When I talk to writers about the power and importance of theme and understanding Personal Thematic, I think of this excerpt from a letter written by F. Scott Fitzgerald to his 15-year-old daughter, contemplating becoming a writer, urges us to think about themes. The messages we feel deeply and “desperately” enough to undertake the pain and suffering of sitting before the keyboard and pounding the keys to create a story.
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
I believe that storytellers are artists. 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 speak to you on a deep level, that draw on what you believe is important in life, and you will reach 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
Theme is a strong tool that can power your writing. Identifying your Personal Thematic, is a concept I first learned from producer and screenwriter Meg LeFauve, and story consultant, Laurie Hutzler that can 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. And it powers your work because it taps into core concepts and beliefs that you desperately want to express – to share with the world.
Themes add meaning and resonance to your story. That which moves you has the power to move others.
That is 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 the themes that powerfully move you.
Find a Writers’ Workout Exercise and three essential hints to help you uncover your Personal Thematic here.
Screenwriters Speak on Themes
Over the course of my career as a film industry exec, and as a producer, it has been a great privilege to work with truly talented writers. What I have learned has been invaluable.
I wanted to bring this kind of knowledge to the students in my online seminar, Screenwriting Elevated. So I started featuring a Surprise Guest Speaker each month. I choose a writer whose work they class has read as part of the monthly assigned scripts. I might show a clip or read a scene from their work. And, admittedly, I like the added reveal of the students not knowing who the speaker will be!
Some are 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 ask just one question to get the ball rolling:
What themes – a character type, a dilemma, or a conflict, an idea – do you find yourself drawn to, again and again, in your work?
Of course, this goes straight for what fascinates me the most about the creative process.
I love hearing their answers! And I think you will too.
This show I’m working on right now that is my first foray into TV and streamers – I reached a point where I said, ‘I’ve got to do something that is just mine.” I literally took a year and half off during Covid, and worked on this on spec. I can think about this project, and I think it probably would echo in a lot of the other things that I’ve written as well.
What makes a human, human? What makes a human being a human? What are the aspects of us that are the best of us and worst of us? Is being human doing something noble in the face of danger? Or is part of humanity betraying supposedly everything you believe in to achieve some kind of goal?
These types of conflicts, these moral or ethical issues that exist in yourself, in each person, those are themes that intrigue me.
Issues of integrity. What is heroism? What is admirable in people?
There’s a western that I love, an early Sam Peckinpah western, Ride The High Country, that featured two aging actors, Joel McCrae and Randolph Scott, at the end of their careers, who had both been in a lot of westerns. They’re playing these older gunmen. In some ways it’s like the Unforgiven of its’ time. The Joel McCrae character has a line about the type of life that he’s lived, “I just need to enter my house justified.”
To me, it’s those kinds of issues: What is the code that you live by? How do you treat people? These are things that are important to me as a person too, but I like to explore those issues in stories.
Even in terms of someone trying to do the honorable thing, but also I’m totally fascinated by people who the exact opposite and who are capable of doing awful things for their own pleasure or greed.
That human dichotomy, that’s the stuff that fascinates me.
Mark Protosevich: The Cell, I Am Legend, Thor, Oldboy, Sugar (series filming at Apple TV+)
There’s something about humanity and human behavior – 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, 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. 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 about themes. 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
When you get a chance to do what you love to do as a writer, especially in screenwriting, where you can come up with any story and write it – obviously the business is changing – but when I broke in in 1983, it was wide open. You really could dream up a story and write anything you were passionate about. That’s how I approached it.
When you do that, you tend to draw from ‘what made you.’ Whether it’s things you were drawn to as a child – what molded you. Things you watched as a child, what stories you read at a young age, what you did with your free time.
All of those things combined, at least for me, to create a theme that I find runs through a lot of my work, which is man or woman’s place in nature, or man or woman against nature. Mainly it’s our relationship with nature. I’ve always explored that theme. It’s apparent in Last of The Dogmen. It’s apparent in Gorillas in the Mist.
I grew up camping and loving the outdoors and spending a lot of time outdoors. I love wilderness. I love wild places. I love the idea that there are places in the United States where you can still hear a wild wolf howl, or where grizzly bears roam.
This informed a lot of what I chose to write early in my career, and what I ended up writing later in my career. It still runs through my work today.
Forty years later, I’m still writing about the same themes. Because they’re important to me. And because they’re relevant to the world we’re living in today. Our relationship with nature. You can connect that to climate change. You can connect that to indigenous people that are disappearing, languages that are disappearing. What’s our relationship to that?
That’s essentially what turns me on thematically in storytelling.
Tab Murphy: Gorillas in the Mist, Last of The Dogmen, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Brother Bear
If there’s anything that I’m most drawn to it’s adolescence. I love adolescence. Because they’re getting brave, but their not quite brave. They’re terrified about a lot of things. They’re mixed up about a lot of things. They want a lot of things. They’re afraid they can’t have a lot of things. They screw up a lot of things. And they feel more deeply than anybody.
Jenny Wingfield: The Man In The Moon, The Outsider, Roper and Goodie, A Dog Named Christmas
I recently read this great quote:
I am hitting the same kind of themes: Here’s a man who feels needs to be punished, who’s waiting for that punishment to come, and then instead hopes that punishment will be some sort of redemption.
Paul Schrader: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Affliction, First Reformed
Keep checking back as I will be adding more themes to “Screenwriters Speak” as I have more opportunities to bring great guest speakers to the Screenwriting Elevated Online Seminar series. The next session starts October 15, 2022!