Check out Macbeth. He’s worried. He’s not sure how to tackle the theme of his play.
I don’t know about you, but for many years I struggled with ‘theme.’ Was I supposed to come up with a ‘message’ first and then create characters and action that revealed this message? Or was it better just to start writing and figure out what my story was about later?
Whenever I tried starting with a message, the story felt boring, dogmatic, and the characters were D.O.A. Whenever I tried to “go for it” and be “free” and “trust the process” I’d end up with a bunch of crappy pages that felt random and episodic.
There are many ways to approach theme. Some writers do start with the message. For example, Theodore Dreiser wanted to write about class struggle and did so by spring boarding off a true crime murder case. The resulting novel, AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, is one of my favorite books. Arthur Miller, the playwright, would start to write and about two thirds of the way through his draft, figure out his theme. He’d write it down, tape it above his typewriter, and let it guide the completion of his pages.
Again, we’re all snowflakes, and each of us has our own process.
However, Lajos Egri was the man who saved my thematic bacon. In his book, THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING, he emphasized that all theme comes from character. He called the theme the “premise,” and believed a writer should figure it out before he/she begins writing because it not only helps shape the meaning of the play, but actually can generate most of the plot. He says that every great premise is composed of three parts.
Character— Action— Result
For example, in MACBETH, the premise might be…
“Ruthless ambition (character) leads to (action) destruction (end of the play.)”
What’s cool about this method is that when you look at theme in three parts like this, it actually gives you not only what your character wants, but the entire action of your story. You’ve basically got your beginning, middle and end.
Let’s look at an example from a more recent film– THE HANGOVER.
“The quest to find the missing (Character) leads to (action) greater maturity and friendship” (end of movie.) Can you see that this premise reveals not just the action in the movie, but the meaning we glean from the action? Plus the transformation of the characters?
I use this formula all the time before I begin writing. I figure out what my character wants, what action this leads to, and how it all ends up. This process helps me figure out what I want to say with the story, AND what happens in the plot. Also, if I get bogged down in the details of plotting, my premise helps me see the forest for the trees.
That being said, I can guarantee that your premise will CHANGE in the writing as you discover new things about your story and characters. When this happens, just rewrite your premise and go back and make the necessary plot adjustments.
I love that Egri’s method for working with theme allows you to both start with an idea, and remain open to changing this idea as the characters develop and grow.
Take action! What is the three-part premise of your book or screenplay? What does your character want? What action does this lead to? How is this character changed in the end?
Don’t lose your head like Macbeth.
Have fun with your theme!