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Screenwriters Speak… A-Listers on The Themes That Fascinate Them

Screenwriters Speak: Themes That Fascinate

Nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one. If you have anything to say, anything you feel nobody has ever said before, you have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter—as indissolubly as if they were conceived together.

                                                                           F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters

This is an excerpt from a letter written by F. Scott Fitzgerald to his 15-year-old daughter, contemplating becoming a writer. It urges us to think about themes – the messages that we feel deeply and indeed, desperately enough to undertake the pain a suffering of sitting before the keyboard and pounding the keys to create a story.

Personal Thematic

I believe that storytellers are artists and, as such, each of you has a unique point of view on the world, shaped by your experiences and your beliefs. You have something to say; something audiences need to hear. Find the message – the themes that you as a writer are most moved and compelled by, that speaks to you on a deep level, that draws on what you believe is important in life, and you’ll be reaching an audience.

“Each tale you create says to the audience: ‘I believe life is like this.’”

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

I believe theme is a strong tool that can power your writing. Identifying your Personal Thematic can significantly impact your entire writing process.

Writing a piece that speaks to your Personal Thematic is motivating and energizing. It gets you excited and keeps you going – even when the going gets tough – long into the tedium of rewrites. It brings focus to the story that enables you to make choices faster and more effectively.  It powers your work because it is tapping into Core Concepts and beliefs that you desperately want to express – to share with the world.  It  adds meaning and resonance to your story which both moves you and give you the ability to move others. That’s how important Personal Thematic is to elevating your writing.   

Discovering Personal Thematic is an essential step in your development as a storyteller. You can’t create stories impact and resonate with audiences until you explore what themes powerfully move you. Find a Writers’ Workout Exercise and three essential hints to help you uncover your Personal Thematic here

Over the course of my career as a film industry executive and as a producer, it has been my great privilege to learn from and to work with truly talented writers. 

I began my career as a development executive for the writing-producing-directing team, Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon (Starman, Stand by Me, Mr. Brooks). After working as an assistant at a literary agency, I felt lucky to get that job. But I had no idea that I would spend the rest of my career quoting these men. I learned invaluable lessons and built crucial skills that I still rely on. That first opportunity to be a junior executive shaped me. I worked very long hours, and I worked very hard, but I was thrilled to be working for people who wanted to know what I thought would be a good idea for a movie! Being promoted to story editor was simply the most exciting promotion of my life.

I wanted to bring this kind of knowledge to the students in my online seminar, Screenwriting Elevated, and so I started featuring a Surprise Guest Speaker each month. I chose a writer whose work they had read as part of the scripts assigned each month, and perhaps I showed a clip or read a scene from their work. But I like the added reveal of their not knowing who the speaker would be. Some were easy asks for me. Some are my Screenwriting Fangrrl idols, and just “the ask” made my heart pound a bit. All are incredibly articulate and very generous with their time, eager to answer any and all questions.

After the introduction, I like to ask just one question to get the ball rolling.

Of course, I choose go straight for what fascinates me the most:

What theme – a character type, a dilemma, or a conflict, an idea – do you find yourself drawn to, again and again, in your work?

I love hearing their answers! And I think you will too.

There’s something about humanity and human behavior and why people act the way they do and feel the way they do that always intrigues me. For Fisher King, it was the 80s. I thought it was a really ugly decade. A decade of great narcissism and cynicism. And I saw this out there and so I decided to write something about that, about a character that was narcissistic and then, by the end of the story, committed a selfless act.

Richard LaGravanese The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County, Beloved

The idea of getting hit and knocked down – it’s not interesting to see the character get up because they’re strong once they’ve been knocked down. It’s interesting to me to see them get up when they’re not strong. Because they have to struggle to find a reason to get up again.

In the movies, in the third act, it’s always the reason that takes them up off the floor that’s interesting, isn’t it?  

Shane Black Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight

The other day, I was coming up with a plot and I suddenly thought, god this is exactly the same basic structure as eight other things I’ve written! The idea of an innocent person caught between other extreme factions.  I would say that that’s a biggie. It’s totally unconscious, but I find that person likeable. Also the idea of people being able to communicate or connect with people despite whatever is separating them. I feel that is sort of our main job as writers – is to find something that you can connect with in every single character. I think that makes for better writing. I am particularly not in a genre. I tend to think that’s because whatever I see I want to do. If I go into a plumbing supply store, I want to build something. So if I see a comedy, I want to do a comedy. If I see a thriller, I want to do a thriller. Partly because my model was William Goldman. When I was growing up he was really cool. And he would say, “Ok, I’m doing a western. Now I’m doing a political thriller. Now I’m doing The Right Stuff.” Now a war movie.” He was always changing genres. And I thought, that sounds like so much fun! It’s my instinct to go to different genres and yet, I find the same themes in all the different genres. 

Glenn Gers, Fracture, Mad Money, Disfigured

I recently heard playwright, screenwriter and director John Patrick Shanley, interviewed by journalist Katherine Brodsky and had the opportunity to ask him my favorite question. His answer was immediate and succinct: 

Characters who won’t give up, who are going to find a way.

John Patrick Shanley Moonstruck, Joe Versus the Volcano, Doubt

I will keep adding more themes…

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