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 youre 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 youve already seen or heard.
What you ought to be thinking
about is motivation—why are these characters doing the things
theyre doing? This is where things get interesting because
human beings dont necessarily do things for good or rational reasons,
but, nevertheless, THERE ARE ALWAYS REASONS! There is a chain
of logic, even if its 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 whats
best or whats 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 Websters 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
characters ironic motivations. As William Goldman says,
Tattoo that behind your eyelids.
Lets use me for
an example for a moment, since Im 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. Thats sort of ironic, dont you
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 Ive 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 Im writing.
Now, lets 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 its short, and often because the theme is stated
in the songs title—and its used exactly the same way as
For instance, lets look
at Marvin Gayes wonderful song Too Busy Thinking About My
Baby (written by Norman Whitfield, Janie Bradford & Barrett
Strong). Id say the theme is busy.
aint got time to think about money
what it can buy
And I aint got time to sit down and wonder
What makes the birds fly
I aint got time to discuss the weather
Or how long its gonna last
I aint got time to do no studying
Once I get out of class
Im too busy thinking about my baby
I aint got time for nothin else
Lets try Smokey Robinsons
first hit, Shop Around (Im obviously in a Motown mood).
The refrain is, My Mama told me I better shop around.
He goes on to say:
Dont try to get yourself a bargain, son,
And dont be sold on the very first one
Pretty girls are a dime a dozen
Try to find one whos going to give you true lovin.
The theme is obviously shop
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 theyre
both fine subjects.
Here is my best attempt at
thematic song writing to date (deep in my heart Im 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
The core in your brain is cherry red
Theres a crack in the reactor inside your head
When your fission and fusion do the wild thing instead
Yo man, youre having a nervous meltdown.
In a song its 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. Thats Screenwriting
101, he sneered.
In the first 30 pages of his
script he not only had not stated a theme, he hadnt even established
a lead character. I said, You may know all the rules of
screenwriting, but youre not following any of them.
He replied, Im
Sadly, hes confused.
Hes not a rebel, hes just a bad writer. And Ill
clue you in on one simple, clear, hard fact-the world doesnt need
any more bad writers, theres 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 doesnt 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 doesnt make them good.
To me thats like saying,
The Chevy Suburban is so ugly and has 4 wheels, that when I build
a car, Ill use 9 wheels.
If a big, stupid action movie
has a solid 3-act structure, then at least they got something
I also read another guys
script recently (I really tried hard to talk both of these guys out
of sending me their scripts and just couldnt). 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 didnt like it. In both instances I was confronted with,
But you only read the first 30 pages! How can you possibly
know what youre talking about?
My response to that is: how
broken does something have to be before you decide that its 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 its
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 theres no foundation, it doesnt 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 wont be hemmed in by any of the
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 wont even go around in circles.
Ill 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 aint gonna happen.
Ever. If you dont 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
Perhaps its 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, Im a
rebel and I wont lift those weights. Guess what?
Then youre not a weight-lifter; youre a blob standing around
the gym getting in other peoples way.
Lets 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
its a World War Two, P.O.W. camp story? I dont 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. Thats all plot stuff, and its important, but
its not what makes it so good.
No. Irony and theme
are what make it so damn good—plus, its beautifully directed,
shot and cast (oh yeah, that stuff).
The storys basic great
irony appears on page one of Pierre Boulles 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
Now, you may have watched
this film a hundred times and never figured that out and it doesnt
matter in the slightest! Its 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 cant
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, lets 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 its even true, but its 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, theyd 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 havent mentioned
bridges, escape attempts, espionage teams or anything else about the
What The Bridge
on the River Kwai is about—and you absolutely cant believe
youve 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 were
stuck in the middle of the jungle! Where can this possibly be
going? Thats exactly what you want the audience saying
to themselves at the beginning of your story, and thats what makes
it so truly narratively breathtaking.
Because its 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
dont illustrate until over 30 minutes into the film, and when
they do they get a big laugh. Its when each Colonel independently
proclaims the other Colonel to be mad. The screenwriters
dont tell us the Colonels are the same, we observe it ourselves.
But thats 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 doesnt 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 Id 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 thats it beautifully directed
and photographed, its because its 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.
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 Ive 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.