Last night we watched a critically acclaimed Canadian movie. 45 minutes in, we could discern a theme, but no actual story. I've noticed that theme is often the enemy of story. Comparing the ALLY MCBEAL pilot to the BOSTON LEGAL episodes we've been watching, it seemed that AB had a theme and BL does not ... and BL is a far more enjoyable show.
(Granted, David E. Kelley applied what he learned on AB to BL, so there's a more mature showrunner; but maybe one of the things he learned is Don't Worry About Theme.)
When I talk about the Seven Elements of Story (compelling character; opportunity, problem or goal; obstacles and/or antagonists; stakes; jeopardy; audience; medium), theme is not one of them. That's because you can extract a theme from any story, if your teacher insists; but you don't need a theme to make a great story.
In Canadian TV, theme is a cancer eating at shows. We had to jettison perfectly good stories on NAKED JOSH because various people insisted on having a consistent theme. And it comes up over and over in development. Any plot that doesn't relate to the show's theme gets scratched.
If a series is only about one thing, it gets predictable and boring. Theme is fun when it generates story and emotion and meaning, but it can become a millstone around your neck.
Anyway, Blog Reader J wrote on the Crafty Screenwriting Facebook page
Q. What if all you've got is a theme and building a story about it is such a drag? what can I do? Please do tell me.
This is exactly what I'm saying. The theme is getting in the way. To build a story around a theme, think of a character with a main problem related to the theme. Then forget about the theme and write an interesting story. The theme will still be there.
But if you don't like building stories, though, then probably you should focus on some other aspect of storytelling, like editing.
Or if you must have a theme, then be a producer, and keep reading scripts until you find one that has the theme you want, and produce that.
Labels: elements of story