To make it simple, your screenplay theme is the perspective your Main Character has after they’ve finished their journey.

Let’s look at a few examples:

In Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) goes from not wanting to be a single father to learning his greatest accomplishment is being a great dad. The theme? Divorced fathers can be excellent custodial parents. Remember in the 70s, this was a thing as courts always sided with the mothers.

In Murder on the Orient Express (2017), Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is a strictly by-the-book right vs. wrong kind of man who has to compromise these fundamental principles to allow people who’ve done wrong to go free. The theme being there are no absolutes when it comes to murder. Sometimes circumstances create killers from victims and vice versa.

One more. Black Panther (2018). A film that has so many important social and cultural themes it is hard to narrow it to just one. But the theme of self-identity reflects an African-American culture at war with itself and struggles to achieve in a divided America. This is from a great study guide by Grade Saver:

Writing about Black Panther for The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb describes African-American identity as “two feuding ancestries conjoined by a hyphen.” He posits that there is a fundamental tension in the very notion of being African-American because to be black on some level means being not totally accepted as an American by much of society. And yet they cannot reject this identity because it has been forced upon them by history and circumstance. 

Ryan Coogler was all over that shit in the movie.

So how do you thread your theme?

Watch movies. Compile a list of where the Main Character is at the end. What must they sacrifice? Is it their principles? Their former way of life? Their child?

Know where your Main Character is at the end of your screenplay emotionally. After taking a tumultuous ride for ninety pages, how are they doing? Once you take their pulse you can see their attitude about what’s happened over the course of the story.

In Big (1988), 12-year-old Josh Baskin (David Moscow) becomes 30-year-old Josh (Tom Hanks) after wishing he was “big.” It takes his journey through an adulthood he’s certainly not ready for to realize he’d rather be 12. He has to sacrifice the grown up life including a mature relationship to return to his family and friends. His attitude is relief and gratitude about not being big. Lesson learned. The theme of appreciating where you are in your life cycle is also reflected in his adult girlfriend, Susan (Elizabeth Perkins) who at the end when Josh asks her to become 12 so they can stay together, she refuses stating she was 12 once and that was enough.

Even action movies follow these thematic examples. Armageddon (1998) may be about the imminent destruction of the plant, but through Bruce Willis’s sacrifice it’s really about making sure his daughter gets married to Ben Affleck. His external goal to do his job dovetails with the inner goal to see Liv Tyler happy. The rest of the story serves that goal. Even if it costs him his life.

In addition to knowing your Main Character’s sacrifice and attitude toward it at the end, another key to finding your screenplay theme is to understand your character’s main goal. What do they want at the beginning and how does that goal change in the middle? If you’ve done your job correctly, by the last act, the original goal will have changed to something the character either rejected or did not know they wanted.

Romantic comedies are really great at this. Baby Boom (1987) is not about neurotic go-getter JC Wiatt (Diane Keaton) leaving corporate America to raise a baby she was given responsibility for in a relative’s will. It’s about finding true love with a compassionate, laid back veterinarian Jeff Cooper (Sam Shepard).

One of my favorite rom coms is French Kiss (1995). Kate (Meg Ryan) chases her fiance (Timothy Hutton) who’s fallen in love with someone else and broken the engagement. She tracks him down in France where with the help of a French louse, (Kevin Kline) she is able to lure him back only to realize she doesn’t want a sap so easily turned. She wants real love with a strong man who loves her. Oh, there’s Kevin Kline who fits the bill. Convenient.

That’s a primer. Learning your screenplay’s theme is a necessary evil when creating your outline. If you don’t have an outline, beat sheet, treatment, something, shame on you. You have to know where you’re going before you get behind the wheel.

If you establish the main character’s goal, how that goal changes, what they have to sacrifice to achieve it and the attitude at the end of the journey, you will not only have a solid theme to sell to producers, but a satisfying screenplay for readers.

Your script sucks. And? Happens to everyone, chief. But you are a screenwriter. You don’t go into the sun without essentials – sunscreen, towel, water, personal fan, sunglasses, hat, etc. And you don’t write a script without them either. Cry or drink, scream, eat a hot fudge sundae, whatever you need, but don’t take your toys and go home. You will survive a page one rewrite by having your essentials and sticking to them.  So gather your outline, character bios, notes, index cards and whatever extra sumthin’-sumthin’ you need to get this draft done.

For screenwriters, a new script is like summer – swimming pools, beaches, friends, travel, amusement parks, picnics in the park under a blanket of stars on a clear cool night. Hell yes, I am here for that. Today, it is at least 500 degrees in the shade. Thank goodness I’m at a lake where I can while away the afternoon working on my latest greatest screenplay. Still… this is literally suburban hell. My brain is fried. I’m on fire and not in the good way. When I am like this I am unable to string two sentences together let alone write a coherent script.

A little boy launches his sailboat in the water under the watchful eye of his abuelita makes me smile since the ninety-seven pages on the computer screen in front of me are useless. The lead character is completely unlikable, the inciting incident is ludicrous, the love interest is boring and the action scenes seem random. Worst of all, the pacing sloughs. Yikes. Why did I think it was a good idea? I can’t remember in this heat.

How am I expected to think with the sweat pouring into my eyes? Pull it together. It’s a screenplay I can write in my sleep.  Let me go back to my essentials. A towel wipes the sweat. Water, sunscreen, shade, dip into the water. Like that. When you are in a place where you look at the script and realize it needs more than one essential element, then rewrite the whole damn thing.

A page one rewrite is “when a script’s central premise or characters are good but the script is otherwise unusable, a different writer or team of writers is contracted to do an entirely new draft”. Wikipedia

Rewriting used to be “hell” complete with fire and brimstone. Now writers understand starting over from scratch is the safest, easiest and (more often than not) best way to add whatever missing essential and not throw off the rest of the script.

To be clear, this is not always the best solution. It may only be the lead character arc – then just rewrite the lead. If you find your pacing too fast or too slow, it’s a simple matter of slowing the action or inputting some dynamic scenes for adrenaline.  That may be more polish than draft. A subject for another post on a day when paramedics don’t have to peel me from my beach chair.

Before going back into the sun, gather your rewrite essentials:

  1. Get feedback from your story analysis or writers group. All professional writers have a network that consists of more than their great-aunt in Omaha who used to work in the theater. Coverage or opinions from people who you trust understand story, structure and what you’re trying to achieve will point you in the right direction.
  2. Hang a lantern on the notes that strike a chord. Any common notes need to be looked at.
  3. Breathe. Go for a swim. Relax for a moment and appreciate that you are a writer.
  4. Use your first draft to create a new outline. I print the scenes I want to keep and use index cards on the wall or lawn or floor to create a clothesline progression of story.
  5. On the index cards write what happens in each scene – include its purpose, who is involved and how it connects to the goals of the characters and story. Include any dialogue and anything from the original that worked.

This method is not the most eco-friendly and can be quite messy with cards and paper everywhere, but I like it because you can see your story spread across a vast canvas. As you begin the rewrite, write each scene for character, action and dialogue. Does each scene connect to the previous? Does it lead into the next? Where does the character begin in the scene and where do they end?

I could always flee into the air-conditioner house for a cold glass of lemonade, but that’s giving up.  Outside at the lake is not the problem. Re-writing is not the problem, the problem is not knowing when you lack the essentials to stay in the sunlight. Emerging writers have too much competition to put out unconvincing or inadequate product. Do not be afraid to admit something is not working. Your true strength as a screenwriter is to know when the story you’re telling is not the story being told. When that’s the case, the best way to follow through on the promise of a great premise on a bloody hot afternoon is to look your outline in face and dive right in.

Not too long ago a prospective producer read one of my pilot specs and passed because he, “thought it would be more elevated.” Huh? I asked my manager what that meant, but she didn’t know. Then I asked if that had ever been a note on my writing and she responded (without hesitation), “Nope.” That didn’t help me. In fact, I became alarmed. If producers are passing on my work because it is not elevated and not telling us, I’d better figure out what that means and fix it, fast. But how?

I had always thought “Elevated Writing” meant combining genres. The emphasis begin on telling a Story – with a capital S, not writing a script. The Lovely Bones is a standard murder mystery elevated by the elegant victim narration. Similarly, Memento broke all kinds of storytelling rules for thriller by telling the story in reverse chronology which heightened the tension and audience experience. Even Shaun of the Dead threw horror for a loop by infusing it with comedy. But isn’t that a “hybrid?” Wasn’t Silence of the Lambs considered a horror/psychological thriller hybrid? Oh, I am so confused. Perhaps you are, too. So let’s work this out together.

Elevation in general is to raise the game. That is, to create a story with a complex intellectual base. One that does not follow any formula. Scream did that by literally following the formula. My spec pilot is about an unsolved murder from the 1990s re-opened because of a new disappearance with a similar M.O. What makes it different is there are three-tracks following the murderers in present and past as well as the African-American female investigator who is an outsider in the small Oregon town. So not the standard investigation, investigator or suspects. My script, my opinion, but I’mma say it fits the elevated definition.

SCENE DIRECTION STYLE

If genre isn’t the problem, is it possible that elevated writing means literary style? Style in a screenplay or TV episode comes through how the writer lays out the scene direction and the words coming out of the character in dialogue. It’s structure and pace. It’s action and character development. It’s plot and format. In essence, it’s who you are on the page. Yikes.  It is a lot, but this is nothing new. Every writer, no matter where you are in your career knows that your work needs to stand out in a crowded field. Your style is how you make that happen.

Writing scene direction is tough. It’s a pain in the ass for people who skip ahead to the end of a mystery to see whodunit. Scene direction requires patience and planning. It is capturing emotion within the action. Describing a three-dimensional environment that activates all the senses in 2-4 lines.

The stage direction– the action forms the skeleton of the scene and includes the bits of business that move the plot forward.  How the writer engages the audience when conducting that business determines the style.

This is from Backdraft written by Gregory Widen:

INT. ELEVATED TRAIN – MORNING

A pissed-off Chicago, hauling itself off to work in the morning snap, passes by Brian’s window. Tough Midwestern brick. Tough Midwesterners. Heads-down in their 150 year war with a wind committed to pushing the whole damn thing into Lake Michigan.

Wow. See how this is not just the business of a guy looking out of the window on the El during a morning commute? It’s intellectual in the indirect reference to the Chicago hustle that everyone can relate no matter where you’re from. It engages the senses by feeling the chill and the showing the weary frustration of hardworking people. Even the descriptions: “Pissed-off Chicago” “Midwestern brick” “150 year war with the wind” – poetic language raises the game, thus elevates the writing.  That, my friends, is style.

Many writing gurus tell emerging screenwriters to stay away from the literary and not go over the top. That goes for all good writing. The key is to paint a picture using simple language to provokes the audience in a way that provides a clean read and elicits emotion.

Ah, we’re getting somewhere.

Let’s look at DIALOGUE.

Oh boy, do I wish I was Aaron Sorkin in this category. Whether it’s A Few Good Men, The West Wing or Molly’s Game, his style comes through loud and clear. This is elevated, folks. Like art vs pornography, I know it when I see it. Emerging screenwriters know the basics – keep it tight, move the story forward with each character having a distinct voice. But how to elevate it to Sorkin-level? If it was that easy, we’d all be Oscar winners.

Author Skip Press in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Screenwriting:

“You’ll hear a lot about ‘writing like people talk’ but the great playwrights and screenwriters mostly do not write normal, everyday dialogue. Rather, they write elevated dialogue that might sound like normal speech but is actually a higher level of thought than everyday life. The best screenwriters write in levels; in a family film there will be jokes for adults the kids might not get… Shakespeare had to make sure the ‘groundling’ commoners in his audiences understood what was going on. At the same time, the Bard wrote double entendres that only French-speaking people understood.”

A specific example in The Bourne Ultimatum by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi:   

INT. CRI HUB – DAY

TWO NEW TECHS plus the three we met before. All watching VOSEN lead LANDY and CRONIN into the room.                               

                               WILLS
          This is Pamela Landy. She’s gonna be quarterbacking our
          search effort. I think what we oughta do, just to get started,
          let’s go around the room, say who you are and what your spec is.

LANDY stepping in before this gets going —

                                 LANDY
           Let's do names later.
                          (she's got the floor)
           Bourne's last fixed position?
                          (impatient)
           Anybody.

                                 TECH#3
           London. Twelve hundred Zulu.        

                                 LANDY
           Status? Wounded? Armed?
                                 
                                 TECH#2
           Alive. Mobile. Unknown.
                                 
                                 LANDY
           Where are your grids coming from?

                                 TECH#1
           NSA Tactical.

                                 LANDY
           You have an Echelon package?

                                 TECH#1
           Yes.
                                 LANDY
           Why isn't it on?

                                 TECH#1
           We were waiting.
                                
                                 LANDY
           For what?
                          (no takers)
           You're nine hours behind the toughest target you've 
           ever tracked. I want everyone to sit down, strap in,
           and turn on all you've got.
                          (beat)
           That would mean now.

That lights it. They're moving.
                                LANDY (CONT'D)
           Thank you.
 VOSEN watches...
                                LANDY (CONT'D)
           I want everything you've got on Ross on screen one.

LANDY watches as the screen lights up with ROSS information...

This is movie talk. No one in real life speaks like that. Notice how it fits the tone of the screenplay. Each character has a distinct way of speaking.  The dialogue moves everything forward and is easily understood by the groundlings while still being somewhat tech specific.

So I think we’ve got it. Elevated writing is a combination of descriptive scene direction that draws emotion using all five senses and specific dialogue that heightens the conflict, engages the reader with interesting, new information.

I have a new manager and we are in the process of re-writing another of my TV specs. It will be a long process of more than a few drafts, but I know in the end my writing will be improved.  If I can apply all of my lesson I will never again have to hear the note, “I thought it would be more elevated” and not know what that means.

Be prepared.  This is a longer post than I usually write.  I got carried away. Apologies. Maybe because it’s back to school time that these first few paragraphs may seem like a classroom lesson, but if you keep reading I promise it gets better.  I suggest you pack a lunch or read it in sections; stretch first we’ll be awhile.  Okay, ready?  Ahem… Stories give a narrative account of events either real or imagined. Those events involve characters. The characters the audience relates to are the heroes we root for. We want them to win. We are invested in their character arc as they journey from one place to another, learning something, transforming internally and improving their lot in life along the way. It is understood in most stories that after trial and tribulation the main character chalks up a win. This is similar to the way Americans believe in success. That if you do the right thing, if you work hard, if you don’t give up, you will eventually get what you want. It’s America’s Promise which can be summed in the equation

Talent + Hard Work = Success.

In screenwriting, heroes’ arcs go up because of good behavior and after several losses they end winning what is most important to their journey. In a negative character arc, the anti-hero’s journey is the result of bad behavior and choices that hurt others and eventually themselves because they end losing either their life or what is most important to their journey.

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I started this blog to help emerging screen and TV writers survive the day job, general meetings and life shit that happens on the way to success.  So you’re a writing a TV pilot, I assume you know what to do.  If not, there are a gazillion analysts to help writers write.  Here is one I highly recommend – Michael Tucker and his Lessons From The Screenplay on You Tube are definitely worth a subscription and a donation via Patreon.

 

My little friend Dave–  is a producer on a network television series. Dave is smart and confident and has earned every break he ever got on his own – with some assistance from the nimble telephone skills of a well-connected agent, but he’s an outstanding writer who is fantastic in the room.    Now he’s in escrow on his first house –  in the Hollywood Hills, and just bought a new BMW.  All well deserved.  Not to mention his most recent girlfriend was a television actress on a long-running cable series that ended a few seasons ago.  Dave— is living the life and I couldn’t be happier for him.  No, truly.  No shade, not hate, just happiness that someone who put in the work, got something back. That is the ideal TV writing relationship.  You give a little, you get a lot.  You and your beloved walking hand in hand down the garden path.  All is love.  When it’s good, it’s Jess and Nick in a cooler on New Girl.  Oh, but when it’s bad… Carrie cheats on Aidan then doesn’t marry him when he takes her back.  WTF Sex & the City?

A bad relationship involves more than the simple act of lying.  It’s Game of Thrones-style abuse, treachery and betrayal to the core of your marrow.   And a good cry doesn’t wash the pain away.

Television writing is my bad relationship.  For my little friend Dave– he watched some episodes, read some scripts and liked what he saw.  He took it out a few times and discovered it liked him back.  So began their romance.  One meeting led to another. Then meeting the show runner for a staff position which is sort of like meeting the parents.  Can this person sit down to dinner with us every week?  If the answer is yes, sweet– you’re in. If not, then it’s time to break up.  After a few tries, you find the right show, or make the right connection.  And someone pops the question:  Will you write for us?  The ring of the telephone call from your agent with the offer is better than a diamond.

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Jury Duty. That federal act of conscription that makes answering the summons mandatory. The first rule of jury duty is you cannot talk about jury duty. The second rule is you cannot talk your way out of jury duty. Oh sure, you may get away once or twice, but if you are registered to vote, they will find you eventually.  Best to not resist.

The court room is where most of the action takes place in legal dramas. Let’s face it, actors want the sexy lead roles of the attorneys. Check out Matthew McConaughey in “The Lincoln Lawyer” (2011)  and “A Time to Kill” (1996). Very different movies but the same McConaughey swagger. When the lead actor is the focus, a distinguished character actor gets to play the judge and one of the most pivotal roles is usually left out altogether – the jury. When the jurors are given the spotlight they are depicted as stealth operators – even lazy or stupid to varying degrees. TV shows with creative titles such as “The Jury” (2004) “The Jury” (2011) and “We The Jury” (2016) seem to have come and gone with little notice. Films have more luck with drama than in comedy but are generally dismissed as popcorn flicks. The notable exception is Sidney Lumet’s insightful “Twelve Angry Men” (1957).

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I am a positive person. On the outside, I may have a crusty hard shell, but if you tap me with a fork, I crumble like a delicious crème brûlée. So while I eschew the hearts and flowers sentimentality of the season – the Hallmark movies about a lovely but lonely single woman and the slightly reckless single dad who looks like he just stepped from an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog who hook up after fighting for ninety minutes over whose responsibility it is to save the town’s only church lost to a Grinch-like town councilman/rich old man, ugh! (And if I have to see one more commercial telling some man how special his woman is so he needs to buy her a diamond at Jared, I will put both my eyes out with a screwdriver) – BUT, I still have hope and optimism for the success of holiday movie screenwriting. That is why it is so disappointing when bad Christmas (apologies to my non-Christmas-celebrating friends/readers) movies happen to good writers.  Screenwriting is hard enough, holiday features are even worse because of the emotional points that must be hit.  We love classics like A Christmas Story and A Christmas Carol or the original Miracle of 34th Street.  But most holiday movies don’t reach classic or even cult status –  Black Christmas.  The writers are lucky enough to get it made and move on.

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I am the first to admit that I am not over my ex. He broke up with me because he is an immature waste of space who is too stupid to see that I was the best thing about his whole ridiculous existence. But I may be biased. Actually, he said I didn’t support him enough – whatever that means. I know I’m better off without him. Who needs a three bedroom tract house in Chatsworth, spending weekends checking the pH in the pool and buying pizza rolls in bulk at Costco? Besides, if we married I would have had to change my name to “Mrs. Auto Parts Store Assistant Manager” and that’s too long to fit on a business card.

farewell-20196_1280

I prefer my air-conditioned cave at the intersection of Independent Career Gal and Hot Chick Who Can Do Better. Not really, but I make it work. When you lose something you have come to rely on it’s hard to move on. You have to make it work. Somehow. It’s natural to go through the stages. You blame yourself for not being able to continue. You blame them for not compromising. You hate them. You love them. You hate that you love them. And you look for something to replace the pain. I feel the same way about my break up with Final Draft.

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happy-1085352_1920Lili Loofbourow’s review of the HBO comedy Vice Principals in The Week brings up a point emerging screenwriters need to think about.  Assholes.  Anti-heroes are commonly without valor.  The skilled writer/actor/director combo is able to give this branded a-hole enough rope to re-brand and bring the audience around.  Think Walter White, Dexter Morgan or Tony Soprano.  Even if your character dies at the end, the audience tuned in each week for the next installment of motherfuckery. For a comedy there’s less death, but more public shaming like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm.  We secretly admire Sue Sylvester’s fearless cruelty in Glee, but she can’t be the lead.  No, for a lead to be an asshole it’s definitively a 10 in degree of difficulty. So should it be attempted by someone new to the game?

A-holes are anti-heroes, but all anti-heroes are not a-holes.  We watch characters who are awful people because they are interesting.  The anti-hero is someone who has a huge learning curve from rotten to saved by love or rotten to dead.  Interesting story and good acting will sell that every time.  A character with no redeeming moral or social value has nowhere to go.

With its casual racism, misogyny, and mean-spiritedness I would normally not give Vice Principals the time of day.  But the polarizing effect of these two major fucking douchebags makes me think there is a big takeaway for writers.  The premise is two high school vice principals are put out when neither of them is promoted to the job of principal in favor of a thoroughly qualified outsider.  Nice enough, right?  But when you throw in the specifics: They are in South Carolina and the outsider from Pennsylvania (Philadelphia); they are men and she is a woman; they are white and she is black; they are er– educated enough and she has a doctorate.  Enough for  comedy gold, but in the first few episodes these writers take the easy swings with offensive and insulting stereotypes… and whiff.

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