THE INVISIBLE COLLABORATOR
Whatever you call it - theme, controlling idea, message - it is the engine of your script. It's your script's reason for being.
Think about it. Why are you writing this script and not some other script? Is there a connection between the subject in your script, between the conflict in your script, and you yourself?
There certainly should be. It makes the writing a whole lot easier.
In a column on Wordplayer.com1, Terry Rossio brings up the notion that any aphorism, nugget of wisdom, or pithy statement about life can be used as the theme for your script.
This is revolutionary information, and I hope you'll take it to heart.
What this means is that you can start your search for story, the eternal "What should I write?"...by finding a specific lesson you've learned in your life. We've all learned many lessons over the years, gradually or in moments of epiphany, after long struggles and often at great cost. These are now yours to share with your audience.
Sometimes we learn lessons, or become aware there are lessons to be learned, by watching a movie that deals with them. So now you can do your part - pass along what you've learned, and crystallize the information you've won, by dealing with it in a script.
This theme is your invisible collaborator. It helps you map out your script, lets you know what characters should be in it, what needs to happen, what's appropriate and what's extraneous.
Let's take an example from Rossio's column:
You are an adult when, faced with important decisions, you choose to have more faith in yourself than anything else.
Somewhat vague, in terms of what the script could be - could be anything! But that's the beauty of it. You can dress this up in any milieu that appeals to you - the mob, rappers, drag racing, grunge-era Seattle, Wall Street, a suburban town overrun by zombies...whatever you want! If it's organized around this idea, then you know your payoff. You know where you're going!
You then plan out your script and populate it with characters who will act out this theme - the young man who'll learn it and become an adult. The parent who will fight him and ironically remain a child. You place them in the world of your choosing and surround them with characters who will aid, resist, and otherwise assist them in acting out the various aspects of this idea.
At all times you can return to this idea and ask yourself: how is this scene illuminating the idea? Is this sequence shedding light on the issues? Am I providing realistic challenges which could lead the protagonist toward understanding this? How and when will my protagonist gain the pieces of this information, and when will my protagonist put it all together? And will he or she succeed in doing so...or fail?
For variety, you can find two related ideas and combine them. Or more. Too many, though, and you might lose focus. A script can only have so many hearts, after all (too many and it might become a mutant of some kind).
You can use any idea important to you, but the trick is to choose one you have personally experienced. Otherwise, you risk being preachy and inauthentic. The only way to make sure the beats are authentic is to measure them against your own experience - much easier to do when it's experience you actually possess.
Here are a few more examples. These are taken from The Notebooks of Lazarus Long, "written by" a character from the works of sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein2:
You can have peace. Or you can have freedom. Donít ever count on having both at once.
Sounds epic, but it could just as well apply to an epic schoolyard conflict among fifth graders.
Beware of altruism. It is based on self-deception, the root of all evil.
Somewhat Ayn Randian, but an interesting jumping-off point for some taut political drama or thriller. Or even a creepy movie about an obsessive "do-gooder" who drives his neighbors crazy.
Everybody lies about sex.
Sounds like a comedy. Or even an indie movie with James Spader that won an Oscar back in the 1990s.
By now you get the point. You want that simple idea which becomes the engine of your script, and the uniter of your action, which gives your script a purpose and which connects it to you on a personal level. You want to find that theme and allow it be your invisible collaborator.
Find yours...and write the best script you've ever written!
1. Deep Thoughts, from wordplayer.com. Do yourself a favor and check this website out! Nothing less than a free course in every aspect of screenwriting from two acknowledged masters working today.
2. One of Heinlein's most opinionated characters, a mouthpiece for the homespun, libertarian ideals of Heinlein himself. Mentioned in Rossio's column, hence the inclusion here. Even something as hoary and venerable as Bartlett's Familiar Quotations can help you zero in on a theme you can use as the centerpiece of a great script!
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