Which Came First, the Theme or the Script?Complications Ensue
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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Q. Should a script grow out of a theme, or should the theme grow out of a script? I got my degree in creative writing (prose), and my professors always said that working from a theme risks limiting a story, and making it pedantic. On the other hand, books I've read about writing plays assume that the first part of creating a play is deciding on a theme. What's your approach?
Whatever works for you. I tend to start with a story -- that is, a character with a problem. The character and the problem usually suggests a theme. I don't stress too much about themes because no one goes out to watch the movie with the great theme. They go to the movie with the great story.

But whatever works for you, you know? If you want to start with a theme, and figure out what story would address that theme, you may have a little extra work to get to an interesting character and an interesting problem, but you'll be on a solid foundation.

Some people seem to start with a character, and figure out what an interesting problem would be. I tend to start with an interesting problem and figure out who the character that best resonates with that problem is.

Laurence Olivier started with his character's nose. Once he got the nose right, he felt, the rest was easy. And John Boorman told me that Nicol Williamson couldn't figure out how to play Merlin until he got that funny little silver head plate. The rest of the character flowed naturally from that bit of costume.

So, really, start anywhere that gets you where you want to go.



When I'm brainstorming ideas, I'll often read some science or philosophy, to find a theme I'm interested and passionate about, then create a story that explores it.

For instance, I was once reading a book on economics that had an explanation of why men outnumbered women in NYC. Many women are still looking for a husband to provide for them, and NYC has a lot of rich men, so women come in greater numbers than men to find a husband. But even if there's a small discrepency, say 19 men for every 20 women, the women are going to have to bargain and give more to the relationship, because one woman is always going to be left out.

This led me to write a short about a married couple that decides to throw a dinner party to set up their desperately single friends. Of course, all three women show up, but one of the men has to go out of town on business, leading to the women essentially (and subtextually) auctioning themselves off to the men, until none of them are happy.

I abandoned the early theme and made it more about people who are desperate for love, and nosey friends who try to matchmake, but still, it helped.

Conversely, my current script began as a quirky image I had three years ago as I was waking up. But I struggled for three years to make it work, until I reread Kierkegaarde's Fear and Trembling, and realized that I should cut down the number of characters from 6 to 4, and make each of them fit into one of Kierkegaarde's modes of existance.

I find philosophy, economics, socialogy, and science very useful tools in brainstorming, but I agree you can't be beholden to the idea at the expense of a script that feels truthful.

By Blogger Dan, at 9:10 AM  

I think women come to NYC because there are more interesting jobs for women, and less sexism there.

Also, 'cause women are more social, and if you're social, the city is the place to be.

Generally, there are more women in the East, more men in the West. Make of that what you will.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 9:20 AM  

What Dan said is very familiar to me...My experience has been that I fall in love with an image or situation and let it live in my brain or struggle with it on the page until something makes it click. That something is usually the theme or at least what Pollack used to call the spine and that's what animates the work. I started one project about someone else's life experiences--his occupation had a unique angle of viewing America and he provided plenty of colorful anecdotes, but I could never fully inhabit the world until one day I heard a news story and then a song which combined to click some tumbler in my brain and before the week was out I had my script pretty much in it's final form. But I don't want to overemphasize theme, because even though it informs me, I tend to leave it well in the background--if someone wants to look for it and find it, bonus for them, but I'd rather it be more subversive and not explicitly available or necessary to enjoy what's going on in the story. In the story I referred to above, the 'theme' was simply 'everybody wants something for nothing'. Not deep or profound, but when I had to make a writing choice, that was my touchstone.

By Blogger OutOfContext, at 10:47 AM  

If you look at the converse situation, where men greatly outnumber women, such as in old, western pioneer towns, where there were 50 men for every woman, a vast number of women literally turn to prostitution. The men would spend a vast amount of their meager earnings on women (and whiskey and gambling) before returning to the trail. This is not an ideal situation, and for a lot of reasons, women had less control over their lives as prostitutes than one would hope, but still, it shows woman as something economically valued, due to supply and demand.

By Blogger Dan, at 2:27 PM  

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