April 30, 2000
The Need For Structure, Part 5:
Irony & Theme
I believe that most screenwriters
(as well as wannabe screenwriters) are thinking about the wrong issues
when writing these days. If your mind is swirling with surprising
plot twists, clever story revelations, or, God forbid, what you assume
the audience wants to see, then you're thinking about the wrong things.
I say this with authority
having spent many years of my life thinking about surprising plot twists,
clever story revelations, and what I assumed the audience wanted to
see. What you ultimately end up with are stories that are highly
similar to other stories you've already seen or heard. What you
ought to be thinking about is motivation -- why are these characters
doing the things they're doing? This is where things get interesting.
Human beings don't necessarily do things for good or rational reasons,
but, nevertheless, there are always reasons. There is a
chain of logic, even if the events themselves are entirely illogical,
that has caused us to do all the things that we have done. People
don't just act for no reason, unless they happen to be characters in
a bad movie.
The motivations for almost
everything we human beings do is not based on altruism or good intentions
but on the concept that we are our own worst enemies. Given
a choice of doing what's best or what's worst for ourselves, we will
frequently choose the worst. Why? Because, whether we realize
it or not, human beings are ironic characters, and we deeply love the
idea of irony. So, what is irony exactly? Webster's New
Twentieth Century Unabridged Dictionary defines it as "a combination
of circumstances or a result that is opposite of what might be expected
or considered appropriate." The really surprising twists
and revelations in stories do not come from the plot; they come from
the characters' ironic motivations.
Take my life as an example,
since it's loaded with irony. I have dedicated my entire life
to feature filmmaking -- I have studied it, obsessed about it, and care
about very little else in life -- so what am I doing now? I'm
working in television. My hobby is my passion, and my career is
an afterthought. That's ironic. But also not unusual.
I know a guy who was a top
chef at several fancy restaurants here in L. A. Although he was
never much of a smoker, he developed cancer of the tongue and had to
have a quarter-sized hunk removed, which included his taste buds.
Now he can't taste anything and he can no longer be a top chef.
If we don't care to be ironic, God or fate will do it for us.
Just like with irony, a writer
ought to be considering the story's theme constantly. Used properly,
the theme ought to be touched on in every single scene if possible,
but certainly every scene the lead character appears in. In fact,
every line of dialog the lead character speaks ought to refer to the
theme in some way.
Writer-director Frank Tashlin
said that he always boiled the theme down to one word, which is a good
way to go. In his film Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
the word was success, and every single scene is about success in one
way or another. Sadly, the theme of most films is generally not
found in the title. A really good theme not only covers the actions
of the lead character, but those of as many other characters as possible,
too. This is hard to do. In the twenty-eight scripts that I've
written, I haven't yet found a theme that strong.
A theme is much easier to
recognize in a song than in a script or a story -- mainly because songs
are short, and often, the theme appears in the song's title -- and it's
used exactly the same way as a screenplay.
In Pink Floyd's song "Time,"
lyricist Roger Waters does a brilliant job of sticking to his theme:
away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the
hours in an off hand way
Kicking around on a piece
of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something
to show you the way
of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is
long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find
ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run,
you missed the starting gun
Marvin Gaye's wonderful song
"Too Busy Thinking About My Baby" (written by Norman Whitfield,
Janie Bradford and Barrett Strong). I'd say the theme is being
"busy." Now we're going to get a list of all the possible
things he could be doing were he not so busy thinking about his baby.
I ain't got time to think
Or what it can buy
And I ain't got time to sit
down and wonder
What makes the birds fly
I ain't got time to discuss
Or how long it's gonna last
I ain't got time to do no
Once I get out of class
I'm too busy thinking
about my baby
I ain't got time for nothin'
Being so brief, a song's
theme and its subject are generally the same thing. In a screenplay,
with over one hundred pages to deal with, the theme comes out of the
subject but is generally not the same thing. Being busy is not
a suitable theme for a story, although it's a fine subject.
Here is my best attempt at
thematic song writing to date. This is the first verse of the
rap song called "The Nervous Meltdown," which I wrote for
my film Lunatics: A Love Story (music by Joseph LoDuca):
The core in your brain
is cherry red
There's a crack in the reactor
inside your head
When your fission and fusion
do the wild thing instead
Yo man, you're having a nervous
You state the theme in the
title and then you try to pursue it in every line of the song.
It ought to be that clear in a story, too.
I just read the first thirty
pages of a script by a guy who claimed to know all the rules of screenwriting,
and was insulted when I suggested that he read my essays about story
structure. "That's Screenwriting 101," he sneered.
But thirty pages into his script he not yet stated a theme nor even
established a lead character. I said, "You may know all the
rules of screenwriting, but you're not following any of them."
He replied, "I'm a rebel."
He's not a rebel; he's just
a bad writer. On an important level, the difference between a
good writer and a bad writer is that the good writer is at least trying
to follow the rules, while the bad writer either doesn't follow them
or feels that they are above them.
I read another troubled script
recently. At the end of twenty-five to thirty pages, I found no
theme, no character with any kind of need or desire, no drama, just
scene after scene of meaningless talk. I tossed the script in
the shitter and wrote a fairly long email to the screenwriter explaining
why I didn't like it. In both of these instances I was confronted
with, "But you only read the first 30 pages! How can you
possibly know what you're talking about?"
Just how broken does something
have to be before you decide that it's broken? If I drop a light
bulb on the floor and it shatters, must I inspect every little jagged
piece of glass before concluding that it's broken? Furthermore,
it makes absolutely no difference if either of these scripts turned
into Hamlet on page thirty-one because the first thirty pages
would not support what follows. If there's no foundation, it doesn't
matter how pretty the walls and the roof are; they will collapse.
I run into the same Goddamn
problem with every single screenwriter wannabe that I encounter -- they
won't be hemmed in by any of the rules -- they're all rebels.
You do not have to be a rocket
scientist to figure out how to write a decent script. But you
do have to be willing to put in some plain old hard work. A script
isn't going to come out the ends of your fingers properly structured
with a functioning theme and fully formed characters -- it ain't gonna
happen. If you don't put in the time confronting each of these
issues and working them out, your script will won't be any good, just
like the other eight million other shitty scripts floating around Hollywood.
In fact, there are enough bad scripts here to build another, bigger,
Perhaps it's the word rules
that makes people so uneasy. I was as rebellious and antiauthority
as any young person, but when I decided that I wanted to be a screenwriter,
I came to accept the disciplines of the craft. These are concepts
that you simply must know to do the job well.
Writing is a discipline, like
weightlifting. The structural and thematic rules are the weights.
You can certainly proclaim, "I'm a rebel, and I won't lift those
weights," but then you're not a weightlifter; you're a blob standing
around the gym getting in other people's way.
As I see it, no one has yet
written a better script than The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Yes, it's based on a good book, but the script is actually better than
the book, and that's certainly a rare occurrence. Since screenwriters
Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman were both blacklisted due to the communist
witch-hunts of the 1950s, neither writer got screen credit until the
film was restored in 1997, sadly after both of them had died.
What makes this script so special? That it's a World War 2 POW
camp story? I don't think so; there are plenty of those.
That the prisoners build a bridge? Or perhaps that commandos blow
it up? I'd say it's none of those things. That's all plot
stuff, and it's important, but it's not what makes the script so good.
Irony and theme are what make
it so captivating -- plus, it's beautifully directed, shot, and cast.
The story's basic great irony appears on page 1 of Pierre Boulle's book
-- a Colonel in the military is the same person in any country in the
world: an uptight, unbending, humorless prig, with an extremely overdeveloped
sense of duty.
You may have watched this
film a hundred times and never noticed that and it doesn't matter in
the slightest because it's there. The main irony as well as the
theme (which is about duty) and the main dramatic conflict are all occur
the first ten minutes of the film. You just can't do any better
than that. Most films these days do not have these issues figured
out over the entire course of two or more hours.
So, let's say that Boulle
began conceiving this story with his ironic observation that colonels
are the same the world over (it is on page 1). Okay, maybe that's
true, but it's not a story. For it to be a story you must have
a dramatic conflict. To make the point what you need are two colonels
from different countries confronting each other. How about a battle?
Well, two colonels will never realistically end up face to face in a
battle; if they did, they'd just kill each other. How and where
do you get them to face off and have a chance to speak? How about
in a prison camp in the middle of the jungle, where one of the colonels
is God and the other colonel is a prisoner? And, since World War
2 had ended just a few years earlier (the book was copyright in 1952)
and was still on people's minds, why not situate the story during the
war? Thus, we have a setting, a subject, and a theme, and we haven't
mentioned bridges, escape attempts, espionage teams, or anything else
about the plot.
What The Bridge on the
River Kwai is about -- and you absolutely can't believe you've gotten
there in the first ten minutes -- is Colonel Saito smacking Colonel
Nicholson across the face with the Geneva Convention rulebook.
The two lead characters have reached the main dramatic conflict of the
story and the front titles just ended! We're stuck in the middle
of the jungle -- where can this possibly be going? That's exactly
what you want the audience to be wondering at the beginning of your
story and also what makes the narrative so breathtaking.
Because it's so sweetly ironic
that these two colonels should ever possibly end up face to face in
a dispute over the meaning of duty, that which the original author felt
he had to point out on page one of his book, the screenwriters don't
illustrate until over thirty minutes into the film, and when they do
they get a big laugh. It occurs when each colonel independently
proclaims the other Colonel to be "mad." The screenwriters
don't tell us the Colonels are the same, we observe it ourselves.
But that's not the only irony inherent in this situation; there is yet
another, bigger irony looming. The prisoner, Colonel Nicholson,
wins the dispute with his captor, Colonel Saito, who is actually in
a worse situation than Colonel Nicholson; if he doesn't get that bridge
built on time so that the troop train can come across it on the specified
day, he will have to kill himself. He informs Colonel Nicholson
of this and asks, "What would you do?" Nicholson shrugs,
"I suppose I'd have to kill myself."
The Bridge on the River
Kwai is not great because it has soldiers and machine guns and explosions
or even because it's beautifully directed and photographed; it's a masterpiece
because it's got such a terrific sense of irony and an incredibly strong
and true theme, and the situation is the perfect one to exploit these
That Wilson and Foreman are
then able to take the theme of duty and weave it back through every
other major character -- James Donald, the doctor; William Holden, the
apathetic prisoner; Jack Hawkins, the lead commando; and Geoffrey Horn,
the young saboteur -- and tie up every one of them at the end is brilliant
and utterly breathtaking. That a bridge blows up (in real time,
no slo-mo) is icing on the cake.
The Bridge on the River
Kwai has been more important to me as a struggling screenwriter
than any book I've ever read on the subject, and several books have
been quite important to me. But everything you need to know about
screenwriting is right there, gorgeously photographed on location in
what was then called Ceylon .
If irony and theme are not
subjects that you want to think about constantly for the rest of your
life -- dream about, muse about, give yourself headaches about -- you
might consider pursuing another profession besides screenwriting.