, fuck you!" That's his last bit of dialogue. The film finishes a the 02:01 mark. Let me grab my calculator (I ain't too good at the ol' mathematics). That's 16 minutes without a single word from our hero. What does Conan do in that time? He acts. He fights off the advancing hordes, travels to Thulsa Doom's castle, nearly fails his mission, then hacks off Doom's head and sets the place on fire.

Now toddle off and watch Conan the Barbarian (give Conan the Destroyer a miss - it's rubbish). Come back when you've done that.

Back? Good.

Anyway, what I'm saying is - less is a hell of a lot more. Compare Raiders of the Lost Ark with the fourth (crappy) Indiana Jones movie. Compare the dialogue and how much there is. I'll bet good money that if a film uses less dialogue, it's simply better.

Dialogue is important, but it's not the be all and end all. Choose your words wisely and sparsely. If you can do it in two words, don't do it in four.


1) Go through your script and cut every single section of dialogue down by half. If you have 10 words, cut it to five.

2) Rewrite one, dialogue-heavy, scene cutting all dialogue. Not a single word. Do it all with actions. It might not be possible, so instead do the same thing, just cutting all dialogue from your protagonist.

Thoughts? Any other films that nail the "less is more" dialogue rule?

Stay shiny, folks - happy writing!

Monday, 3 January 2011

Peer award-winning!

The lovely Miss Manda over at Memoirs of a Word Nerd has gone and awarded me this beast:

This is awarded to folk who tell the truth, so I now feel like a character from a George Orwell novel. I'm very proud of my no-bullshit approach to blogging. What's the point otherwise? So uber-thanks to Manda for the award - it proves that at least one person is reading his. Howdy!!!

I'm now supposed to brag about getting it - check. Then I'm supposed to write some random facts (Manda has done 5, so naturally I upstage her by doing 6. Ha!) and pass the award on to other bloggers. So here we go:

1) Get me drunk, give me an acoustic guitar, and I'll make a royal arse of myself with sloppy Pearl Jam riffs and vocals like Bob Dylan on razor blades. I'll mercilessly sing Black at the top of my lungs and it will sound awful! This happened on New Year's Eve. And in the right hands, an acoustic guitar is a poweful love-weapon (not like that!). My hands are not the right hands.

2) Jack Daniel's is both my best friend and my worst enemy. If it were a woman, we would shag and fight.

3) I have a thing for ladies who play acoustic guitars and for ladies with Australian accents. So if there's an Australian woman out there who rocks out on the ol' acoustic, you know where I am....

4) I once got floored after I was hit in the face by a perfectly-executed spinning back-kick from this dude (the fella with black hair) from Strike (Britain's Got Talent). It hurt. A lot. NB: he wasn't so angry at shirts at the time. I don't know what went wrong. On the plus side, I now know his weakness. Muahaha!!!

5) I am in love with Kaylee from Firefly. There is no denying this. It is probably the only way you'll ever get me in the engine room of anything remotely mechanical.

6) I am a vigilante, Black Ops, warlock-Viking and space cowboy, slaying dragons in a post-apocalyptic world. I am best friends with a giant flying talking tiger called Ragnar. We voyage the nine worlds in search of epic battles and thrilling heroics. We always return home in time for tea.

Factual note: one of the above 'facts' is, in fact, false. In fact, I can actually play guitar reasonably well.

So now I nominate some other peoples who deserve the no-bullshit award (by which it will known forthwith):

Michelle Goode over at Confessions of a Screenwriter

John Hunter at Nigh Journal

Kid in the Front Row (you can work out where he is)

Honourary mention - Manda herself, who always writes entertaining and honest posts, including what life would be like if that sparkly "vampire" bloke (I use to term "bloke" loosely!) were her boyfriend.

Over and out, campers.