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.
Paddy Chayefsky, the only three-time solo Oscar winner for Best Screenplay
“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.]
By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 27, 2016
The first movie I ever got sole writing credit on was one of the worst pictures ever made. I’m not kidding. I won’t even tell you the title because if I do you’ll lose all respect for me.
Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” No, this is not the movie I’m talking about. But this shoot-out DOES illustrate the principle.
But I learned one enormous lesson on that movie.
We were shooting a gunfight scene. The scene took place in a warehouse. It involved the hero and his girlfriend and about a dozen bad guys. Dudes were dropping from the rafters, plunging through skylights; cars were blowing up, the warehouse was going up in flames, not to mention gunfire was ripping in all directions, coming from half a dozen different kinds of weapons—.45s, nine-millimeters, shotguns, machine guns.
In the script, all it said was “X shoots it out with a dozen bad guys.”
But in actually filming the scene, the stunt coordinator and the Second Unit director had to block out and choreograph every gunshot, every fall, every explosion, every vehicle crash. It was an amazingly complicated operation, with absolutely nothing left to chance.
Here’s what the Second Unit director told me:
Any time you film a guy firing a gun, you MUST also film where the bullet hits and what effect it produces. Otherwise the scene becomes totally confusing to the audience. And it looks fake.
I had never thought about that before. But I could see at once that the director was absolutely right.
I thought about fist fight scenes, even sword fights. Don’t you hate it when one guy slashes with a samurai sword and you don’t see where the blade goes or what it hits? Or those horrible fakey kung-fu fights that just look like a blur of kicks and punches and you can’t tell who’s winning or losing?
I thought about dance scenes. How bogus is it when you see the star start to do a pirouette or a flip and then the camera cuts to someone who’s obviously a stunt double doing the move, then they cut back to the star (close up of course, so you can’t see her body in motion) as if she had just performed the move herself.
I thought about the great old Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies (or Fred with Cyd Charisse or Eleanor Powell or Rita Hayworth, or Fred with anybody) and how not only does the camera never show anything but both dancers head-to-toe, but it never cuts away. Every scene is shot in one take, so you know there’s no cheating. This is Fred. This is Ginger. They really did it, and with no tricks.
The same principle applies, of course, to any setup and payoff in any story. The old saw that says
If you show a gun in any scene, that gun has to be fired in some subsequent scene
could not be more true.
If the gun is not going to be fired in the story, don’t show it at all.
If you start any narrative thread anywhere in the story, that thread has to be paid off later. Otherwise don’t start it.
I remember watching the final cut-together version of the shoot-out in the warehouse. Forget that the movie was terrible. The scene played great.
One Bad Guy pops up from behind a barrel and fires a shot; we see the bullet strike and shatter the windshield of the car the hero and his girl are hiding behind—and we see them react as the glass blasts all over them. Next a villain plunges through the skylight firing a machine gun. Rat-a-tat: a row of bullet strikes is stitched along the wall, just missing hero and girl as they flee.
The scene looked absolutely real and made complete sense. You could follow what was happening. The action looked authentic and convincing.
The director’s axiom worked.
When you fire a gun (or throw a punch or open a narrative thread), make sure the audience sees where it lands and what effect it produces.
Otherwise the scene looks confusing and fake. It looks like a cheat.
By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 20, 2016
We as writers have been admonished a thousand times that a character must have an arc.
Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Forgive me, Shawn, for borrowing your heroine.
For sure, our hero has to have one. She must change through the story. The more she changes, the better.
Yeah, that’s true.
But change alone is not enough.
That movement has to be (you’re ahead of me, I know) on-theme.
The hero has to learn something through her suffering. But it’s more specific even than that. She has to advance and become more conscious not just in general or willy-nilly, but in line with what the story’s about.
What is a character’s arc anyway?
The term is well-chosen, I think, because of the image it evokes—that of a rising-and-descending trajectory from one side of a hemisphere to the other. West to east. 180 degrees.
An arc has symmetry. It doesn’t move randomly, but pole-to-pole. It transits from plus to minus (or vice versa). It produces a U-turn.
An arc is a hero’s journey in the sense that it “returns,” if not to where it started, then to the point directly across from that point of origin.
What happens along that arc?
What happens is suffering.
In The Silence of the Lambs (as Shawn has so meticulously and skillfully broken the narrative down for us in The Story Grid), Clarice Starling’s interior arc is one of disillusionment. She, the FBI trainee, starts out believing that the Bureau is fair and that the wider world is a level playing field. If she works hard and produces results, she believes, she will be rewarded. The system is honest, she believes.
By the end of the book Clarice has been betrayed by her boss, locked out by her superiors; she’s been fired, pulled off the Buffalo Bill case, cast into the outer darkness. That’s her suffering. She’s trying to save a young woman’s life (the latest kidnap victim, Catherine Martin, whom the psycho killer is about to murder and mutilate) and all the system does is ignore her, degrade her, and stand unfairly in her way.
And yet she prevails. On her own, employing only her own resources, Clarice locates the villain, enters his lair, and dispatches him. By her own wits and in the face of monumental adversity, she saves the damsel in distress.
So what is Clarice’s arc? What is her suffering? How does she change?
She changes on-theme. Her inner worldview goes from False (but Positive) Belief to Disillusionment, even Despair, to True (although Negative) Perception.
Is this an “unhappy” ending? Yeah, in the sense that Clarice finds herself at the end of the story without illusions, on her own, with no mentor, no sponsor, no organization to which to belong and no immediate hope of “advancement within the system.”
On the other hand, this clearing out of self-delusion has opened her to the possibility of true self-belief.
The best kind of suffering in a drama (or a comedy) is suffering brought on by the protagonist’s own original blindness. Why? Because that deficit of awareness carries with it a built-in hero’s journey and a made-to-order arc. Oedipus will go from his own arrogant hubris to full excruciating awareness of his crimes. Shane will progress from his dream of living a normal life to the realization that he can’t escape the weight of his gunslinging past.
The hero’s arc is the 180-degree trajectory of his or her suffering as he/she is compelled by events to perceive and to accept the truth.
This truth was present from the start or even before. Its location was at the pole opposite from the one at which the hero stands in the story’s opening.
The hero’s arc carries her or him from one pole “out and back” to the other. Clarice, Oedipus, Shane—none of them wants to go to that opposite pole. They hate that opposite pole. They’re in total denial of that opposite pole.
That rejection, that blindness is the source of their suffering. And the source, in the end, of their painfully acquired wisdom.
The hero’s suffering produces elevation of consciousness. This is true in fiction and it’s true in real life.
That’s why we need suffering in our stories and why we as writers must have no reluctance about heaping it on our heroes.