Monday, October 20, 2014

Screenwriter Robert Gosnell on What It's Really All About

What It's Really All About
Ever been to Disneyland, or Walt Disney World? They call them "theme parks." Uncle Walt's theme for his parks, which turned out to be what is possibly the world's greatest marketing tool, was simple. Life is a fantasy.
It isn't, of course, but isn't it wonderful to step into a world where we can pretend, just for a little while, that it really is? Even when we have to spend two hours standing in line for a five-minute ride, it's worth it. Really, how can you put a price on living a fantasy, even for five brief minutes? They do put a price on that experience, of course, and a pretty hefty one, but as time has proven, Walt built it, and we continue to come.
Every story has a theme, and stories written for the screen are no exception. Otherwise, we wouldn't have theme songs, would we?In the handsomely crafted "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," the song "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head" expressed Butch's theme, reflecting his persistently upbeat, positive attitude in the face of adversity.
The characters we create in our screenplays have a theme, as well, or at least, a position on a theme. They don't simply serve to connect the dots in the plot. In order to be well-developed, they must have virtues and flaws, thoughts and opinions, values, prejudices and agendas. Based on these characteristics, they will take a stand for, against, or somewhere in the middle, when faced with the issues presented by the story's theme.
Themes aren't always easy to pin down, but they are always present. Always. That's why it's so important to acknowledge and honor them in our writing.
In my book, "The Blue Collar Screenwriter and The Elements of
Screenplay," I break down the theme puzzle into three parts, the first of which, "The Master Theme," I present in today's excerpt. In my next two blogs, I will offer up the second and third parts of my exploration of theme: "The Active Theme" and "The Character's Take on the Theme" as they apply to the screenplay form.
The Master Theme
As simply as I can state it, the Master Theme is what your story is about.
Yet, when I ask a new writing student what his story is about, this is generally how the reply starts:
"Well, it's about this guy...."
Gotta stop ya!
No, it isn't! It's about a value. It's about love, revenge, redemption, greed, power, honesty, fear, sacrifice, bigotry, fame, faith, hope, depression, addiction...and the list goes on.
It is about a quality which is pertinent to the human condition. "This guy" is simply the character responsible for carrying out that theme.
"Rocky," for example, is not about boxing, it is about redemption.
"Saving Private Ryan" is not about war, it is about sacrifice.
“Gone With The Wind" is not about the Civil War, it is a love story.
Most disaster films are about survival, although "Titanic" is a disaster film which is actually a love story at its core. The disaster threatens the relationship, as the Civil War was an obstacle for Rhett and Scarlett.
Most courtroom dramas are, by their nature, about justice. "Twelve Angry Men," "Judgment at Nuremberg," "Inherit The Wind," "And Justice for All" and "A Few Good Men" are all classic examples. Yet, "The Verdict" was a courtroom drama which was actually about redemption, and "To Kill A Mockingbird" was a courtroom drama with a Master Theme of bigotry.
Now, I know, we've been relating stories by starting with "It's about this guy..." for centuries, but that's telling me the story, not telling me what it's about.
From a writer's perspective, I need to know where the emotion is coming from. I need to know what's at stake. I need to know why I should care. And, I need to know it without hearing someone recount the entire story in a thirty-minute dissertation and letting me figure it out for myself.
There is a simple exercise I learned in my early days in the craft, and it's particularly helpful in finding the Master Theme of your story. It goes like this:
Tell me your story in a page.
Now, tell me your story in a paragraph.
Now, tell me your story in a sentence.
Now, tell me your story in a word.
Once you've narrowed it down to that one word, you've found your Master Theme. That's what your story is about.
At this point, you might be asking yourself, "Do I really need to know this, before I write?"
The answer is, you probably already know it, instinctively. When you formulate a story in your head, your Master Theme is inherent to the story; built in.
When we get hit with that flash of inspiration, it's never,"I know! I'll tell a story about love!"
I get that. It starts with a concept, a character, a situation, a bit of action, or the visualization of a great scene that reaches out and grabs you from the recesses of your brain.
What I am advocating is that there is value in identifying the Master Theme, and in keeping it at the forefront of your mind, as you develop your story. Why? I've already told you.
Everything in your story relates to the Master Theme.
When that inspirational moment that triggers your story drives you to the computer, that's when you have to sit down and fill in the blanks. One flash of inspiration does not a story make. You now must start constructing beginning, middle and end; setups, complications and climax, characters, plot and subplots.
You need a common thread to guide you, something that links all of the elements of a story together, and that is the Master Theme.
For me, it's my security blanket, when I'm developing a story. It's the theme that determines the message, and the message that determines the ending. All it really takes is to be aware of your theme and apply it to your story elements. It just makes things easier.
Robert's book, "The Blue Collar Screenwriter and The Elements of Screenplay" is currently available at:
Amazon digital and paperback
Barnes & Noble
Find Robert at:
Website (with information on classes)

A professional screenwriter for more than thirty years, Robert Gosnell has produced credits in feature films, network television, syndicated television, basic cable and pay cable, and is a member of the Writers Guild of America, West and the Writers Guild of Canada.
Robert began his career writing situation comedy as a staff writer for the ABC series Baby Makes Five. As a freelance writer, he wrote episodes for Too Close for Comfort and the TBS comedies Safe at Home and Rocky Road. In cable, he has scripted numerous projects for the Disney Channel, including Just Perfect, a Disney Channel movie featuring Jennie Garth. 
In 1998, he wrote the Showtime original movie, Escape from Wildcat Canyon, which starred Dennis Weaver and won the national "Parents Choice Award." Robert's feature credits include the Chuck Norris/Louis Gosset Jr. film Firewalker, an uncredited rewrite on the motion picture Number One With A Bullet starring Robert Carradine and Billy Dee Williams, and the sale of his original screenplay Kick And Kick Back to Cannon Films. Robert was also selected as a judge for the 1990 Cable Ace awards, in the Comedy Special category.
In 1990, Robert left Hollywood for Denver, where he became active in the local independent film community. His screenplay Tiger Street was produced by the Pagoda Group of Denver, and premiered on Showtime Extreme in August of 2003. In 1999, Denver’s Inferno Films produced the action film Dragon and the Hawk from his script. In 2001, Robert co-wrote the screenplay for the independent feature Siren for Las Vegas company Stage Left Productions. His feature script Juncture was produced by Front Range Films in March of 2006.
Robert is a principal member of the Denver production company "Conspiracy Films." He is frequently an invited speaker for local writers organizations, served on the faculty of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference in 2002, and in 2007 was chosen to participate as a panelist for the Aspen Film Festival Short Screenplay Contest. Robert regularly presents his screenwriting class "The Elements of Screenplay," along with advanced classes and workshops, in the Denver area.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is one of the most important ideas and the best description of finding theme I've ever read. I put into practice for both novels and screenplays.

    Well done Bob. The book is awesome BTW.