By Steven Pressfield
Published: February 3, 2016
I was talking to a friend who runs a successful Hollywood literary agency. She represents screenwriters. Before she opened her doors, she said, she spent a year doing nothing but reading scripts, searching for promising young writers. She read well over 500 screenplays.
“How many,” she asked me, “do you think were worth representing?”
Before I could reply, she answered.
I believe her.
I’ve read a boatload of screenplays and novel manuscripts myself. Many have interesting, even brilliant premises. Fascinating characters abound; there’s lots of clever dialogue, surprising plot twists, mind-blowing set-pieces. And a lot of what I (and my agent friend) have read is really good writing.
But almost none of it works.
“The scripts,” my friend said, “were almost never about anything.”
She was talking about theme.
This is a subject I’ve become rabid about. I’m not even sure why. For years I myself wrote without the slightest clue of what theme was. I couldn’t have defined it if you had hung me by my thumbs over a seething volcano. I had no idea that it was important. I didn’t even know what it was.
I was just like all those failing writers. In fact I was failing myself.
Robert McKee tells the following story (forgive me; I’ve cited it before).
As a young writer-director he got the chance to interview the great playwright and screenwriter Paddy (“Network,” “Marty” “The Hospital”) Chayefsky, the only three-time solo Oscar winner for Best Screenplay.
As soon as I figure out what the theme of my play is [said Chayefsky], I type it in a single line and Scotch-tape it to the front of my typewriter. After that, nothing goes onto the page that isn’t 100% on-theme.
For me, that quote was a life-changer. The light bulb went off. I finally got it.
I’m going to take the next few weeks on this blog and address nothing but theme.
Maybe you’ll hate this subject. Maybe I’ll bore you to death. Maybe you’ll say to yourself, “I dunno why this dude keeps going off on this. It’s all so obvious.”
Clearly it isn’t obvious, or my literary agent friend wouldn’t have read five hundred scripts and come up with zero that she cared to represent.
What is “theme?”
Why is it so important?
How can five hundred writers bang out scripts—scripts that in many other respects are excellent, or at least interesting—that are about nothing?
Let’s start with a corollary to that question.
“What happens when a script is about nothing? (And I don’t mean like Seinfeld, which is decidedly not about nothing.) What does a novel with no theme feel like?”
It feels empty.
It feels hollow.
When you set it down, your expression is a blank stare. You feel like you’ve just consumed a meal that provided zero nutrition. You wonder, “Why did the writer even write this at all?”
Here’s a related concept that also helped me tremendously when I began to grasp it:
Every major character must represent something that is greater than himself or herself.
Jay Gatsby represents something.
Daisy Buchanan represents something.
The green light at the end of Daisy’s dock represents something.
Atticus Finch represents something.
Don Corleone represents something.
Huckleberry Finn represents something.
The 500 protagonists in my literary agent friend’s screenplays represented (I’m guessing) nothing but themselves. X was X. X did not stand for Y or Z. That’s why the scripts felt so hollow. That why they left the reader feeling starved and cheated.
Here’s a third related principle:
The protagonist represents the theme.
Am I boring you yet? If this is tedious to you, if you feel your eyes glazing over as they might in some soporific graduate seminar, may I suggest that you release all hope or ambition of succeeding (or even having fun) as a writer.
This stuff is seminal.
You have to know it.
Forgive me for ranting. Like I said, this subject makes me insane.
Back to characters, back to theme.
A story, any story, has to be about something. It must have a theme.
The hero of the story represents the theme.
The villain represents the counter-theme.
In the climax, hero and villain clash to the death (at least figurative death) on-theme.
In the next few weeks we’ll get into this subject in excruciating detail. But let me sign off this post with a single thought.
It is very, very hard to figure out your theme.
It’s back-breaking, brain-busting labor.
Resistance becomes monumental.
Even Paddy Chayefsky had to struggle. (Note how he says, “Once I figure out the theme … ” Meaning he did not know it at the start. He was operating on instinct.)
Theme is hard work.
But you and I have to do it. There’s no getting around it—unless we want to be one of those five hundred in our literary agent’s reject pile.
[P.S. Thanks to Juan Taylor, who suggested this subject and urged that I try a few posts addressing it.]
Posted in Writing Wednesdays
ADDITIONAL READING » FAVORITE FICTION
by Percy, Walker
National Book Award winner 1963. New Orleans stockbroker Binx Bolling (one of the great characters of contemporary fiction) battles Kierkegaardian despair with the help of his cousin Kate, an ultra-dry sense of humor, and a compulsion for going to the movies.
by van der Post, Laurens
A close second: World War II classic by the South African master. A tale of two brothers, a Japanese prison camp, and the soul’s triumph over suffering and isolation.