Use Your Theme
By Jacob Krueger
If you’ve ever been part of an unmoderated writing group, you already know what it’s like to lose control of your revision.
Without a strong unifying voice to make order out of the chaos, it’s amazing how much turmoil even a small group of well-intentioned writers can bring to your screenplay, pushing and pulling your revision in so many different directions with their “brilliant ideas” that before long you don’t even know what you’re writing anymore!
And as anyone who has ever worked professionally as a screenwriter can tell you, the more you grow in your career, the more challenging it becomes to maintain a point of creative focus for your revisions.
Succeeding as a professional writer means learning to navigate the twists and turns in the development process, often balancing the demands of half a dozen different producers, all with their own (often conflicting) agendas for the project, without losing your own creative voice.
Which means that, if you want to succeed in this industry and actually see your movies make it to the screen, you need to start building those skills in yourself now.
That’s why we put so much focus in my screenwriting classes on learning how to bring order to the chaos. That means not only developing the skills you need to navigate the often contradictory feedback you get from other people (friends, classmates, coverage readers, producers, teachers, agents, managers), but also learning how to steer the course through the shifting winds of your own feelings about your writing and the perilous waves of “brilliant ideas” that we tend to crash across the bows of our own creative ships.
The real terror of the blank page is that anything is possible; and the real terror of a rewrite is that everything becomes possible all over again. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort and just keep asking “what if?” you can develop Thelma and Louise until it turns into The Wrestler (think about it).
But along the way, you’re going to drive yourself absolutely out of your mind.
If you’ve been following this article series you now know that, when rewriting your script, you should never write without a goal, focus on one goal at a time, concentrate on what’s working, avoid quick fixes, and be very wary of written notes.
But whether you’re writing for yourself, a producer, an actor, director, agent or manager – if you really want to succeed in this crazy industry – the most important skill you can build is how to deal with the thousands of ideas vying for your attention, so that you can bring order to the chaos, wrangle all these crazy notes to the ground, hold your own in a development meeting, and feel confidence in each decision you make in your revision.
And that process always begins with theme.
There are very few people in the world who are truly good at developing scripts, but those who are all have one thing in common. Before they start trying to come up with a single idea or solve a single problem, they always ask the same question about the script: what’s it about?
And that doesn’t mean “what could it be about?” or “what was the conscious plan the writer had for the script when they first sat down to write” or even “what could I make it about?” That means seeking out what already has been built, whether consciously or unconsciously, in the pages that already exist, no matter how problematic they may be.
What are the ideas that keeps on coming up again and again, page after page? What are the questions that seem to tie together the most visceral and exciting scenes in your movie, or the turning points in your character’s journey? What makes this screenplay matter to you as a writer? What is really being built here? And how can you boil that all down to a single guiding theme so simple that you can remember it at every phase of your rewrite without even thinking about it.
No matter how good your draft may be, there’s no doubt that huge changes are going to happen in your revision. But until you know the one simple thing you’re building, you’ll never know which changes will serve your story, and which will simply distract from it.
Any note (and any idea) is only valuable in the context of what you’re building. If you were an architect working on a new cathedral, an idea for a breathtaking stained glass window might be a great place to put your energy. But, if you’re building a bomb shelter, that same stained glass window becomes a total hazard of potentially falling glass!
Your theme is like a north star for your revision. No matter how lost you get, it will always guide you in the right direction. And the great thing is, you don’t even have to make it up!
Once you learn how to look, you’ll be amazed to discover that your theme already exists in almost every page of your script, often buried under the surface, sometimes disguised or masked by undeveloped craft or hidden behind piles other unrelated themes and ideas. But present nonetheless. Because the theme is that subconscious, broken and beautiful thing in you that’s driving you to do this crazy act of writing in the first place.
That doesn’t mean that every idea that fits your theme is going to work. But it does mean that, by identifying your theme, you can cut through all the clutter and distractions, know what to say yes to, and what to say no to at each phase of your revision and focus your energy on the ideas that best serve the one unifying theme of your story, rather than getting distracted by the many red herrings that don’t.
Most importantly, as you grow in your professional career, if you can learn to agree on a theme with your production team before you start revising, it will allow you not only to wrangle your own ideas, but also to focus the energy of all those crazy producers, directors, managers, agents, and movie stars on the ideas that best serve your main intentions for the project.