Do Screenplays Need a Theme?

The opening scene of the movie.

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An aspiring writer confessed to me the other night that he’s intimidated by the idea of theme. Screenplays, he’s been taught, are supposed to have a theme, which he interprets as a strong opinion about something, like that capital punishment is wrong, or that the sins of the father are visited upon the child, or power corrupts.

“I don’t have strong opinions,” he said. “Maybe I’m not cut out to be a writer.”

Well, to me having a theme just means that your script is about something beyond the mechanics of the plot, but you don’t have to be pushing one side or the other. You can explore the topic by showing how several viewpoints have their own merits.

The classic film “Patton” is a great example of this. Both pro-war and anti-war people have claimed it as obviously being on their side. (If you’ve never seen “Patton,” get a DVD and correct this situation.)

So, I told the aspiring writer, not only are you qualified to write, your lack of dogmatic positions probably will allow you to create more complex and more interesting screenplays than someone who has an axe to grind.

By the way, don’t worry if you don’t know what your theme is before you start writing. Many successful authors have said it’s only with hindsight that they realized what they were trying to express below the surface of the story.

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As a screenwriter, Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of television, the mini-series “Midnight Man,” starring Rob Lowe, the feature film “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer, and as been a script doctor on projects starring Eddie Murphy, Michale Caine, Kim Catrall and others. His books include “Your Writing Coach” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) and “Creativity Now!” (Pearson Publishing). For more tips from Jurgen Wolff, also see www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com

Screenwriting Tips – Hope for shy screenwriters

Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Wolff

Cover via Amazon

Shy and awkward is how screenwriter Seth Lochead describes himself. When he was starting out he felt he had to choose between building his career by socializing or by writing a great script.

He decided to try to do the latter.

The result is “Hanna,” co-written by David Farr, starring Kate Blanchett as the daughter of a rogue ex-CIA agent. He told the Vancouver Sun: ““I was going for the absurd mixed with action influences that are seemingly familiar, and then something that twists you a bit. You want to keep people intrigued and on the edge of their seat where they’re mentally having to keep up.”

It’s not clear from the article but I get the sense that Farr was brought in to do rewrites, but Lochead was flown to Berlin to do production rewrites for three months, which was a great education.

It’s a story that can give up to the other shy and awkward screenwriters (hey, isn’t that most of us?)

Beyond that, the internet gives us shy types another way to make connections. Here are three suggestions:

* Write intelligent fan letter (via email) to people whose work you admire–directors, producers, actors. I stress “intelligent” because most fan letters are of the “I think you’re really great!” variety. In yours, mention specifics about their work. It’s a long shot, but some working relationships have started out that way.

* If you’re looking for an agent, read the trades online to see which agents have recently opened their own agency or moved–that’s the time they’re most open to new people. (I know trade subscriptions can be expensive–why not split the cost with two or three other aspiring screenwriters?)

* Write and produce short films and make it easy to find them on the web, as samples of your work. If you’re not into the “making” side of films, team up with some aspiring directors who don’t want to (or can’t) write their own scripts.

Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of television, the mini-series “Midnight Man,” starring Rob Lowe, the feature film “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer, and as been a script doctor on projects starring Eddie Murphy, Michale Caine, Kim Catrall and others. His books include “Your Writing Coach” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) and “Creativity Now!” (Pearson Publishing). For more tips from Jurgen Wolff, also see www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com


How to give your screenplay emotional intelligence

“Chasing the Monster Idea” is a book by Stefan Mumaw in which he identifies seven questions that will help you determine whether you have a “monster” idea rather than just a good one (or a bad one).

These questions also can help you figure out whether your movie idea is a monster.

The first one: Does it evoke an emotional response?

People go to movies not just to see something, but to feel something. Horror fans want to feel fear, thriller fans want to feel suspense, comedy fans want to feel amusement, and so on. It’s obvious, but not every movie or every script makes that happen. There are three main reasons some fail:

1) We don’t identify with the protagonist. Especially in horror, thriller and drama we experience the feelings vicariously via the protagonist. She’s scared and we’re scared. The more your script has done to help us understand and identify with her, the stronger our feelings.

2) We don’t believe the situation.Sometimes we feel these things because we know more than the protagonist–we know the killer is hiding in the closet, she doesn’t. In comedies we are just as likely to be laughing at the protagonist as with him. But if the situation you have set up obviously is fake, then we may not buy into it and we don’t feel what you want us to feel.

3) We feel used up. If there’s not enough emotional variation–for instance, in a horror film if the horror is unrelenting–we may feel emotional fatigue and stop responding. That’s why the films of Hitchcock, for instance, are so good: he gives us moment of suspense interspersed with moments of comic relief, high drama mixed with low drama (a guy named Shakespeare understood this, too).

If your screenplay allows for these factors, it will have the emotional intelligence to give viewers the experience they crave.

Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of television, the mini-series “Midnight Man,” starring Rob Lowe, the feature film “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer, and as been a script doctor on projects starring Eddie Murphy, Michale Caine, Kim Catrall and others. His books include “Your Writing Coach” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) and “Creativity Now!” (Pearson Publishing). For more tips from Jurgen Wolff, also see www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com