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Posts Tagged ‘writing from theme’

“If you want to go toe to toe with any foe, you’ve got to be fearless.”
Boxer Chuck Wepner


Much has been written about Sylvester Stallone writing the first version of the Rocky script in just a few days, but little is mentioned about Rocky actually being his 8th script. (The other seven were never produced.)  Stallone has also said that only about 10 % of that first Rocky script remained in the finished version of the film that would go on to win the Best Picture Oscar.

“Since I was obsessed with the idea of personal redemption, I kept saying to myself, ‘Redemption, redemption, redemption…but whose redemption?’ So I considered a gangster, then a cowboy, then an actor, all kinds of people, until I finally came back to the Wepner* fight. Why not a loser, an over-the-hill boxer? I loved the visuals, and the warrior aspect, and the grand symbolism. Bang! It all crystallized. I said, ‘That’s it,’ and I went to work immediately…I was young, and I wrote it in a fury…The original draft was only about 89 pages long, and it was rather hastily thrown together.”
Sylvester Stallone
Going the Distance article by Bill Baer
Creative Screenwriting magazine
January/February 2003

Since Stallone started with “redemption, redemption. redemption” in mind I’ll put him down as starting from theme. 

* Chuck Wepner was working as a liquor salesman in New Jersey back in 1975 when fought Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali. With some odds 30-1 against Wepner, he lasted until the fifteenth round before Ali won the fight on a technical knocked out . In 2003, Wepner sued Stallone for his name and story being used without his permission in the marketing of the Rocky franchise. (Lawsuit.) In 2006 there were reports that the case was settled out of court. 

Related post: Writing from Theme


Scott W. Smith

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Earlier this year I wrote a post called Writing from Theme (tip #20) and I just came across a couple more related quotes on the matter so I thought I pass them along.

“To produce a mighty work, you must choose a mighty theme.”
Herman Melville

“Great writers communicate theme through action and images, with good dialogue used sparingly. They prove their theme by showing it, not talking about it. Themes in screenwriting can be tricky because in real-life we love to talk about our themes—share our philosophies of life, tell people our beliefs about life’s meaning. But themes we talk about are not our life’s real themes. Our true themes are lived out by our actions. ”
Linda Seger
Making a Good Writer Great
page 71-72

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“I think what makes a film stick to the brain is the theme.”
William C. Martell

“There’s no place like home.”
Dorothy
The Wizard of Oz

There are many ways to attack writing your story and if you read enough of how writers ply their trade you will find quality writers who come from all kinds of angles; plot, character, situation. Another angle  is writing from theme. And even those who don’t start with theme have one emerge somewhere in the process.

Talking about theme can can get a little tricky but I like to say that it is not your story, but is what your story is really about. (Some also call this the controlling idea.) The story of Oliver Stone’s Scarface is a Cuban emigrant who rises from tent city to become a drug lord in Miami.  The theme of Scarface is the old standard crime doesn’t pay, or you could say, a life of excess and ruthless ambition will destroy you. Theme wise, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is in the same family as Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Variations of theme can pop up anywhere in the story. At the beginning of another Stone film Wall St., the first words out of Bud Fox’s (Charlie Sheen) mouth when he’s asked how he’s doing is, “Any better and it’d be a sin.” Bud Fox does much better and it’s not only a sin but he has to go to prison.

Stone uses the wiser, older Lou (Hal Holbrook) to be the voice of reason as he tells Bud, “that’s the problem with money — it makes you do things you don’t want to do.” Another time he tells Bud, “Enjoy it while it last — cause it never does.” (That film takes place in ’85 but they would have been fitting words for all of us in ’05, and probably will be twenty years from now. Good themes are timeless and universal.)

Again the theme of Wall St. is crime doesn’t pay, or a life of excess will destroy you, or even “the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.” (Anyone working on a script for the Bernie Madoff story?)  The big difference between Scarface and Wall St. is Bud Fox doesn’t get killed at the end like Tony Montana. No, it’s more hopeful and Bud seems to have learned his lesson.

Speaking of hope … The Shawshank Redemption is all about hope and screenwriter & director Frank Darabont finds many ways to express that theme. On page 63 of the script Andy says while in prison “…there’s a small place inside of us they never lock away, and that place is called hope.”  Then there’s the most often quoted line from the film,”Get busy living, or get busy dying.” (Usually meant to get busy living.)

Some writers post the theme on the wall where they write to as a way to keep them centered and focused. On the front page of The Shawshank Redemption script are the words, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies…” — words that echo throughout the film. Words that stick with us long after we leave the theater.

The theme of hope is one of the major reasons people watch The Shawshank Redemption again and again. We may not ever have been in a state prison but we can identify with the situation as we all at times know what it’s like to live in our own personal prisons or at least know what it’s like to almost lose hope in difficult situations.

Theme pops up at the end of Braveheart as the last word that William Wallace (Mel Gibson) yells is “Freedom!” Or as the screenplay says, “FREEEEE-DOMMMMMM!” Throughout the film the fleshed out theme “Live free or die” is clear and that resonates here in the United States of America. (Heck,”Live Free or Die” is even the official motto of New Hampshire.)

Paul Schrader has said he wrote Taxi Driver by recognizing “a rip in the moral fabric of society” and used the metaphor of a taxi driver to represent loneliness.

Of course the danger with theme is writers can become heavy handed with it and audiences don’t like being beaten over the head with it. Films work best not as an intellectual exercise but as an emotional experience. (At least that’s traditionally been true in American cinema.) Audiences want to be sweep away by your story. They want to discover the theme not have it handed to them.

Theme is powerful stuff. So remember as you write, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Related posts: More Thoughts on Theme

Scott W. Smith


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