“Theme is the primary statement, the purpose of the story, the overall message, the truth behind the story.”
Writing the Picture
Robin U. Rissin & William Missouri Downs
I first became aware of Diane Frolov‘s writing back in the 90s when I saw her name come up on the credits for Northern Exposure. She and her writing partner and husband Andrew Schneider wrote and produced many episodes of the quirky show set in Cicely, Alaska. They won a Primetime Emmy for their episode “Seoul Mates.” (They also wrote the great “More Light” scene that I have mentioned before.)
But Frolov’s writing credits go back to Magnum P.I. and the TV program The Incredible Hulk. And in the days since Northern Exposure Frolov’s most memorable work has been as a writer and producer on The Sopranos. She was on the Sopranos team that won an Emmy in 2006 for Outstanding Drama Series.
Though I don’t watch much TV, I’ve always been a Northern Exposure fan and put it up there with The Twilight Zone as television at its best. And I’ve always thought part of the reason I ended up in Cedar Falls, Iowa was due in part for the fondness of quirky Cicely, Alaska. (And I’m fond of pointing out that John Falsey, co-creator of Northern Exposure, has an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.)
Twenty years ago Frolov was interviewed by William Froug, who she studied with at UCLA (MFA Playwriting), and was asked what was the most important thing to know before writing a screenplay;
“I would say theme. You really need to know what the piece is ‘about’ and you have to make sure that all plot turns and character arc elucidate and project that theme.”
Recently, Brian McDonald who wrote the book Invisible Ink and has a blog of the same name, sent me a link to The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling who wrote in a letter basically the same thing as Frolov.
“In my case, first I think of a theme and then chose a story line or a plot to go with it. Once this is chosen, the characters fall into place.”
Rod Serling letter to Dave Pitt
Maybe that explains the connection to Northern Exposure and The Twilight Zone.
Now writers are not in agreement with the idea of starting from theme. Some goes as far as saying that the writer should never even be aware of the story’s theme. Many, like Robert McKee, say that starting with theme before story puts the cart before the horse.
“The Story tells you its meaning, you do not dictate meaning to the story.”
The fear of starting with theme (or a controlling idea or moral premise as some call it) is that you fall into didacticism or a sermon. And there are plenty of examples where heavy handed themes weigh down stories. But perhaps that’s a matter of the talent and skill of the writer.
Just because a baseball pitcher has an ineffective fast ball or curve ball doesn’t mean fast balls or curve balls are bad. No those are the staple of every baseball pitcher. He will be judged (and his ERA will reflect) the skill in which he uses his fastball and curveball.
And in the case of Frolov and Serling their work has shown that starting from theme can be very effective. (And you can put Charles Dickens in the camp of starting with theme.)
Lastly, Froug ended his interview with Frolov by asking here is she had any thoughts that she’d like to express. (And keep in mind that her answer is before all her Emmy nominations and wins.)
“To have courage and really love what you do. But not to lose sight of the life around you. You’ll find, as you go through the (writing) process, there will be so many people who will tell you that it is impossible and that you can’t do it. You’ll have your heart-broken so many times, and you just have to sustain yourself with your vision. And, as I said, your love of what you do.”
The New Screenwriter Looks at the New Screenwriter
P.S. Even though the last new episode of Northern Exposure aired in 1995, there is still a group of people who gather yearly for Moosefeast, a Northern Exposure Fan Festival that takes place in Roslyn, Washington where the series was filmed. I also like to point out, that the final song of the final episode was written and performed by Iris DeMent who now lives in Iowa. Actually, in the same town where Northern Exposure co-creator, John Falsey, went to college. (Maybe there is more of a connection to Northern Exposure and The Twilight Zone than I thought.)