Once you have your concept, there are three core components to writing a screenplay: the theme, the characters, and the plot.
The theme is the deeper meaning of your script. That inner truth.
For example, Skyfall is not just another James Bond movie. Sure, it involves the usual Bond-hunts-down-villain-and-saves-the-world shenanigans. But that is not what it’s about. Rather, it’s a film about relevance versus irrelevance, usefulness versus uselessness, and tradition versus innovation.
Similarly, The Dark Knight… Yes, Batman plays cat-and-mouse with the Joker. Thematically, however, the film contrasts rules and order with chaos and disorder.
Basically, your main theme will support your entire screenplay. It binds everything together.
It’s possible to choose a theme and then come up with a concept to fit around it. Alternatively, you can take a concept and then work the theme into it. The former is ideal, but the latter is often more realistic. I’ve used both processes – sometimes you just can’t control the route your mind takes.
It is also possible to find your theme during the writing of the screenplay. Possible but difficult. Unfortunately, this is something that frequently occurs when you’re hired for a writing job, where there can be strict deadlines in play. In these situations, you are under pressure to start writing as soon as possible. You need to hit the ground running and don’t get as much development time as you might like. Ironically, from the producer’s point of view, it’s a counterproductive strategy as it extends the writing period on the longer term and usually results in a sub-par script.
Starting to write a screenplay without a chosen theme is like going for a drive in your car without knowing the final destination. You may eventually end up somewhere interesting, but it’s frustrating, inefficient, and you could just as easily wind up in the middle of nowhere.
In other words, if at all possible, avoid the writing stage until you have at least a basic idea of your main theme.
What you can do fairly easily during the writing process is add additional themes. These sub-themes will serve to enrich your screenplay.
Big Little Movies
Now then, have you ever watched some ‘big’ movie and then been left feeling emotionally empty when it ends? Chances are it’s because the movie lacked thematic depth. Just because a film has a massive production budget doesn’t necessarily make it truly big.
These sorts of films remind me of a shaven, pampered bodybuilder with all that fake tan and steroid-induced muscle. Fact is, that guy probably won’t be much use in a real fight – he’ll just pull a deltoid and run away crying.
At the same time, you can watch a ‘small’ movie that packs a huge emotional punch. American Beauty and The Wrestler are both low-budget films that operate on an epic level – and that’s because they have deep and meaningful themes.
That’s not to say only small films have depth. There are plenty of relatively expensive blockbusters out there with strong themes. For instance, from the most recent years and off the top of my head: American Sniper, Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, Django Unchained, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Logan, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Revenant, and Toy Story 3. Obviously, this list isn’t complete, but you get the idea.
Characters support themes. Think of them as theme-carrying vehicles.
In a good screenplay, all the major characters should feed into the main theme. In some instances, a character can even be a literal manifestation of that theme. Think Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Roy Batty in Blade Runner, Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, the Joker in The Dark Knight, Harry Lime in The Third Man, and possibly Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.
Many script guru types claim that a character should always be more than a symbol. To some extent, I agree, but if executed properly, symbolic characters can work very well. As you can see from the iconic characters listed above, that’s particularly true of antagonists.
Still, it’s a method you should avoid for protagonists as it makes them far harder to relate to – and given that it’s the protagonist we’ll be rooting for, relatability is pretty important.
Generally, it’s better if a character carries the theme rather than becomes the theme. In other words, use your theme to shade your characters. It’s the theme that dictates the character’s belief system and drives their actions.
Ideally, every major character should help portray a different aspect of the theme. This will add textural richness to your screenplay and ensure that each character feels unique and fresh.
One of the best examples of this is Unforgiven, where all the major characters serve to embody different aspects of the theme.
A more recent example would be Captain America: Civil War. While Steve Rogers and Tony Stark are essentially on the same side, they feed into the theme from opposing angles, thus creating the story’s conflict.
You’ll often hear film industry people referring to “character arcs”. This is just jargon for a character’s spiritual or emotional journey during the course of the story. It’s about how that character changes and evolves.
An Officer And A Gentlemen and Kingsman: The Secret Service are both movies where the protagonists learn that being a gentleman isn’t about having the right accent or clothes, but rather it’s about integrity, becoming comfortable with who you are, and living by a moral code.
At the start of Unforgiven, Bill Munny is in self-denial over who he truly is. He’s trying to convince himself that he’s a peaceful farmer rather than the aimless cold-blooded killer of his youth. As the film unfolds, however, he gradually accepts that deep down he is okay with being a killer (it was his late wife – not him – who had a problem with his past). Finally, during the climactic sequence, he returns to being a killer. Yet the killing is no longer aimless. Instead, he now has a worthy motive – avenging the death of his friend, Ned Logan.
In Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films, Peter Parker starts out as a goofy kid who accidentally acquires a superpower. He then goes on to learn that “with great power comes great responsibility”. In understanding this lesson and embracing its ethos, Parker moves away from being the goofy kid and transforms into the bona fide superhero.
So when it comes to creating a major character, and particularly the protagonist, you need to first figure out what part of your theme they represent. You then need to work out their starting point and their end point. The journey between the two, in which they will service the theme, is their arc.
One trick that helps define the arc is to think about your protagonist’s initial appearance within the script. What’s the location, what’s the character’s physical or social status within that location, and what’s their state of mind? This is the first impression the protagonist will make on the reader (the same’s true for antagonists and other major characters). Next visualize the protagonist’s final appearance in the script and how they have changed – both physically and emotionally – from when we first met them. This is how the reader will remember the protagonist after finishing your screenplay.
A good example here is Tony Montana in Scarface. When we first meet Montana, he’s a penniless Cuban refugee being interrogated in a squalid US immigration holding cell. During this scene, he comes across as alert and rationale. He’s clearly a guy on the make and doesn’t miss a trick. He has an answer for every question. By the end of the movie, however, now filthy rich and living in a Miami mansion, he’s become corrupted by his own ego and the cocaine that pumps through his veins. He no longer has the answers, has lost all sense of rationality, and is dimmed to the world around him – making him oblivious to the final fateful assassin strolling up behind him.
Finally, we come to plot. Many people use the terms “plot” and “story” interchangeably, and that’s absolutely fine. Personally, for clarity’s sake, I tend to think of the story as the chronological order of events. The plot, meanwhile, is the way the script depicts these events, which may or may not be chronological.
For instance, in Chris Nolan’s Memento, the story involves a man with recurring memory loss being manipulated into killing the wrong people. The plot, however, starts at the end of his tale and then goes backwards, so that the film essentially ends with the beginning of the story.
Anyway, don’t get too hung up on the semantics. I know people who actually define the two in the complete opposite way to what I’ve just described.
Moving on, if you’ve come up with a good theme and the characters to carry that theme, the plot/story should to a large degree write itself. The theme and characters become the plot to some extent. They create their own story. You’re then left with filling in the gaps between the thematic and character-based moments.
Unlike themes and characters, plot is more of a mechanical process. It is therefore something that you can change and re-imagine throughout the writing phase.
Of course, it’s good to have an idea of the basic plot before you start writing. It makes life easier and speeds up the writing. But often a lot of your initial plot ideas will just be placeholders until a better one comes along. During the writing stage, you should always be striving for better ways to present action set-pieces and story twists. And inserting these improved ideas into the screenplay shouldn’t be too hard.
Coming up with a fascinating concept, wrapping a rich theme around it, creating dynamic characters to carry that theme… These are the genuinely tricky things that will drive your plot. Sometimes you may never find the answers and the project just dies on the vine. It’s happened to me countless times – and that’s absolutely okay.
Plot, by comparison, is relatively easy. The answers may not come immediately, but if you keep at it, they should eventually pop into your head. And if they don’t, that suggests a deeper problem with one of the other core elements of your project.
That’s all for now, folks. Hope you enjoyed this article. If you have any questions or thoughts, please leave a comment below.