April 30, 2000

The Need For Structure, Part 6:
Irony & Theme


       I believe that most screenwriters (as well as wannabe screenwriters) are thinking about entirely the wrong issues when they are writing these days.  If you are thinking about surprising plot twists, clever story revelations, or, God forbid, what you think the audience wants to see, then you’re thinking about the wrong things.
       I say this rather authoritatively having spent years of my life thinking about surprising plot twists, clever story revelations, and what I thought the audience wanted to see.  And 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 because 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 it’s entirely illogical, that has caused us to do all the things that we have done.  People do not just do things for no reason, unless they happen to be characters in a bad movie. 
       Now stick with me here—most of the motivations for almost everything we human beings do are 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, all human beings are ironic characters and we deeply love the idea of irony.
       OK, what is irony exactly?  My Webster’s 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 do not come from the plot, they come from the character’s ironic motivations.  As William Goldman says, “Tattoo that behind your eyelids.” 
       Let’s use me for an example for a moment, since I’m loaded with irony.  Since I have dedicated my entire life to the single cause of feature filmmaking, have studied it, obsessed about it, and I care about very little else in life, so where have I ended up?  In television, which I could really give a shit less about.  My hobby is my passion and my career is an afterthought.  That’s sort of ironic, don’t you think?
       A bunch of my good friends are much more ironic than I am.  One irony I particularly enjoy at this moment is my good friend whom I’ve known for a very long time (and will remain nameless) who has always been something of a private, closed-off person and has never been very forthcoming, so naturally he has signed a contract to write his tell-all autobiography.  I read the first draft and he spent 300 pages doing everything in his means to not tell you anything about himself. 
       I just love that!  I think about it a lot when I’m writing.

       Now, let’s discuss the theme, shall we?
       Just like irony, the theme is a subject that a writer ought to be considering constantly because 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 reference the theme in some way.
       Writer-director Frank Tashlin said that he always boiled the theme down to one word, which I think is the 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 for inquisitive writers, the theme is generally not found in the title.
        A really good theme not only covers the actions of the lead character, but as many other characters as possible, too.  This is very hard to do.  In 28 scripts I have not had a theme that strong.
       What brought me to writing this section was not scripts or movies at all, but pop songs.  The concept of “theme” is much easier to recognize in a song—mainly because it’s short, and often because the theme is stated in the song’s title—and it’s used exactly the same way as a screenplay. 
       For instance, let’s look at Marvin Gaye’s wonderful song “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” (written by Norman Whitfield, Janie Bradford & Barrett Strong).  I’d say the theme is “busy.”

                    I ain’t got time to think about money
                    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 the weather
                    Or how long it’s gonna last
                    I ain’t got time to do no studying
                    Once I get out of class

                    I’m too busy thinking about my baby
                    I ain’t got time for nothin’ else

       Let’s try Smokey Robinson’s first hit, “Shop Around” (I’m obviously in a Motown mood).  The refrain is, “My Mama told me I better shop around.”  He goes on to say:


                    Don’t try to get yourself a bargain, son,
                    And don’t be sold on the very first one
                    Pretty girls are a dime a dozen
                    Try to find one who’s going to give you true lovin’.

       The theme is obviously “shop” or “shopping.”
       Since a song is so short, the theme and the subject are generally the same thing.  In a screenplay, with over 100 pages to deal with, the theme comes out of the subject, but is generally not the same thing.  Neither “busy” nor “shopping” are good themes for a story, although they’re both fine subjects.
       Here is my best attempt at thematic song writing to date (deep in my heart I’m Lorenz Hart).  This is the first verse of the rap song called “Nervous Meltdown” I wrote for my film “Lunatics: A Love Story” (music by Joe 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 meltdown.

       In a song it’s all so very clear.  You state the theme in the title and then try to spend every line of the song pursuing it.  It ought to be that clear in a story, too.

       I just read the first 30 pages of a script by a guy who claimed to know all the rules of screenwriting put forth in my first five structure essays, and was insulted that I suggested that he read the essays.  “That’s Screenwriting 101,” he sneered.
       In the first 30 pages of his script he not only had not stated a theme, he hadn’t 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.”
       Sadly, he’s confused.  He’s not a rebel, he’s just a bad writer.  And I’ll clue you in on one simple, clear, hard fact-the world doesn’t need any more bad writers, there’s already more than enough.
       The main 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 even know that there are rules, or feels that they are above them, which is an alternate way of stating that they are simply too lazy or too stupid to make use of them.
       I keep hearing this excuse, too: “They use the 3-act structure in many big, stupid action movies and it doesn’t make them good.”
       To me that’s like saying, “The Chevy Suburban is so ugly and has 4 wheels, that when I build a car, I’ll use 9 wheels.”
       If a big, stupid action movie has a solid 3-act structure, then at least they got something right. 
       I also read another guy’s script recently (I really tried hard to talk both of these guys out of sending me their scripts and just couldn’t).  At the end of 25-30 pages, 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 explaining why I didn’t like it.  In both instances I was confronted with, “But you only read the first 30 pages!  How can you possibly know what you’re talking about?”
       My response to that is: 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 31 because the first 30-pages would not support anything that followed.  If there’s no foundation, it doesn’t matter how pretty the walls and the roof are, because they will collapse. 
       The reason these examples are stuck in here, and the reason I keep writing these structure essays, is that I encounter 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 rebels.
       And so we have all of these 9-wheel, 12-wheel, and 17-wheel contraptions coming out all the time that are so ill-conceived that they won’t even go around in circles.
       I’ll repeat this for about the sixth time in six essays: you do not have to be a brain surgeon to figure out how to write a decent script.  But you do have to be willing to put in some plain old hard work.  No script is going to come out the ends of your fingers properly structured with a functioning theme and fully formed characters—it ain’t gonna happen.  Ever.  If you don’t put in the time confronting each of these issues and working them out, your script will suck, just like the other 8 million shitty scripts floating around.  In fact, there are enough bad scripts in Hollywood to build another, bigger, Hoover Dam.
       Perhaps it’s the word “rules” that makes people so uneasy.  You know what?  Too bad.  I was as rebellious and anti-authority as any young person could possibly be.  But when I decided that I wanted to be a screenwriter, I eagerly and happily accepted the disciplines of the craft.  These are concepts that you simply must know to do the job well.
       Writing is a discipline, just like weight-lifting.  The structural and thematic rules are like the weights.  You can most certainly proclaim, “I’m a rebel and I won’t lift those weights.”  Guess what?  Then you’re not a weight-lifter; you’re a blob standing around the gym getting in other people’s way.
       Let’s use my favorite example of screenwriting, “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”  As of today, April 30, 2000, I feel that no one in film history has yet figured out how to write a better script.  Since both Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman were blacklisted due to the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, neither writer got screen credit until the film was restored a few years ago.  What makes this script so special?  That it’s a World War Two, P.O.W. camp story?  I don’t think so, there are plenty of those.  Is it that they build a bridge?  Or perhaps that they blow it up?  Well, I say it's none of those things.  That’s all plot stuff, and it’s important, but it’s not what makes it so good.
       No.  Irony and theme are what make it so damn good—plus, it’s beautifully directed, shot and cast (oh yeah, that stuff).
       The story’s basic great irony appears on page one 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 over-developed sense of duty.
       Now, you may have watched this film a hundred times and never figured that out and it doesn’t matter in the slightest!  It’s there.
       The main irony, as well as the theme (which is duty), and the main dramatic conflict are all right there in the first five 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 just say that Pierre Boulle began conceiving this story with his ironic observation that Colonels are the same the world over (it is on page one).  OK, great.  Maybe it’s even 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, and if somehow they magically 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 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 Two had only ended a few years earlier (the book was copyright in 1952), it can all logically happen then.  Thus, we now 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 five minutes—is Colonel Saito smacking Colonel Nicholson across the face with the Geneva Convention rule book.  The two lead characters have reached the main dramatic conflict of the story and the front titles just ended!  And we’re stuck in the middle of the jungle!  Where can this possibly be going?  That’s exactly what you want the audience saying to themselves at the beginning of your story, and that’s what makes it so truly narratively 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 30 minutes into the film, and when they do they get a big laugh.  It’s 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 to be gotten from this situation, there is yet another, bigger irony looming ahead.  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, of which he informs Colonel Nicholson and asks, “What would you do?”
       Nicholson shrugs, “I suppose I’d have to kill myself.”

       Am I getting my bigger point across here, other than I love the film “The Bridge on the River Kwai”?  The film is not great because it has soldiers and machine guns and explosions, or even that’s it beautifully directed and photographed, it’s 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 things.
       That Wilson and Foreman are then able to take the theme of duty and weave it back through every other major character—the doctor (James Donald), William Holden, Jack Hawkins, and Geoffrey Horn, the young saboteur—and tie up every one of them at the end is completely brilliant and utterly breathtaking.  That a bridge blows up, too (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 Ceylon (which is now Sri Lanka).
       Irony & Theme.  If these are not subjects that you want to think about constantly for the rest of your life—dream about, muse about, give yourself headaches about—I seriously suggest pursuing another profession beside screenwriting.

—Josh Becker

 

 

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