By Shawn Coyne
Published: February 5, 2016
What exactly is Narrative Device?
Narrative Device is the choice the writer makes about the qualities of the being that will “tell the Story.”
Should the writer write in the first person? I met a man from Istanbul who had a black moustache.
Posted in What It Takes
By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 10, 2016
What do we mean when we say a book or a movie is “about something?” This question is a lot trickier than it seems.
Did you see the movie The Break-up, starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughan? A facile answer regarding this film would be, “It’s about a break-up.”
The subject is a break-up.
The theme is something else entirely.
The subject of the Jurassic Park movies is dinosaurs.
The theme is, Don’t mess with Mother Nature.
The subject of Out of Africa is Karen Blixen’s experiences in Africa.
The theme is possession. “Is it possible,” the movie asks, “for a person to truly own something—a farm, a lover, her own fate?”
The theme of Out of Africa in statement form is, “It is not possible to own anything, and the harder we try, the more certain we are to lose what we wish to hold.”
A theme does not have to be true in all instances.
We can write one book with Theme X, then follow it up with another with Theme Opposite-of-X.
Sometimes a writer or filmmaker will deal with the same theme over and over. David O. Russell (one of my faves) seems to love the theme, “An individual, no matter how beset by his/her own self-sabotage and the sabotage of their family, can triumph if he/she is passionate enough, brave enough, and creative enough.” The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, Joy.
A theme can be totally unoriginal and still work beautifully. It can be a platitude. It can be a cliche.
“Love conquers all.”
“Might makes right.”
Remember the advertising line for the first Rocky?
His whole life was a million to one shot.
That statement is not far off from the movie’s theme, which is in truth a word-for-word statement of the American dream:
The sorriest bum in the street is capable of greatness if he’s just given the chance.
The theme of Casablanca is another cliche. “It’s better to work for the good of the group than for your selfish personal ends.”
There’s nothing wrong with your theme statement being a cliche. In many ways it’s better. Why? Because it means your theme has broad applications. It’s universal. It applies to everybody.
Part of the reason Rocky was a hit was that so many people could identify with its theme.
A theme should have multiple layers. We should be able to interpret it on the personal level, the political level, even the spiritual level. The more levels the theme works on, the more powerful it is.
Casablanca came out in 1941, while the U.S. was in a raging internal debate over whether or not to enter World War II. When in the film Humphrey Bogart declared
I stick my neck out for nobody
I’m the only cause I’m fighting for
he was speaking on the personal level. But his words were understood by the audience on the political level as well. He was giving voice to the powerful “American First” sentiment then prevalent in the country.
Bogie was also stating one side of the movie’s theme. The hero, remember, embodies the theme. How he or she acts in the final crunch becomes the movie’s statement of the theme.
In the climax of Casablanca, when Bogie forsakes his own selfish ends (to fly off to safety with his former lover, Ingrid Bergman) and instead puts Ingrid on the plane with her husband, the gallant Resistance fighter Paul Henreid, while he himself remains behind to join the fight against fascism, his actions state the movie’s theme not just personally, but politically.
Level One: Bogie elects to act for the greater good.
Level Two: America should do the same. It should get into the war.
Why is theme so important?
Because it gives a story focus and depth.
We’ve all read a millions sagas about plucky Moms and punchy prize fighters and self-centered gamblers/con men/operators. (In other words, subject). But when the struggles of these characters are given focus by the right theme, and when that theme contains a second or even a third level, then the story’s power is magnified and its emotional wallop is doubled and tripled.
Which leads us to the next aspect of theme—cutting everything that is not on-theme.
We’ll talk about that next week.
Posted in Writing Wednesdays | 11 Comments
By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 3, 2016
I was talking to a friend who runs a successful Hollywood literary agency. She represents screenwriters. Before she opened her doors, she said, she spent a year doing nothing but reading scripts, searching for promising young writers. She read well over 500 screenplays.
“How many,” she asked me, “do you think were worth representing?”
Before I could reply, she answered.
I believe her.
I’ve read a boatload of screenplays and novel manuscripts myself. Many have interesting, even brilliant premises. Fascinating characters abound; there’s lots of clever dialogue, surprising plot twists, mind-blowing set-pieces. And a lot of what I (and my agent friend) have read is really good writing.
But almost none of it works.
“The scripts,” my friend said, “were almost never about anything.”
She was talking about theme.
This is a subject I’ve become rabid about. I’m not even sure why. For years I myself wrote without the slightest clue of what theme was. I couldn’t have defined it if you had hung me by my thumbs over a seething volcano. I had no idea that it was important. I didn’t even know what it was.
I was just like all those failing writers. In fact I was failing myself.
Robert McKee tells the following story (forgive me; I’ve cited it before).
As a young writer-director he got the chance to interview the great playwright and screenwriter Paddy (“Network,” “Marty” “The Hospital”) Chayefsky, the only three-time solo Oscar winner for Best Screenplay.
As soon as I figure out what the theme of my play is [said Chayefsky], I type it in a single line and Scotch-tape it to the front of my typewriter. After that, nothing goes onto the page that isn’t 100% on-theme.
For me, that quote was a life-changer. The light bulb went off. I finally got it.
I’m going to take the next few weeks on this blog and address nothing but theme.
Maybe you’ll hate this subject. Maybe I’ll bore you to death. Maybe you’ll say to yourself, “I dunno why this dude keeps going off on this. It’s all so obvious.”
Clearly it isn’t obvious, or my literary agent friend wouldn’t have read five hundred scripts and come up with zero that she cared to represent.
What is “theme?”
Why is it so important?
How can five hundred writers bang out scripts—scripts that in many other respects are excellent, or at least interesting—that are about nothing?
Let’s start with a corollary to that question.
“What happens when a script is about nothing? (And I don’t mean like Seinfeld, which is decidedly not about nothing.) What does a novel with no theme feel like?”
It feels empty.
It feels hollow.
When you set it down, your expression is a blank stare. You feel like you’ve just consumed a meal that provided zero nutrition. You wonder, “Why did the writer even write this at all?”
Here’s a related concept that also helped me tremendously when I began to grasp it:
Every major character must represent something that is greater than himself or herself.
Jay Gatsby represents something.
Daisy Buchanan represents something.
The green light at the end of Daisy’s dock represents something.
Atticus Finch represents something.
Don Corleone represents something.
Huckleberry Finn represents something.
The 500 protagonists in my literary agent friend’s screenplays represented (I’m guessing) nothing but themselves. X was X. X did not stand for Y or Z. That’s why the scripts felt so hollow. That why they left the reader feeling starved and cheated.
Here’s a third related principle:
The protagonist represents the theme.
Am I boring you yet? If this is tedious to you, if you feel your eyes glazing over as they might in some soporific graduate seminar, may I suggest that you release all hope or ambition of succeeding (or even having fun) as a writer.
This stuff is seminal.
You have to know it.
Forgive me for ranting. Like I said, this subject makes me insane.
Back to characters, back to theme.
A story, any story, has to be about something. It must have a theme.
The hero of the story represents the theme.
The villain represents the counter-theme.
In the climax, hero and villain clash to the death (at least figurative death) on-theme.
In the next few weeks we’ll get into this subject in excruciating detail. But let me sign off this post with a single thought.
It is very, very hard to figure out your theme.
It’s back-breaking, brain-busting labor.
Resistance becomes monumental.
Even Paddy Chayefsky had to struggle. (Note how he says, “Once I figure out the theme … ” Meaning he did not know it at the start. He was operating on instinct.)
Theme is hard work.
But you and I have to do it. There’s no getting around it—unless we want to be one of those five hundred in our literary agent’s reject pile.
[P.S. Thanks to Juan Taylor, who suggested this subject and urged that I try a few posts addressing it.]