Category Archives: screen writing
‘Theme’ is a tricky beast. It’s the sturdy packhorse that guides us – the writer – away from the sleepy hamlet of our opening chapters, through the thick forest of dead trees, to the shiny citadel of our cathartic finale. Where we probably go and kill an evil wizard or something.
But writing stories takes time. And if you’re not in control of your theme, you’ll get tired and bored, and all those little side paths full of exotic-looking flowers will start looking like an interesting place to take a wee wander. And before you know it, you and your theme are frolicking in the foliage, while your audience twiddles its thumbs, wondering when the heck you’re going to get back that whole evil wizard thing.
So yeah, a strong, solid theme/horse. How do you get one?
Hyan Thiboutot – a very intelligent man (possibly a wizard) with 17-years of experience writing and script doctoring for North American studios – had some thoughts on the subject.
Hyan’s first advice is to identify your story’s theme. Some folk will tell you just to start writing and let the theme find you, but Hyan disagrees. The sooner you nail your theme, the quicker you can get down to writing the bits that are important.
Okay, you’ve got your theme. Hooray! Now go out and find some variations on it. And then, make sure that each of your characters inhabits one of those variations.
To illustrate this, Hyan used the Frank Darabont movie, The Shawshank Redemption. The theme of Shawshank is “Institutionalisation”, and so each character in the story represents an aspect of it. Like this:
Warden Norton (Head of Prison): Embodiment of the institution.
Captain Hadley (Head Guard): The Warden’s apprentice; his likely successor.
Bogs (Creepy Guy): Oppressed by those above him, an oppressor of those below.
Brooks (Old Guy): Institutionalised. Can’t hack life outside of prison.
Red (Morgan Freeman): Borderline. On the verge of being institutionalised.
Andy (Tim Robbins): Refuses to be institutionalised.
Note how the protagonist and main antagonist are at opposite ends of the scale, so as to create maximum amount of conflict. Pretty cool, huh?
Some films are content to have just one theme – an outer conflict if you will. That’s fine, but if you’re writing something that requires a lot of depth, you can go and add a second theme – an inner conflict. In Shawshank, it’s “Hope”, and it goes like this:
Warden Norton (Head of Prison): Manipulates people’s hopes, crushes them.
Captain Hadley (Head Guard): The Warden’s apprentice; his likely successor.
Bogs (Creepy Guy): No hope for himself, and destroys hope in others.
Brooks (Old Guy): No hope. Suicidal.
Red (Morgan Freeman): Borderline. Not sure he can believe in hope.
Andy (Tim Robbins): Embodiment of hope.
So, Shawshank’s outer conflict vs. inner conflict is “Institutionalisation vs. Hope”, and because those themes are rooted in every character, the story never loses sight of what it’s about.
Wow! Now how do we actually write this thing? Hyan says that, on average, a 90-minute film will have about a dozen ‘throughlines’… but it varies wildly (Batman Begins has 25 of them!!). A ‘throughline’ is screenwriter speak for a plot thread, and it traditionally comes in five parts (or ‘beats’):
Introduction of Character
Conflict gets worse
Conflict comes to a head
The Andy/Bogs conflict is a throughline, but so too is the sub-plot of Red’s parole. You don’t have to involve the protagonist in every throughline.
Most throughlines are dealt with in the mid-section of the story. While your Opening sets the scene, and the End narrows the focus to one or two central conflicts (the biggest ones), the mid-section is where you can set the other, lesser variations into conflict with one another.
There are a few different ways you can handle this:
Broad: Jump from throughline to throughline, until they all converge on a single point that wraps them all up.
Sequential: Deal with each throughline one by one, start to finish, start to finish.
Multi: Each throughline is completely independent; different stories that never converge (think Paul Haggis’ “Crash” – separate stories on a single theme).
Mix: Some throughlines are dealt with in their entirety, others advanced in jumps.
Scene Essential Elements:
We can analyze a scene and make sure we are including essential elements by asking a number of questions:
1. Is it clear whose scene it is, and what he or she wants?
2. What is the conflict of the scene? Is it with one or more of the characters, with the circumstances or the surroundings of the scene, or is the conflict within the character?
3. Where and when does the scene take place? Could another time or location serve to heighten the impact?
4. What characters are present at the beginning, which ones enter during the scene, and who is there at the end?
5. Is any new character introduced? If so, does the introduction give the audience a glimpse into the nature of the character and make the character memorable enough?
6. Where were the characters before the scene started, and where are they going after it ends?
7. Has time been eclipsed since the last scene? If so, is it clear to the audience that time has passed and how much time has passed?
8. Do the actions of the characters fit their ‘through lines’?
9. Are the actions of the characters clear and motivated? Do they reveal character and/or move the story forward?
10. Is there any use of dramatic irony?
11. Is there unity of action?
12. Is the scene thematically related to the rest of the story?
13. Are the obstacles difficult enough? Are they too difficult?
14. Are the events plausible? Must disbelief be suspended? Do these events obey the “rules” of previously suspended disbelief?
15. Does the audience know what might go right or wrong within the sene?
16. Does the dialogue reflect character? Is it natural? Forced?
17. Are the inner lives of the characters revealed through action, dialogue, and reaction?
18. Are any elements of the future used? Should they be used? Does the scene bring the action of the story too much to a standstill? Or does it propel the story forward?
19. Are there visual and audio clues and suggestions?
20. Does the scene belong in the story being told?
Do’s and Don’ts when writing action movies
DO – Have a good villain’s plan.
DO – Have a hero with a personal hurdle to overcome.
DON’T – Have an illogical plot, or use a plot twist that doesn’t make sense.
DO – Keep the pacing quick.
DO – Have a great “high concept” idea – Story as star.
DON’T – Have a passive protagonist – he or she has to take charge and solve the problem.
DON’T – Have an idea as the villain – Poverty is the real villain in real life, but in REEL life it has to be a PERSON. The hero has to be able to vanquish the villain.
DON’T – Have a weak ending. That’s the last scene the audience sees before leaving the theater.
DO – Use reversals to make your action scenes exciting to read.
DO – Use plot twists to keep your plot unpredictable.
DON’T – Write the first scene that comes to mind, dig for the BEST, MOST INTERESTING scene.
DO – Have strong act breaks that spin the story to the next level.
DO – Have strong structure. Structure is everything.
DON’T – Make it too easy on your hero because you want him to SUFFER! You want BAD THINGS to happen to him! If his problems are too easy, then solving them is meaningless. Make sure it’s life or death.
DON’T – Use someone else’s joke in your dialogue. You’re supposed to come up with your own jokes!
DO – Have an opening scene that draws in the reader.
DON’T – Have an action scene for no reason – make sure each scene is part of the story.
DON’T – Mix sex and violence in the same scene! It’s emotionally disturbing.
DO – Remember to tell your story VISUALLY. Movies are about people DOING things, not talking about them!
DON’T – Write boring action passages. You want the description to be as exciting as the film!
DO – Remember you’re writing for an audience so entertain them!