Sorry about the lack of posts. I was at LAX all night yesterday trying to get back to the Midwest. I didn’t make it but it looks like a Christmas miracle might get me out tonight. Before we move on to today’s article, I want to beg every traveler out there to please never fly American Airlines for the rest of your lives. Not only is it a terrible airline as far as comfort and customer service, but they have to be the most clueless airline company on the planet.
After being bumped 3 times last night to later and later flights, my last flight changed gates ELEVEN TIMES. That is not a printing error nor is it an exaggeration. In addition to this, I saw three women break down, fall to the floor, and start crying, due to how much they’d been dicked around all night, and one man lead a 30 person revolt against the gate attendant. It was insane.
After we’d changed gates for the 10th time, American Airlines kept saying we couldn’t board because the plane outside was broken, and they needed to tow it out before they could bring in “our plane.” We waited an hour for this towing to happen. Finally, when they moved us to our 11th and final gate, which did not have a plane in it, many astute passengers pointed out that since they no longer needed to tow a plane away, they could bring “our plane” up and start boarding. American Airlines, clearly caught in a lie, quickly moved to a new excuse about air traffic being broken or something.
I know the holidays are crazy for air travel but I’m not basing my critique here on just this experience. Every time I have flown American Airlines, it has been terrible. I only flew them this time because I had to. But I will never fly them again after this. It was the last straw.
Now, on to funner topics!
Because I don’t have time to write an in-depth article or review, I thought I’d share with you some brief thoughts on a screenwriting concept that’s always frustrated me: THEME
Theme has always been a tricky concept. To this day, I’m yet to meet someone who’s given me a definition for theme that doesn’t sound bullshitty (this is why theme posts get debated so vigorously – since there is no definition, everyone’s interpretation is different). But the other day I stumbled upon a Youtube video covering academia and had a mini-revelation. As I retroactively tested that revelation, I realized how much sense it made.
The idea is this. “Theme” comes in two flavors – simple and complex. BOTH can work effectively. You can use the simple version of theme and still write a good movie. In fact, I’d argue that the simple version gives you a better chance at writing a good movie. However, the complex version gives you a chance at writing a GREAT movie.
But before we get into that, let’s remind ourselves why we’d want a theme in the first place. A theme is there to keep your story focused. Whenever you lose your way, like a lighthouse, the theme is there to steer you back on course. Without a theme, your script seems scattered, confused, and unsure of what it’s trying to say.
If you were to grade this article on theme, for example, it would fail. I started out talking about how shitty American Airlines was before moving onto a screenwriting article. That’s thematically inconsistent, which is why this article feels messy. You could argue that because I just referenced my opening to prove a point about theme, that the theme for this article is intact, but that’s a debate for another time.
On to “simple theme.” The simple version of theme is the act of wrapping everything around a single idea. That idea can be anything! Take the Star Wars movies. A common theme I’ve heard thrown around for them is “Good vs. Evil.” As long as you play out the struggle of good vs. evil, the movie’s going to feel consistent and whole. However, if a storyline popped up in Star Wars about a character who was obsessed with money and needed to have all the money in the universe, you’d be like, “Uh, what the hell does this have to do with Star Wars?”
Or take Zootopia. The theme there is that we can be anything we want if we put our minds to it. It’s a simple easy to follow formula that gives your movie a point. And since Star Wars and Zootopia are both awesome movies, we know this type of theme works.
Now let’s move to the complex version of theme. To achieve this, we’ll be transforming the word itself. “Theme” will now become “Thesis.” The idea with a thesis is to create a question or theory that has to be proven or debated over the course of the story. Whereas bigger budget Hollywood fare will lean on theme to power its core, character pieces rely more on a thesis. And the best way to understand the power of a thesis is to compare two similar character pieces, one that used a theme, the other that used a thesis.
The first is Sully. Sully was boring as shit. Why was it boring as shit? Because the theme was boring as shit. What was that theme: Heroism. That’s it! A man being a hero. Now yes, that kept the story consistent throughout its running time. We were never confused about what Sully was about. But because this was a character piece, it needed a thesis, something that forced us to think a little more.
Bring in Flight. Flight based its screenplay on a thesis, that thesis being: “Can a bad person still be a hero?” Denzel Washington’s captain character put 250 peoples’ lives at risk by drinking all night and snorting up coke before he piloted that flight. But he still ended up pulling off a radical maneuver that saved most of the passengers’ lives. Notice how, by using a thesis, the story becomes a lot more complex. We’re not sure what we think of Whip. Yeah, he saved all those people, but he shouldn’t have gotten on that plane fucked up in the first place.
In both cases, we have something to center the story on. But in one, that something merely represents what’s going on, whereas in the other, it forces us to continually ask a question. Can bad people be heroes?
Hey wait a minute. My last two examples were about airplanes. Maybe this article is more theme-centric than I gave it credit for.
I’ll finish by saying this. If you’re just starting out in screenwriting, whether you’re writing a Hollywood movie or a character piece, go with a theme. Even if you’re experienced and you’re writing a Hollywood movie, go with a theme. The only people for whom I’d encourage using a thesis are seasoned screenwriters who are writing character pieces. I say this because I’ve seen beginner screenwriters try and use theses and they always make it too complicated on themselves. By trying to make their stories so intelligent and thematically resonant, they forget to actually make them entertaining. Don’t be one of those guys.