13th: Structure, Theme and Writing For Social Change

This week, we’re going to be talking about 13th by Ava DuVernay.

Even though 13th is a documentary, we are going to be discussing it in a way that is valuable for all writers. Whether you are a screenwriter, a documentarian, a miniseries writer, a TV writer, a comedy writer, even if you are a poet or a playwright or a musician, we are going to be talking about it in a way that is valuable for you.

What we are really looking at is the structure of 13th. We are going to be talking about how you build a structure that is designed to create social change?

Now, if you are a frequent listener of this podcast or if you study with me in our classes, you know that I believe that all writing is political.

That doesn’t mean that all writing grows from a political place. That doesn’t mean that you should only write political things. That means that all writing is political because your beliefs, the beliefs that you express in your writing, shape the audience.

Your beliefs shape the way that your audience views the truth about themselves and others. Your writing can be used to build empathy or to undermine empathy. Your writing can be used to lead toward hope or to push towards despair.

You are the myth makers and for thousands of years, humans have looked to myth to understand their complicated world.

As writers, we are the keepers of myth. And if anything, 13th is a movie about myth making.

13th is a movie about the ugly power of myth making. But it also points the way to the beautiful power of myth making.

I don’t care if you’re writing pure entertainment. I don’t care if you’re writing the silliest show to ever air and I don’t care if you’re writing a reality television or an action movie or a documentary film. It is important to remember that your movie is political, that what you say matters, that what you show people becomes their reality.

When a person watches a movie or TV show that they actually connect with, that they actually identify with, or when a person reads a book, or a memoir or a poem, there is a part of them that identifies with the main character and thinks, “That’s me up there, I know what that feels like, I get what that is. I understand on an intuitive level in my bones what this is about, what this journey means.”

And where does that come from? That comes from a concept called theme.

You can think about theme like the spaghetti strainer that you use to strain out what needs to be in your movie and what needs to go.

If you have ever made spaghetti you already know how the strainer works. To make spaghetti you need to boil some pasta and some water and some salt and a little bit of olive oil. And you’ve got to boil it for just the right amount of time, just until you get it perfectly al dente, where it has form but it is pliable enough that it tastes good. And then what you have to do is you’ve got to pour spaghetti into a spaghetti strainer and you’ve got to shake out all the water.

And once you’ve done that, you can put whatever sauce you like, you can put Alfredo sauce, you can put a little bit of garlic and olive oil, you can put a marinara, you can put any sauce you want on it.

However, if you don’t boil the spaghetti, you can put whatever sauce you want and it is going to taste horrible and crunchy. And if you over-boil the spaghetti, you can put whatever sauce you want and it is going to taste mushy and soft.

And if you don’t strain out the water, no matter how perfectly al dente your spaghetti is, it is not going to taste right.

This is a metaphor that you can use to understand screenwriting, and it is a metaphor you can use to understand what is successful about 13th.

When you’re making a movie, especially a social issues movie that is designed to change people, like 13th you run a real risk.

Your risk is getting dogmatic and losing the transformative power of your story. Your risk is trying to take other people on a journey without taking yourself on a journey. Your risk is asking people to believe a certain way, without asking yourself the same profound question.

Anytime you’re making a film, whether it is a documentary or any other kind of film, you want to start in a place of curiosity. You want to start by boiling the spaghetti, not by putting the marinara on.

And this is the first mistake that a lot of screenwriters make, is they simply just don’t boil the spaghetti. They start, they think they know what it is and they end up serving this thin, crunchy, horrible spaghetti that never got boiled, because they are afraid that if they actually give the spaghetti the time to boil, if they actually boil it and add all these ingredients– all the water and salt and olive oil that are just going to get strained out of the final dish, they are afraid that they are going to end up with nothing.

You’ve got to boil the spaghetti!

The way you start boiling the spaghetti if you’re making a documentary is by finding an area of exploration. And if you’re writing a movie,  or a TV show, or a play, or a novel… you can do it the same way!

It all starts with theme: the area you want to explore in your movie that you are curious about. And this deep inner theme that is driving you will also connect to the external hook you use to sell your movie.

If you think about 13th, sure there have been a lot of civil rights movies. But this writer, this documentarian, is particularly interested in one simple sentence, one simple sentence in the 13th Amendment that is what this movie is about.

And what is beautiful and powerful about the structure of this movie, is watching Ava DuVernay look at that one sentence from 50 different angles, going, “What does this sentence mean? What has this sentence meant over generation after generation, after generation, over decade after decade, after decade? What does that one sentence mean?”

And what is wonderful about 13th is that the one sentence that Ava DuVernay is looking at is a sentence that most of us are not even aware exists.

We are all aware that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. That’s what you learn in history class.

But what most of us either are not aware of, or were never aware of, or have forgotten–what Ava DuVernay wants to remind you, “hey remember!” is this one single concept.

Slavery was not abolished for everyone; it was only abolished for those who were not being punished for a crime.

And what Ava DuVernay is doing, the way she is boiling the spaghetti, is to keep on attacking that one idea from different angles, to keep on looking at it and trying to understand it.

The way you do this in a documentary is to interview a bunch of people. Not just the kinds of people who agree with you. All kinds of people.

And look at the people that Ava DuVernay chooses. She chooses a badass, white tattoo- laden professor, she chooses activists from the 60s and 70s. She chooses well-spoken black men and women. But she also chooses Grover Norquist, one of the most staunch conservatives out there. She chooses Newt Gingrich, who a lot of people don’t see as an ally to the causes of black people.

She explores her angle from a variety of points of view, and then what she does is she squeezes them down, she strains them out around that one concept.

I am certain that during her interview with Newt Gingrich, a lot of things came up that weren’t about that one sentence. But in the final product, she ends up with a piece that is about that one sentence.

I am certain that in her interview with Angela Davis, a lot of things came up that weren’t about that one sentence. But in the final product, she strains it back down to be about that one sentence.

And that is what it means to remove the water.

You want to “boil” your script just long enough that you really understand what it is. And then you want to remove everything that isn’t essential. That is a process of exploration.

That is a process not of telling the movie what to be, but actually asking the question of what it wants to be. Actually taking yourself on a journey, where hopefully you get to discover something that you weren’t aware of when it started.

Reaching out to characters that are like you and characters that are different from you, characters who believe what you believe and characters that believe exactly the opposite. And taking them on a journey in relation to this theme, and boiling it just enough, till you recognize what it is.

But here is what is important; you don’t want to over boil it.

Some of us put off deciding what our movie is, so long, that it ends up over-boiled.

If you fail to narrow down your theme as you rewrite, your script ends up with so many different ideas constantly shifting and changing that you end up writing not one movie, but 50 movies: 50 versions of the same movie.

So we want to make sure that it doesn’t keep on shifting on us. We want to constantly be looking at it with curiosity, asking, “What is it about? What is the thing that makes this one cool to me? What is the thing that I find most exciting or alarming or confusing or upsetting or hopeful or beautiful or complicated? What is that one thing that I find most interesting?”

You want to hone in on that theme, and you want to allow yourself to explore anywhere that it leads you. And you want to allow some water in there, even things that maybe feel tangential, until you know, “Okay, this is what I have to say.”

And then what you want to do is, you want to start to get really deep around that one thing, really, really, really deep. And then you want to start shaking out the water.

You want to start straining out the stuff that it isn’t about that so you can do more of that one thing that it is about:  so that the audience can identify not with everything–not with civil rights as a giant concept, not with every decade of American history–but with one beautifully focused idea.

And then you want to take a character on a journey in relation to that idea. In Seven Act Structure, they will go on seven different movements in relation to that idea.

And even if you are writing a documentary, it is important to remember that you do have a main character. It’s important because that’s what your audience ultimately connects to. Your audience connects to characters; it connects to people.

Now what 13th is creating is a complicated main character.

What Ava Duvernay is doing in 13th  is looking at that one sentence, the sentence that says that slavery is outlawed except for punishment of a crime, and she is showing the journey, not of the real black man but the mythical black man, the imagined black man and how that journey is shaped by that one sentence.

And here is the argument that Ava DuVernay is making:

Ava DuVernay is making the argument that these social problems that we call racism are in fact not purely social problems at all.

That in fact, they grow out of an economic desire that started right after the Civil War, that started right after emancipation. That suddenly, you had half of America with an economy in shambles, an economy that was entirely built upon free labor.

And in order to rescue their economy, they still needed free labor. And because they had this one sentence, her argument is, what began was a systematic campaign to criminalize the way black men were viewed, so that black men could be arrested, so that black men could be used for free labor while in prison.

And what is so shocking and terrifying and startling about 13th is that in each act, in each decade, we watch how the same process is repeated and expanded exponentially.

We watch how this one phrase is used again, and again, and again. Not for social reasons, not for hatred reasons, but to invoke hatred for economic gain, for political gain.

We watch how companies come together to build legislation that is designed to create incarceration. Not then. Now.

Today. In today’s privately owned prison systems. How the desire for free labor is still driving American policy, hundreds of years after slavery.

We watch an early image of an old black man just trying to walk away from an angry crowd of whites, who are pushing him, prodding him and ultimately beating him. And we think, “Oh my God, to have lived in that time. How was that possible?”

And we end with an image of a Trump rally, one of the final images of the piece, where we watch the exact same thing happen to a bunch of black protesters at a Trump rally.

We are watching the cyclical experience, not of the real black man but of the mythical one.

We are watching it played out in images. We see it played out visually.

We watch how this cycle repeats, not just under Republican administrations also under Democratic ones. How Bill Clinton’s Three Strikes You’re Out policy grows politically, not out of a desire to do evil but out of a political need to compete on being tough on crime.

We are watching as people do the wrong thing, again, and again, and again, allowing us to look a little bit deeper into our own perceptions: the way that we have been affected, the way that our beliefs have been shaped, not by the real black communities but by the way black communities are depicted in our media, in our myth, on our news, in our films, in our politics, in our rhetoric.

We are watching this vision of criminality and how it has been created and fostered for political and financial gain.

This is how you use theme to build structure in a movie.

Whether you are writing a feature film or a documentary or a TV show, what we are looking to do is to explore a theme and take a character on a journey in relation to it.

We are looking to allow the audience not to view that person as “other” but to generate identification and empathy, that feeling of, “That’s me up there.”

We want our audience to go on a journey in relation to the ‘that’s me up there’ that allows them to see the world in a different way, see themselves in a different way, find some kind of catharsis, take a different action on the other side. This is the power of theme in your structure.


If you’ve been struggling to get your writing going again during this crisis, I would like to make you aware of a couple of things we have going on for our students. 

The first is, we have a free quarantinis happy hour of writing lessons and exercises and community; it is every Thursday night 7 PM EST, 4 PM Pacific and it is hosted by me. It is a fabulous community and you can come for free. If you can afford to make a donation, we will match your donations and apply them to our scholarship fund.

The second is that for every full priced class that is sold during this period, we are giving away two 50% scholarships that allow people who’ve been affected by the crisis to come at 50% off. 

So if you’ve been affected by the crisis you can check on our   and we’ll let you know if we have scholarships available, you can self-identify and you’ll get a scholarship instantaneously if you need to take a class. 

If you are able to afford a class you can know that your money is going not only to help you pursue your passions but also to help other people pursue theirs. You can find more information about both of these on my website. 

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