The fundamental thing that a script should do is tell a great story. Hopefully, that’s not a contentious point – we go to the movies or turn on the TV because we want to be entertained! Whether it’s an adventure, an emotional drama, or a horror, the story is what keeps people hooked. With that in mind, it’s easy to focus on the things that are always visible: plot points, characters, and dialogue.
But it’s important not to forget that the very best stories have layers. Underneath the surface, they have something more to say about life. If you ignore this second layer – if you ignore themes, and forget to include one (or more!) in your script, you’ll be doing yourself a disservice. They might not be visible or obvious, but they’re extremely important.
At the end of the day, it’s the theme that will most touch an audience and make them remember your film long after they’ve seen it. Anyone can string gunfights, explosions, arguments, and witty dialogue together, but if you can say something unique and profound that no-one else can say, it’ll really make you stand out.
It’s important to note that the theme is not the same as the concept of your script. Your concept or premise is the idea that drives your story; your theme is the message that it is trying to convey through that idea.
So for example, in David Lean’s classic film THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, the concept is that a rule-obsessed British colonel helps his Japanese captors to build a railway bridge, while being unaware of an Allied plan to blow it up. The themes, however, revolve around the absurdity of the idea that there can be rules in warfare and that honor can exist in such a situation.
These themes are never explicitly stated, but they’re clear from very early on, as soon as Colonel Nicholson (Alex Guinness) takes out his copy of the Geneva Conventions and attempts to show it to the uncaring commandant Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) to protest that his officers can’t be put to work because it would be in breach of law. And later on, Nicholson even forbids his men from trying to escape the POW camp because, having been ordered to surrender, escaping would be in breach of their orders!
This theme – of the absurdity of the rules of war – is difficult to express in a single, memorable sentence. It’s always there, though, in every scene of THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. It leads us through the story from start to finish.
Knowing what your theme is before you start writing (or at the very least, during writing) is immensely helpful in this regard. If you don’t know what message you want to express, your story can end up wandering all over the place because it doesn’t have any guidance; a strong theme, on the other hand, can help to keep it on track.
So there are a lot of good reasons to make sure your screenplay’s themes are clear. It will help audiences to remember your work, making you stand out as a writer with something unique to say, and keep your story on track.
It will also help to keep us script analysts engaged. Make us use our brains rather than just dealing with things on a shallow level, and we’ll keep reading – and if you can get people to keep reading your script, page after page, then unsurprisingly you’ll achieve success in this industry!
Looking for more help on writing your script? Click here to take a look at more of our Writing Insights articles!
PROMISE OF TOMORROW: After finding a website devoted to insulting him, a struggling, separated and obsessive Project Manager becomes determined to track down who created it.
A romantic-comedy with heaps of charm, PROMISE OF TOMORROW made us laugh more than any other script in this competition. In the tradition of great British rom-coms, it captured our attention with its quirky characters, heartwarming story, and fantastic audience appeal. This is a script that deserves to go far – a huge congratulations to its writer, the winner of our Winter 2019 Screenwriting Contest, Andrew Pennington!
As the Grand Prize Winner of our Winter 2019 Screenwriting Contest, Andrew has won $2500, guaranteed pitching to industry, and a year of free script development. If you want to follow in his footsteps, then enter our Spring 2019 Screenwriting Contest (click here!)
Here’s a summary of PROMISE OF TOMORROW:
PROMISE OF TOMORROW is a comedy feature following Owen, a slightly OCD Project Manager, who has always taken the easy roads in life.
Owen is horrified as he finds a website devoted purely to mocking him. It sends his obsessive and paranoid tendencies into overdrive, as he struggles to work out who could possibly have set up such a cruel prank. When his wife decides to leave, she becomes the clear number one suspect.
Seemingly more upset about the website than his impending divorce, Owen is guided by his family and friends to deal with his separation. His boss suggests using his considerable professional skills to aid the situation. Project manage his break-up!
Owen struggles through an investigation of clues as to the website author, whilst keeping emotional distance from his personal life. He finds that his coping mechanism can only work for so long before he’s forced to confront his difficult journey.
If you’re a producer interested in this project, email firstname.lastname@example.org today!
And here’s a quick bio of the writer of PROMISE OF TOMORROW, Andrew Pennington:
Andrew Pennington is a screenwriter who grew up in the North West of England and is currently based in Merseyside, with his wife and two children. He initially studied social sciences at Lougborough University and developed a career in research within academia and then the National Health Service.
An affinity for visual story-telling, initially starting with comic books as a boy, led to a love of film and T.V. Andrew went on to gain an MA in Screenwriting from Liverpool John Moores University. He writes a variety of film and T.V. screenplays, primarily in comedy and science fiction.
See if you can coax him into more social media than just retweets here: @atpennington
BAD LISTING: a horror/thriller where nothing is ever as it seems…
BAD LISTING is the kind of script where it’s impossible to say what will come next. This horror screenplay, where twists and turns leave you constantly guessing and where things are repeatedly turned on their heads, impressed us with its compact storytelling and execution. A very worthy second place goes to Brent Hartinger for this script!
Having taken 2nd place in our Winter 2019 Contest, Brent wins a year of script development from WriteMovies and guaranteed pitching to industry, which are both now underway! If you’d like to win these kind of prizes and find success with WriteMovies, make sure you submit to our Spring 2019 Screenwriting Contest, which has a Grand Prize of $2000 and more (click here!)
Here’s a summary of BAD LISTING:
When Cleo rents a “shared” AirBnB unit, she worries the other guest, Jack, has a dark secret. But from Jack’s POV, Cleo isn’t who she claims to be either. Or maybe the real problem with this short-term rental isn’t Jack or Cleo, but an even darker, more sinister presence watching them both. A small-cast, minimal-location script.
If you’re a producer interested in this project, email email@example.com today!
And here’s a quick bio of the writer of BAD LISTING, Brent Hartinger:
Brent has had nine screenplays optioned for film; four of those projects are currently in various stages of development, including PROJECT SWEET LIFE, a teen caper story, now in pre-production for a 2020 release.
Also a novelist, Brent has had three of his books optioned for film. His fourteen novels include THREE TRUTHS AND A LIE (Simon & Schuster), which was nominated for an Edgar Award; and GEOGRAPHY CLUB (HarperCollins), which was adapted as a feature film in 2013, co-starring Scott Bakula, and is now being developed as a television series.
Brent has won many screenwriting awards, including first place at the Storypro Awards, the Fresh Voices Contest, Acclaim Scripts, the L.A. Comedy Festival, the Screenwriting in the Sun Award, and a Writers Network Fellowship. All his scripts on TheBlackList.com have been “featured scripts,” with scores of “8” or higher.
A former entertainment journalist, Brent co-founded of the website AfterElton.com, which was later sold to MTV/Viacom. Now Brent continuously travels the world as a digital nomad, writing his screenplays and novels along the way.
Find out more by visiting his website: www.brenthartinger.com
Whatever you think about the Oscars, there’s always something to be learned from them. Last night was no exception: there was the usual number of sure-fire wins mixed with a few shocks that leave us scratching our heads. Here’s our take on what happened at the Oscars 2019…
- The big news of the night was the surprise win of GREEN BOOK for Best Picture. This may not have been the most competitive year for this category, but stacked up against films like BLACKKKLANSMAN and ROMA, it’s still not what we expected. Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times even went so far as to call it “the worse best Picture winner since Crash“. Ouch. But the main thing to take from this? ROMA might have been the favorite on the night (rather than THE FAVOURITE… okay, it’s a bit confusing) but the Academy isn’t ready to give highest honors to a Netflix film just yet. The big studios continue to guard their territory.
- Spike Lee finally has an Oscar, winning Best Adapted Screenplay for BLACKKKLANSMAN. When it comes to films about race, the Oscars have generally favored less hard-edged material than Lee makes, so at first glance, this looks like it could indicate a shift for film’s biggest awards ceremony. However, that’s all kind of cancelled out because…
- The winner for Best Original Screenplay also went to GREEN BOOK, which has come in for a lot of criticism for perpetuating the “white savior” trope and couldn’t be more of an opposite to BLACKKKLANSMAN if it tried. Take a look at that article from Chang and you’ll see why it’s so confusing that the two screenplay awards went to these two films. On the one hand, a film that takes an intense, no-holds barred look at racism – on the other, a film that deals with it through a feel-good story. One thing is clear – Hollywood still hasn’t figured out how it wants to deal with this kind of subject matter.
- Away from the main controversies, superhero stories are starting to gain some traction at awards ceremonies to go with their popular appeal, with BLACK PANTHER picking up three awards and SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE winning Best Animated Feature. This is where the real money is right now – and it looks like there’s even the possibility of picking up some nice shiny awards to go with it.
- On a similar note, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY took home four awards. Even though the only big one here was for Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury, it’s a surprise to see a film that got mixed reviews from critics fare so well at the Oscars. Is the Academy really becoming more democratized to reflect popular opinion? We’ll have to wait and see how next year unfolds…
From a screenwriting perspective, the main thing here is the confusion of seeing two totally contrasting films take home the awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay. Here at WriteMovies, we’ll be keeping a close eye on this, with several of our past winners – such as BLACKOUT.COM by Ruben Bush III dealing with this kind of subject matter.
The Oscars 2019 may not have had the drama of the wrong winner being announced for Best Picture like a couple of years ago, but they’ve certainly given us a lot of food for thought…
An update to this. After the release of the novel and film below, the Yemen had sadly been consumed in civil war for some years when I wrote this; I decided not to make reference to it at the time, because it’s not relevant to the story and also because it’s all too often true that countries like the Yemen only get attention because of bad news stories, which is a trap that this story doesn’t fall into, and I wanted to reflect that. I decided to go with the writer’s intention, which was to highlight aspects of life in Yemen that rarely receive attention in the West. But in respect of the many victims of that conflict, I’ve now decided to put these comments in as well. Civil wars are always tragic and even more so when they’re being fought as proxy wars by other powerful countries. Our condolences go out to everyone who has been affected by this conflict, and I hope that the article below may help to re-present this troubled country in a better light once more. (more…)
Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, ROMA, has been getting all kinds of acclaim, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and earning three Golden Globe nominations already. Guest author Cat Tebo takes a look at what we can learn from it about writing character driven stories…
A lot of new writers fall into the trap of prioritizing plot above all else, losing the characters and, consequently, the “heart” of their story. Ideally, a script should be a marriage between plot and character. The best way to go about this is by developing characters whose objectives and agency are so strong that they inform the plot, rather than characters being used as mere devices for the storyteller to force into the mold of how they think their story is “supposed”to be.
Alfonso Cuarón’s recent film, ROMA, is a perfect example of how a character-driven film should function, with characters so compelling and nuanced that there isn’t room for heavy, convoluted plot-lines or unrealistic story details. Instead, the characters are the story.
A big part of what makes rich characterization so important to story is that the strength of a story lies in the strength of its characters. Characters give stories humanity and, in doing so, a heart. Furthermore, the desires and objectives that drive characters to act are the same ones that should drive the story forward. In ROMA, everything that happens is a result of characters exercising agency and taking action in order to get what they want: it’s one of the most basic fundamentals of storytelling. Plot movement is all about getting characters from point A to point B; if there is no character arc, there is no story.
Fleshing out your characters is often a challenging task. In creating ROMA, Alfonso Cuarón was drawing inspiration from his own childhood, and familiarity no doubt makes for a greater sense of character. Even when writers are creating characters completely from scratch, the influence of memories and experience still plays a part—there is no such thing as objective fiction, and even the most original-seeming thoughts are a consolidation of some kind of previous knowledge.
Still, there are some important character elements to consider when figuring out who your characters are. Ask yourself what their weaknesses are, what their strengths are, how they cope with obstacles, what they need versus what they want, who they appear to be versus who they really are—for every question you ask, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask the inverse of it as well. Doing this ensures that you’re considering your characters from every possible angle and are covering every aspect of them you can.
Concept is usually what sells your story in the beginning, but characters are what make it stick. Likewise,you might be able to grab an audience’s attention with an interesting premise, but you won’t be able to hold it without intriguing characters.
Take a look at more writing insights from WriteMovies by clicking here!
Feature films tend to get most of the glory among filmmakers, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore short film as a medium! In a new series of Insights articles, Ian Kennedy looks at the benefits of writing in this format.
There’s a reason there’s not just one but two categories for shorts at the Oscars: one for live-action and another for animated. They can be a great way of telling stories that a lot of filmmakers overlook – and that includes writers!
So why write a script for a short film? Why get one made? Well, there are actually quite a few good reasons…
- You’ve got an idea for story that doesn’t suit feature length – sometimes, even the best concept can’t be spun out into a longer screenplay! That doesn’t have to a negative, though. Use the opportunity to tell the story in short form instead.
- To improve your skills by writing under constraint. All writing is done under constraint of some kind – of format, style, etc. – but the additional restrictions of length and budget with short film can be a great chance to prove yourself. Learning to write under constraint can actually be a great way to improve your writing!
- As proof of concept for a feature film. Making feature films is an expensive business, so why not show how well your idea works by making a short based on the same idea?
- To get a production credit. Getting a script produced can take hard work, but if you’ve already got a track record in short films, it can look great on your writing CV and give producer’s faith in your abilities.
- As a personal project – just because you love your idea or are passionate about filmmaking! Be careful, though; if you’re making a short film for personal reasons, make sure that everyone on the production knows what your motives are.
Making a short film brings all sorts of challenges of its own. You’ll still need a unique concept, a well-structured story, and characters that audiences can fall in love with – but you’ve got to get it all into a much smaller space! That’s why it can be such a great test of your skills as a storyteller.
Whatever your reasons for making a short film, make sure you know exactly what they are before you begin, whether you want to use it to take the next step in your career or just because you’ve got a story you’re desperate to tell!
Take a look at our other Writing Insights articles here for great hints and tips on crafting your scripts!