Steven Pressfield Online

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Difference Between Subject and Theme

By Steven Pressfield
Published: February 10, 2016

What do we mean when we say a book or a movie is “about something?” This question is a lot trickier than it seems.

Did you see the movie The Break-up, starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughan? A facile answer regarding this film would be, “It’s about a break-up.”

Wrong.

The subject is a break-up.

The theme is something else entirely.

The subject of the Jurassic Park movies is dinosaurs.

The subject is dinosaurs. The theme is, "Don't mess with Mother Nature."

The subject is dinosaurs. The theme is, “Don’t mess with Mother Nature.”

The theme is, Don’t mess with Mother Nature.

The subject of Out of Africa is Karen Blixen’s experiences in Africa.

The theme is possession. “Is it possible,” the movie asks, “for a person to truly own something—a farm, a lover, her own fate?”

The theme of Out of Africa in statement form is, “It is not possible to own anything, and the harder we try, the more certain we are to lose what we wish to hold.”

A theme does not have to be true in all instances.

We can write one book with Theme X, then follow it up with another with Theme Opposite-of-X.

Sometimes a writer or filmmaker will deal with the same theme over and over. David O. Russell (one of my faves) seems to love the theme, “An individual, no matter how beset by his/her own self-sabotage and the sabotage of their family, can triumph if he/she is passionate enough, brave enough, and creative enough.” The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, Joy.

A theme can be totally unoriginal and still work beautifully. It can be a platitude. It can be a cliche.

“Love conquers all.”

“Might makes right.”

Remember the advertising line for the first Rocky?

 

His whole life was a million to one shot.

 

That statement is not far off from the movie’s theme, which is in truth a word-for-word statement of the American dream:

 

The sorriest bum in the street is capable of greatness if he’s just given the chance.

 

The theme of Casablanca is another cliche. “It’s better to work for the good of the group than for your selfish personal ends.”

There’s nothing wrong with your theme statement being a cliche. In many ways it’s better. Why? Because it means your theme has broad applications. It’s universal. It applies to everybody.

Part of the reason Rocky was a hit was that so many people could identify with its theme.

A theme should have multiple layers. We should be able to interpret it on the personal level, the political level, even the spiritual level. The more levels the theme works on, the more powerful it is.

Casablanca came out in 1941, while the U.S. was in a raging internal debate over whether or not to enter World War II. When in the film Humphrey Bogart declared

I stick my neck out for nobody

and

I’m the only cause I’m fighting for

he was speaking on the personal level. But his words were understood by the audience on the political level as well. He was giving voice to the powerful “American First” sentiment then prevalent in the country.

Bogie was also stating one side of the movie’s theme. The hero, remember, embodies the theme. How he or she acts in the final crunch becomes the movie’s statement of the theme.

In the climax of Casablanca, when Bogie forsakes his own selfish ends (to fly off to safety with his former lover, Ingrid Bergman) and instead puts Ingrid on the plane with her husband, the gallant Resistance fighter Paul Henreid, while he himself remains behind to join the fight against fascism, his actions state the movie’s theme not just personally, but politically.

Level One: Bogie elects to act for the greater good.

Level Two: America should do the same. It should get into the war.

Why is theme so important?

Because it gives a story focus and depth.

We’ve all read a millions sagas about plucky Moms and punchy prize fighters and self-centered gamblers/con men/operators. (In other words, subject). But when the struggles of these characters are given focus by the right theme, and when that theme contains a second or even a third level, then the story’s power is magnified and its emotional wallop is doubled and tripled.

Which leads us to the next aspect of theme—cutting everything that is not on-theme.

We’ll talk about that next week.

 


More >>

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
16 Comments

ADDITIONAL READING » ON WRITING

Additional Reading: On Writing

Bambi versus Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business

by Mamet, David

Technically this isn’t a book about writing. It’s about Tinseltown and David Mamet’s love-hate relationship with it. But, along with Mamet’s witty and cantankerous evisceration of show biz, Bambi vs. Godzilla delivers masterly and extremely useful insights on getting movies made, surviving criticism, paying the rent and in general surviving Hollywood while retaining some scrap of sanity and integrity. Mamet is not just any writer. When he takes on a subject, you get it in context succeeding context—commercial, aesthetic, moral, ethical, legal, Talmudic, Tantric and Vedic. It’s like reading Thucydides if he’d loaded his stuff into a ’65 Mustang and split for the Coast.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing

by Phillips, Larry W.

Papa never actually sat down and wrote a book about writing. Rather, editor Larry Phillips has compiled 140 pages of hard-core Hemingwayisms from the author’s books, stories, and letters. Great material, particularly the fragments of correspondence to Scott Fitzgerald.

First Five Pages, The

by Lukeman, Noah

As an agent and editor, Noah Lukeman read thousands of manuscripts from aspiring writers. He got to where he could tell in the first five pages if a submission was worth his time. In this gem of a book, he tells you the most common mistakes writers make—and how to eradicate them from your manuscript.

How To Be Inspired

by Williams, Nick

A no-nonsense how-to manual and psych-yourself-up kit, for those of us who sometimes need a swift kick in the butt to get us going.

Journal of a Novel

by Steinbeck, John

When he was writing East of Eden, Steinbeck kept a journal—just a few pages each morning, which he’d scribble as a kind of warm-up before turning to the actual manuscript. Fascinating insights into the writer’s life, inside and outside the covers of a book.

Robert McKee’s Story Seminar

by McKee, Robert

I always say that McKee is not only the best teacher of writing I’ve ever seen, but the best teacher of anything. I’ve taken this three-day intensive course twice—and I’ll take it again. Yes, McKee has been spoofed (in the movie Adaptation) and lionized (in a New Yorker profile.) But that’s because he’s the best. Full disclosure: McKee and I are friends. McKee wrote the foreword for The War of Art. McKee teaches this class in cities all over the U.S. and Europe, even as far away as Israel and Singapore.

Story

by McKee, Robert

This is the book that goes with Robert McKee’s Story Seminar. Terrific for writers in all media, but take the “live” McKee first. You’ll get more out of the book if you’ve heard the man deliver his stuff in-person.

Three Uses of the Knife

by Mamet, David

Sign up for first look access.

Enter your email to get free access to every new thing I do.

No spam, I promise!

Gates of Fire
The War of Art
The Authentic Swing
The Lion's Gate
Turning Pro
The Profession
The Warrior Ethos
Do The Work
Tides of War
The Afghan Campaign
The Virtues of War
Killing Rommel
Last of the Amazons
The Legend of Bagger Vance
Additional Reading
Video Blog