Conveying themes without being on the nose

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  • Conveying themes without being on the nose

    As the title suggests, how would one achieve this without overt exposition?

    My last script was peppered with dialogue to reflect themes and character motivations in what I thought was an elegant manner - organic, not too obvious, double meanings etc. However one reader (a fellow writer) didn’t pick up on any of these and when I mentioned the deeper layers and how the dialogue reflects character mindsets, they asked why none of this was in the script, to which I replied that it was and rattled off several lines of dialogue to which they replied with ‘it wasn’t clear enough’.

    In my mind, if I was any more overt then it would be too obvious and in your face. Granted, this reader may not paid attention but I don’t want to fall into the trap of being defensive and blaming the other person. Additionally, this reader has a strong grasp of story (but not as good as they pompously think they are) so I feel I should give them the benefit of the doubt.

    Eg: the central themes is of nature v nurture - which leads on to the questions of whether people can change and if redemption is possible, especially for the most serious of crimes - and my wrong-side-of-the-law protagonist struggles with his actions and morality. Was he born bad or just a victim of his social environment? Is the **** he now finds himself in karma that he doesn’t deserve to escape from?

    Though he’d love to change and escape the dire situation, his self doubt leads him to think he was born bad and is a fool to think he can become a decent person. A ‘good’ character tells him he can leave crime behind, that he just needs to own his life choices rather than pass blame and play the victim. On the flip side, an antagonist purposefully plays on the protagonist’s self-doubt throughout the script (to get his own way) by assuring that it’s in his nature to do the bad things being asked of him. And another antagonist, out for revenge against the protagonist, promises there’s no escape, no way to make amends.

    There’s multiple examples of all of the above throughout my script but not too heavy as to be clubbing the reader over the head. Each character is like an an angel or devil sat on the protagonist’s shoulders whispering in his ear and fighting for his soul. This literally comes true in the final act when two characters are trying to convince the protagonist to do what each wants him to do whilst the third antagonist - the one that promised no way out - closes in.


    Thoughts?
    SundownInRetreat
    Member
    Last edited by SundownInRetreat; 06-19-2022, 12:19 AM.

  • #2
    Thoughts: If it was in the dialogue, but not overtly, it's no surprise (to me) others missed it. What about showing the action of external forces that cause the decisions the protagonist must make and the actions the protagonist must take to illustrate the themes (that used to be) in the dialogue? Instead of talking about things, the characters are reacting to and doing something about them. 2¢.
    “Nothing is what rocks dream about” ― Aristotle

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    • #3
      A good theme shouldn't hit you over the head. You shouldn't even notice it, you just notice its effects on the characters, plot, etc. If you asked someone who just watched "Minority Report" if they understood that it was about determinism, 99% of them would say "huh?"

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      • #4
        I wouldn't over react to one reader's reaction to your work about anything.

        And to me theme is always best when the writer has one in mind, but the audience may even find another.... it's bad when it's like racism is bad and it's hitting you over the head so much you want to puke.

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        • #5
          Originally posted by JeffLowell View Post
          A good theme shouldn't hit you over the head. You shouldn't even notice it, you just notice its effects on the characters, plot, etc. If you asked someone who just watched "Minority Report" if they understood that it was about determinism, 99% of them would say "huh?"
          I love Minority Report so much -- I don't know if that theme is that hard to see as it's the crux of the movie right? But I agree it doesn't hit you over the head with it anything. Also you could argue it's about a more current theme -- can we stop crime before it even happens so no one has to feel the pain that Tom Cruise character felt with child loss?

          I think that's something that is also something a great movie can do. The writer had one theme in mind, the movie meant one thing to different audience members when it came out and then in 2022 you may feel something else.

          Isn't that what great art is? Discussing what a movie is about? If we all agree right away, then it's probably a bad movie.

          UNRELATED TO THIS THREAD -- But the thing that sticks with me so much is when Tom Cruise reaches for the delicious sandwich in the fridge after his eye surgery and picks the old one that no one thought to get rid of. it's such a subtle little detail and it justs one of those things that I don't know if it was in the spec or it was SS on set thinking of it. For all I know it was in the novel. But man it's so good.

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          • #6
            Originally posted by Bono View Post
            Also you could argue it's about a more current theme -- can we stop crime before it even happens so no one has to feel the pain that Tom Cruise character felt with child loss?
            I don't think that's a theme, I think that's a plot that grows out of the theme, which sort of illustrates what I'm talking about.

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            • #7
              I love and hate talking about theme so much.

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              • #8
                Originally posted by JeffLowell View Post

                I don't think that's a theme, I think that's a plot that grows out of the theme, which sort of illustrates what I'm talking about.
                I agree.

                Stopping a crime before it happens says that our WILL can control the outcome. The film shows various aspects, right? Cruise has a WILL not to commit murder-- emphatically states he will never kill a man he's never met within 36 hours-- and WE believe it's impossible, too, right. And yet, when external events (events his will does not control) unfold he slowly realizes the truth, he will kill this man.

                The film pushes the doctrine over the course of several sequences increasing our uncertainty and as events push toward the final moments we feel the dread piling up.

                And in that very last moment when the clock is running out, Anderton even waits until the time has passed (pre-crime system) we believe that Cruise's WILL has changed events, but then the film doubles down, and the Victim grabs the gun in Anderton's hand and Anderton does, in fact, kill the victim.

                To the OP, the below dialogue passage shows one way to reveal theme through exposition. See how he also combines "action" to reinforce the message, right?

                Anderton tosses the murder ball across the navigation console. It rolls to the edge and falls... Danny Witwer catches it mid-fall.

                John Anderton: Why'd you catch that?

                Danny Witwer: Because it was going to fall.

                John Anderton: You're certain?

                Danny Witwer: Yeah.

                John Anderton: But it didn't fall. You caught it. The fact that you prevented it from happening doesn't change the fact that it was *going* to happen.

                This exposition coupled with action is clear.

                Writers must ensure clarity for the reader/audience to understand the message. I'm not talking about on the nose dialogue. Sometimes it's a minor adjustment, a bit of action or even a single word. It isn't something overt, it can be.

                In this moment, without Anderton needing to explain it, the fact that Witwer catches the ball further emphasizes determinism-- Witwer catches the ball. The ball was never going to hit the floor. That's nuance. Say just enough and consider how you can use actions to reinforce the message you want to make clear.

                Terminator is about determinism/predeterminism, too.


                Post Edit: Sorry, one more thing. The MR dialogue above is also a conversation that unfolds naturally. It isn't forced or stilted. I see a log of dialogue that is forced because the writer is trying so hard to get the "information" out, that they miss the opportunity of finding a way for the dialogue to reveal the message with one character saying something in reaction to the other.

                Sometimes it's like "how did the character make that leap?"
                "Reserving rights to comment and make changes."
                Hollywood producer

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                • #9
                  David Milch puts it succinctly (sometimes less succinctly), "The best scenes are the opposite about what they appear to be about."



                  https://groups.google.com/g/ishmaili...yHrSNo8o?pli=1

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                  • #10
                    I tend to paralyze myself, and weaken my writing by focusing too much on perfection in the early drafts. A hunk of marble after the first pass of the sculptor's chisel, still looks like a hunk of marble, save for a few rough cuts. It's the sculptor's confidence in his talent, and his experience that keeps him forging ahead, trusting that with each successive pass, his vision of the final work will be realized.

                    Maybe it's ok for the first few drafts to have lots of OTN dialogue, heavy-handed scenes, etc. Chisel away!
                    https://www.gannett-cdn.com/presto/2020/01/10/PIND/26e99fe3-fb50-43f1-8a7d-597e6cafe8c3-GettyImages-513022286.jpg

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                    • #11
                      .
                      bioprofessor
                      Member
                      Last edited by bioprofessor; 06-26-2022, 03:50 PM. Reason: Removed - double post!

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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by SundownInRetreat View Post
                        There’s multiple examples of all of the above throughout my script but not too heavy as to be clubbing the reader over the head. Each character is like an an angel or devil sat on the protagonist’s shoulders whispering in his ear and fighting for his soul. This literally comes true in the final act when two characters are trying to convince the protagonist to do what each wants him to do whilst the third antagonist - the one that promised no way out - closes in.
                        I'm trying to figure out why it matters. If your theme helps you to write the story you want to tell, why do you care if the reader "gets it?"

                        (EDIT: Looks like several folks beat me to this point. Sorry for the redundancy.)
                        STANDARD DISCLAIMER: I'm a wannabe, take whatever I write with a huge grain of salt.

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