Theme present in every scene...



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  • Theme present in every scene...

    I generally don't find it difficult to lay out thematic undertones in 90% of the scenes in the script and relate it to the inner growth of the character. There's 10% of them (scenes), however, like action sequences where I find it a pain in the a$$ to write theme into overall characterization and story.

    It's generally said that action sequences, if properly written, MUST relate to theme in some way. But say your theme is...

    Grief will destroy you if left unattended...

    And you have to write it into a car chase sequence? What the fuh? Now this would be easy in a revenge type plot where say a father is getting vengence for the death of his son. But what if the plot revolved around a heist?

    How do you write the theme in? Have the protag with tears running down his eyes while chasing the guy that double crossed him? Have the protag stop chasing altogether and have him burst into tears? Not likely. Or is a complicated theme best left out of an action movie?

    I'm sure I'll figure it out as I compose the scenes in question but I thought I'd throw the topic out there for discussion. If anything, this thread may stress the importance of theme in story to newer writers.

  • #2
    Great point, Deus. I think I read something about that in "Story". Wish I had photogenic memory.

    I do believe that while every scene has to advance character and story... having theme present during every scene, including action type sequences, would elevate the emotional attachment the audience has to it.

    Let's face it. Most of us have gotten to the point where action movies are just boring. And it's gonna take a lot of content in a car chase to keep us from yawning. Above and beyond adding new to the old, or coming up with new altogether.

    This is the main reason that the first "Matrix" was an outstanding movie and the two following were complete failures. The theme of "Believe in yourself" was present in every scene. Neo is never really sure of this even before he's brought into the Matrix. Being "The One" only elevated the stakes. His low confidence level, his "Ah, ah... maybe I can" attitude, etc. really came together to form fantastic dramatic content in an action movie.

    So, maybe it's about using a theme that can be written into an action movie and leave the grief stuff for drama. Who knows. Right now I'm in a spot where changing the theme destroys the whole story... So I ain't giving up quite yet... I think the more challenging the scene the better the overall effect will be anyway...


    • #3

      The following is quoted from Jeff Newman's site @

      I could look up a lot more information on theme being more specific than a subject but this'll get you started.


      Theme is NOT the same as "subject" or "topic." For instance, "Love" or "Betrayal" or "Alienation" are subjects. And that's fine if your story is going to concern one or more such subjects. But a theme implies something more specific.

      A theme is akin to a thesis statement as used in essays. Robert McKee refers to it as the story's "Controlling Idea." A theme is a specific statement about a subject.

      Often, a story will contain two or even three complementary themes on the same subject. There could be a theme or two on different subjects, as well -- again, if they are somehow compatible or mutually supporting. Usually, one or two themes will serves as the Primary Theme(s), and the others will serve as supplementary, secondary themes or motifs.

      Examples of themes on the subject of Loyalty:

      "Loyalty to another person proves one's commitment and love." A corollary theme would be "Disloyalty demonstrates lack of commitment and superficial love; it poisons and destroys relationships."

      "Loyalty to friend, family, principle, or country is generally admirable, but blind loyalty can be immoral and counter-productive."

      "Those who are loyal only to themselves cannot expect loyalty from others."

      Clearly, some subjects can generate several, even dozens of potential themes. A story does not have room to illustrate them all. One, or a few, are all a story can handle. And when we examine the many themes that topics such as "Love" or "Justice" can generate, we'll notice that some of the thematic statements are contradictory. That's fine. Different authors have different beliefs.

      Here's a subject: "The influence of the past." Here's a theme: "The past often continues to influence us, for the better and often for the worse as well. But if we must allow the past to control us, it will become a prison that ruins our lives -- each present moment, and our future. We must learn to break free from the fetters of our past in order to live a better life."

      In short, a theme is a specific statement expressing some sort of opinion, belief, or observation about people, life, society, or the cosmos. A theme is not something grafted into the story at one or a few points. Rather, a story illustrates the theme -- sometimes the overall story is an illustration of a theme. Other times numerous particular events within the story express theme. Often it's both. Furthermore, certain character traits and/or character arc (growth or change) will often be theme-related.

      In general, theme provides significance to a story. It's the "so what" to all the sound, fury, and fun. It's the thought, or the point underlying the proceedings. Furthermore, a theme can lend a sense of unity or cohesion to a story.

      Only rarely is a theme expressed in dialogue, unless partially, during an argument, or perhaps in disguise, such as a comment about some other situation (but which, on reflection, also applies to the main story topic). Generally, it's best to have the theme be "felt." It's expressed best by indirect means: the story outline, particular events within the story, by character traits (virtues, flaws, values, needs), and by character arc.

      So plot, character, and theme are all interrelated. Theme provides significance and unity. And it's a structural element, because theme acts as an ongoing throughline, lending structural strength and cohesion to a story.


      Counter-Theme is a thematic statement which disagrees with the thematic statement; it's often the direct opposite. It's similar to yin and yang, or thesis and antithesis.

      This might be a belief, attitude, opinion, or credo that the protagonist believes in the first part of the story, but sheds later. Or it could be the philosophy or value system of a friend, cohort, or loved one who acts, knowingly or not, as a Tempter or Distracter. Frequently it's the belief of an antagonist.

      Having a Counter-Theme tends to bring the theme itself into relief; it makes it a bit more noticeable by contrasting it with its opposite. Furthermore, it acts to "test" the theme. If the Counter-Theme is presented in a persuasive manner, both the audience and the main character must decide which is more true, constructive, and/or moral. Indeed, one or more characters, and perhaps much of the audience may be, for a time, undecided as to which value or observation is superior, or more true, and only as events unfold will the main Theme be seen as stronger, wiser, truer, or in some way better, and thus superior to the Counter-Theme.

      Regarding the contrast and even conflict between Theme and Counter-Theme: sometimes the resolution is one of finding the middle ground between the two extremes, as in "Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis." More often, the Theme will emerge as triumphant: more true, more valuable, or more moral than the Counter-Theme. As a result of this "testing," the theme will seem that much stronger than it would have without the Counter-Theme.
      No one said writing was easy... But then again who the hell would expect a million dollar check if it was.

      And btw, I used the "grief will destroy" as an example. It's not the theme I'm working with.


      • #4
        I took the theme of the Matrix to be:

        "To beat the system, you must understand the system."

        Neo can't beat his 9-5 job. He doesn't understand its rules.
        He can't beat the agents. He doesn't know them.
        Smith cannot break Morpheus, he doesn't understand humans.
        Neo finally makes that understanding, finally comes to realize he is NOT in a world his eyes are reporting, and when he can finally SEE it, he understands it.

        And, as the sequels point out later "Goes all Superman" on them.


        • #5
          Okay - what does the car chase have to do with the story? Or is it just exploitation crap to make the script more exciting? If you can cut ot the car chae and it doesn't impact the story, cut it out.

          Here are a couple of tips with examples of theme in action scenes:

          If your protag is burying grief, then maybe that ties into the action scenes - maybe they all have to do with hiding their emotions instead of dealing wih them. Maybe you have emotionally charged situations where the protag struggles to remain unemotional... and either fails or succeeds with dangerous results?

          - Bill


          • #6
            Good action scenes show character, move the story forward, explore theme in an exciting a dramatic way, and are an integral part of the story itself.
            That says it all, Bill. I think it was one of your articles I read that discussed the intertwining of the "Believe in yourself..." theme in The Matrix.

            And Dave... to each their own, amigo.


            • #7
              Just added suggestions to my post that might help.

              The last script I finished, SPLICERS (hey, a Sci-Fi Channel producer wants to read it!), is about how the pressures of life can destroy you... if you let them. So all of my action scenes put characters under severe pressure to act against some sort of deadline - and all of these things are dilemmas where there really is no right answer (so even if they do something, it's gonna hurt). But *not* deciding will get your @ss killed.

              I think that figuring out some way to squeeze the theme in there actually makes the scenes easier to write (and come up with) because you have some sort of context for the action scene. It's not generic, it gives you a specific element in the scene that helps you "see" the scene easier. There are a million different ways to do a car chase, but if you try to find the one that in someway explores the theme you are focusing on things that are going to happen in that car chase - and that's opening the door to specific ideas. Too many car chase choices if "anything works".

              - Bill


              • #8
                Grief doesn't just turn into sadness. It becomes anger and despair and hatred, too.

                If you're not sure how to add anger, despair, and hatred to a car chase, consider spending an afternoon in LA or NY traffic.


                • #9
                  First off, I'm not one of those people who thinks every scene must advance theme. I think it must advance story and character so a chase scene must be about more than just the chase, it must also be about the characters who are doing the chasing and how their actions, inactions and choices reveal and advance them.

                  As far as theme goes, ask yourself what sort of actions, inactions and choices made by your character can express your theme?

                  If the theme is "Grief will destroy you if left unattended..." can something represent his grief and nearly cause his destruction which forces him to deal with it to avoid his destruction, or his ignoring of it causes him to fail?



                  • #10
                    Grief will destroy you if left unattended...
                    So will forest fires, cholesterol, huns, Kirstie Alley, and downpour-wearing kittens.

                    Is this really a theme?

                    Maybe it's just a pronoun irregularity. Do you mean if you're left unattended, or if the grief is left unattended?

                    And how do you unattend an abstract?

                    My themes are very simple. One word. Redemption. Faith. Mongooses.

                    Just my two cents. It's easier to fill the theme and tone of your script if you can think in broader terms, and then nuance each scene to show reflections of that theme, so that certain aspects are brought into clearer focus.


                    • #11
                      Actually, I think writing's easy. And there's lots of good writer's who'll agree.

                      I hereby refute Jeff Newman's article as pure bunk.


                      • #12
                        David Howard, in his new book "How To Build a Great Screenplay," agrees with DClary/Pathetic. His feeling is that theme should be a "human dilemma" that you explore (generally summed up in one word), NOT a thesis statement that you try to prove. He believes that if you try to turn theme into a thesis statement, you'll end up creating propaganda or allegory (which he advises you avoid at all costs) at the expense of storytelling.

                        Lajos Egri disagrees.

                        Stephen King agrees (or would, I think).

                        McKee disagrees.

                        Personally, I think there's room for both approaches to theme.

                        But probably not in the same script/movie. And probably not by the same screenwriter.


                        • #13
                          For me, the overriding theme in The Lord of the Rings is POWER CORRUPTS.

                          It's not connected to the character arc like Frodo learning to believe in himself and believe that even the smallest weakest person can change the world.

                          It's not found in the sword fights or Dwarf humor.

                          It's not found in the image systems or the settings.

                          Theme is found where it is always found -- in the actions, inactions and choices of the characters.

                          Regardless of if you are using a closed (POWER CORRUPTS) or open theme (DOES POWER CORRUPT?) you express it through the actions, inactions and choices of your characters that prove and disprove your theme.

                          You have a mighty wizard serve an evil master and destroy his friendships, his alliances and even his home for the sake of power. You have a Steward deny aid for his kingdom and allow his people to die rather than share or surrender power. You have a noble warrior betray his band of friends and attempt to steal that which he swore to protect. You have an innocent Hobbit almost kill his best friend and sacrifice all he loves for the sake of destroying that which he sees corrupting and destroying the world around him.

                          That is how you create theme. You identify actions, inactions and choices that can express it and select those which best serve your story and allow you to use your theme to unify and deepen your story.


                          • #14
                            Grief will destroy you if left unattended...
                            Have a car going through an intersection crash into a hearse while the driver is out helping people into it?


                            • #15
                              Actually, Deus... If we go back to the "believe in yourself" theme in the Matrix, not only do actions, inactions and decisions come into play but they nicely throw the theme itself right in the audiences face by way of dialogue.

                              "Just believe, Neo."
                              "There is no spoon."
                              "Know thyself."

                              The dialogue actually plays quite nicely into the overall theme and I think it's possible to use that in some circumstances where the theme itself paints as broad a stroke as the Matrix.

                              "Power corrupts" is a perfect example of a theme that would seem OTN if it came up in dialogue between say Sam and Frodo. But using tools like Smiggle to let theme shine through while adding one of the most unique characters to ever hit the screen just seemed a better fit.

                              Either way, I think as long as the theme itself isn't being "preachy" or obviously on the nose. Any number of devices in the writers toolbox can be utilized to increase the scripts message.