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“[W]henever a plot demonstrates some angle of truth it will be very likely to have wide appeal. These sayings are adaptable to expression in the terms of modern life. They never would have become proverbs if they had not been of general and lasting interest. 

. . . The theme ought to be broad enough to allow the building up of sufficient situations and an interesting climax, and, as one object of the story is to prove the theme, it should be discernible before the story reaches the climax. Let the principle characters exemplify it.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
page 110

Here are a list of themes that Marion included in her book. Themes that for the most part don’t need updating despite the book being published over 80 years ago. As Marion said, they are adaptable to modern life (including reality TV).

WIT AND HUMOR

“He who makes himself a sheep will be devoured by the wolves.”

“Marry in haste and repent at leisure.”

“No fine clothes can hide a clown.”

“Put a beggar on horseback and he will ride with the devil.”

“When the cat’s away the mice will play.”

“Honey catches more flies than vinegar.”

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

PHILOSOPHICAL 

“The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.”

“He who is a fool at Christmas will not be wise by the first of May.”

“Better poor with honor than rich with shame.”

“A gem is not polished without rubbing, nor man perfected without trials.”

“The laughter, the tears and song of a woman may be equally deceptive.”

“The best friend often becomes the worst enemy.”

“Pride sought flight in heaven but fell to hell.”

OPTIMISTIC 

“Fortune smiles upon the brave.”

“Perseverance brings success.”

“Content lodges oftener in cottage than in palace.”

“God sends thread to those who begin to weave.”

Note: There are many disagreements among writers, directors, and producers about the use of theme in filmmaking. Some that write from theme say that the theme should never be stated verbally, and others say it can be but it’s best if it’s not spoken by the main character/hero of the story. But it wouldn’t be hard to come up with examples of fine films that show every different aspect of how theme is handled (or not handled).

One example of a main character stating the theme of the film is Cast Away when the Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks) says, “Time. We live by it, ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t live by us.” What’s great about that line is it’s spoken near the beginning of the story and it’s buried in a FedEx training situation. It’s like a seed planted.

The filmmakers do use the motif of time throughout the film, but I believe that short exchange written by screenwriter William Broyles Jr. states the theme.  It’s not important that that line is not as memorable as “W-I-L-S-O-N-!”—and you could argue that they could have edited that line and the movie still works—and that  would still be the theme of the movie.

Where it would have seemed a heavy-handed use of that theme is if the director  (Robert Zemeckis) and his team decided that that line needed to be at the end of the movie. Imagine Nolan standing at the crossroads of Texas (and his life) and we hear his voice-over,  “Time. We live by it, ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t live by us.”

And there were other thematic questions at play in Cast Away (“Perseverance brings success” and “A gem is not polished without rubbing, nor man perfected without trials” come to mind)), but in Broyles’ words he kept the themes “beneath the surface [because] they weren’t the story, and that’s what a movie has to be.”

Frances Marion on Theme (Part 1) 
Frances Marion on Theme (Part 2) 
Frances Marion on Theme (Part 3) 

Related post:
Theme vs. Story 

Scott W. Smith

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“They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”
Hosea 8:7

Proverbs, adages, maxims, parables, and legends supply an amazing proportion of story themes. This, of course, is because they are full of profound meaning relating to human life.  A proverb is a saying certified by the voices of generations, and the origin of many of those are in use today is lost in mists of antiquity. Thousands of years ago, men said significantly, ‘A fool and his money are soon parted’; ‘He who chases two hares catches neither’; ‘The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children’; ‘Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.’

. . . Proverbs record the thoughts of generations, the voice of the multitude, and they are found in all nations. . . . The wisdom of the great religions of all races is expressed in maxims that have touched all phases of life, business, health, and matrimony, and have in them the germs of many a story with the stamp of authority. Themes based on these sayings have the advantage that the audience is in sympathy with theme. ‘As ye sow so shall ye reap,’ has been a story theme from time immemorial.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
Pages 107-108

What do you want to bet that Saturday Night Live this weekend opens with a skit on the recent college admission scandal? Low hanging fruit for the writers. Ripped from today’s headlines and perhaps sprinkled with ancient wisdom from the prophet Hosea.

Scott W. Smith 

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“Is there a thematic narrative question that’s being asked? And is it answered? Because without that it’s not very fulfilling storytelling.”
Director Ron Howard
(On one of the questions he asks when considering a screenplay.)

The screenplay for the 1984 film Splash received an Acadamy Award nomination (Bruce Jay Friedman, Lowell Ganz, Brian Grazer, Babaloo Mandel).  Splash director Ron Howard, fresh off directing Solo: A Star Wars Story, explains an angle he brought to the fish out of water story that he directed early in his career.

Splash is an example of basically a 30s romantic comedy. It makes all the boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, all the obstacles—they’re right out of the screwball comedies. Which I always adored. Even in the 80s when we made Splash it was already too tired to do it in a literal way, yet adding the fantasy element of her being a mermaid it made all of that okay. So sort of the traditional idea, the sort of quaint idea, was suddenly fresh, visual, funnier, and more interesting. Along the way, I also came up with this other theme that love is not perfect. I actually got the John Candy character to say that line. And it became really important to me. It was the idea that you’re going to have that initial rush of romance and excitement and then may discover there’s some complications, there’s some problems—yet what are you going to do with that love? Is that going to be the thing that chases you away or are you going to accept it?”
Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind)
Masterclass

It’s hard to hear John Candy say, “Nobody said love’s perfect” and miss the echo of the line “Well, nobody’s perfect” from the end of the 1959 movie Some Like It Hot. And to show what’s old is new again, check out the video below to show the connection between Splash and the 2018 Best Picture Oscar-winner The Shape of Water. 

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of literal fish out of water stories. A couple of years ago there was a reboot of Splash in development with Channing Tatum and Jillian Bell attached with this twist—Tatum as the mermaid.

Related posts:

Writing from Theme 
More Thoughts on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Diablo Cody on Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme

 

Scott W. Smith

 

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Below is an excerpt from a Go Into The Story interview that screenwriters Bryan Woods & Scott Beck did with Scott Myers. This exchange is from part 6 of the interview.

Bryan Woods: With A Quiet Place, we weren’t comfortable writing the script until we knew that the theme was going to be about communication. We liked how that paralleled the idea of a world and a story that’s scary because the characters can’t talk and they can’t make noise.

We didn’t feel good about the story until we were like, “OK, we are comfortable with this theme.” One of the interesting things about theme is that you can start off with one thing in your head, and then the ultimate movie teaches you what it’s really about.

While I think that theme of communication that we started with is very much prevalent in the finished film, I think another theme emerged, which is the theme of, what would you do to protect your children and how hard is it to protect your children?

I think that theme is maybe an obvious one that we didn’t intellectualize but comes through very boldly in the finished film. I think that’s the best way to do it. I think you should be thinking about making sure your story has layers and that it can resonate on a deeper level.

At the same time, you’ve got to let it teach you what it wants to be and not be so constricted that you’re forcing it into a certain box.

Scott Beck: I will say like any time that we’ve gone off and written things where we haven’t really honed in on any theme whatsoever, that’s where you start getting into the weeds and you start losing your sight. It’s always important to hone in on some certain ideas that can at least be the starting point.

Related posts:

Writing from Theme 
More Thoughts on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Diablo Cody on Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
Lyrics by Bob Dylan

On my top shelf of storytellers sits Bob Dylan.

His songs written and/or performed over the last 50 year have appeared in movies or Tv shows more than a staggering 550 times. Along with his creative influence he’s won many awards including an Oscar for his Things Have Changed which he performed on the movie Wonder Boys (2000).

Ever since seeing St. Vincent (2014) a week ago I’ve been listening to Dylan’s Shelter From The Storm over and over again. It hit me that Shelter From The Storm could sum up what most movies are really about:

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Many great movie characters seek shelter from the storm;  Rocky, Terry Malloy (On the Waterfront),Norma Desmond (Sunset Blvd.) , Rick (Casablanca), Erin Brockovich, George Bailey (It’s a Wonderful Life), Tom Joad (The Grapes of Wrath), Norma Rae, Oskar Schindler, Maximus (Gladiator), Karen Silkwood, Tyler Durban (Fight Club), Indiana Jones, Ellen Ripley (Aliens), Chuck Noland (Cast Away), Joan of Arc, Sophie (Sophie’s Choice), C.C. Baxter (The Apartment), Andy Dufresne (The Shawshank Redemption), Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, and Bogart and Hepburn’s characters in The African Queen.

If you’re looking for a standard and proven theme/desire to hang your story on take a tip from Dylan and write about characters who are seeking shelter from the storm. It emotionally resonates with movie audiences —people who are also seeking shelter from the storm.

P.S. Couldn’t find a good version of Dylan singing Shelter From The Storm, but I did find a version with Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris.

Related posts:

Off-Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)
Bob Dylan’s Brain
Revisiting ‘Highway 61 Revisited” (2.0)
‘Against the Wind’ Bob Seger’s version of “Shelter From The Storm”)
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 1) Buffett’s version (written with Bobby Holcomb):
And there’s that one particular harbour
Sheltered from the wind
Where the children play on the shore each day
And all are safe within
Highway 61 Meets A1A
Protagonist=Conflict
Neil Simon on Conflict (Conflict and more conflict.)
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)

Scott W. Smith

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“Here’s the beautiful thing about theme, it’s the underlying message that kind of unifies the story…Even if you don’t write from theme I know the reason why a lot of you are sitting down and putting the time into [screenwriting] is you have a way of looking at the world that you want to communicate to people…Just like dialogue needs to have subtext and not be on the nose, you never want to be on the nose thematically. You don’t want to be didactic, you don’t want to be preachy, it’ll put people to sleep. It’s not what people expect from drama. Drama is about emotion…In Star Wars Luke has to shoot the Death Star, he has to shoot something down a little hole—blow up the Death Star. And he’s got a chose in front of him, he’s got the force—’Use the force, Luke’—or he has a computer. Now the computer technology isn’t just like [basic] computer technology, it’s the technology that built the Death Star—which is pretty powerful stuff. So when he chooses the force and he’s successful, you get this theme; ‘Humans, intuition is more important than technology.'”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio  ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

Related Posts:

Writing from Theme
David O. Russell on Characters & Theme
Obligatory Scene=Story’s Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Shane Black on Theme
Sheldon Turner on Theme
Theme=Story’s Heart and Soul
Michael Arndt on Theme
Sideny Lumet on Theme
More Thoughts on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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Citizen Kane is the film that made me want to become a filmmaker.”
Oscar-winning director William Friedkin (The French Connection)

No Trespassing

“I think the opening image is usually about theme. And the question you might ask is what comes next? Character? Setting? Tone? Genre? Well, I don’t think that’s the right question to ask because there’s no perfect answer. I want you to think about your images and your sounds in your opening in order that you’re doing two or three things at once. In Citizen Kane we immediately get the castle, we get Xanadu. But is it just location? No way. We see the animals so it’s like a zoo, and a cage to suggest some kind of prison—and it’s dark. And there’s a NO TRESSPASSING sign at the gate and the camera’s going over that as we come in to discover the rosebud moment. So we know this movie thematically and storywise is going to be about trespassing on someone’s life and kind of digging in. So you see it’s not just about location. A great movie can never spend three minutes on this and three minutes on that, it’s got to being doing all of this at the same time.”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

P.S. I’m sure someone has written a nice article about opening movie shots (or at least opening scenes) and how they tie into the theme of the film. If you know of one put it in the comments or shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith.com . And if you have a favorite opening image that ties into the meaning of the film let me know as well. The open images of the movie Witness being about community has been well documented. One could even say there are two communities at odds in that movie. The crooked, violent police community and the pious, anti-violent Amish community. The goal of one community is to kill the Harrison Ford character while the goal of the other community to preserve his life.

Related Post:
‘The Greatest Film Ever Made’
‘Study the Old Masters’—Martin Scorsese
Stagecoach (2.0) The John Ford film that Orson Welles watched 40 times before and/or during the making of Citizen Kane.
Screenwriting Quote #166 (Joseph McBride) McBride manually typed an entire copy of the Citizen Kane script while a student in college.
Screenwriting Quote #38 (Orson Welles) “I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that…”
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)

Scott W. Smith

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