“. . . the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” — William Faulkner1
Why do screenwriters write what they write? This question is at the heart of the problem of theme and ideology. A theme is any value statement that motivates and/or shapes a narrative. An ideology, on the other hand, is a broader system of values, from which a theme may be derived. Capitalism is an ideology that might give rise to such themes as “hard work will overcome poverty.” The American screenplay and the status of the screenwriter in the Hollywood industry, by the way, have both been heavily shaped by capitalist economics, an issue worth further exploration at a future date on this site.
For now, however, we want to focus on the role that ideological concerns play in shaping screenwriting practice. Some writers may express overt ideologies, while others may be unaware of the ideological systems promoted in their work. Nevertheless, screenwriting discourse is well-known for encouraging authors to actively embrace and write-from specific thematic statements. Here we will explore the ways that screenwriters and those that teach them discuss thematic concerns.
- 2.5.1. Overview
- 2.5.2. The Thematic Script
- 2.5.3. Broad vs. Specific Themes
- 2.5.4. Formulating the Premise Equation
- 2.5.5. Analysis and Interpretation
- 2.5.6. Discussion Topics
- 2.5.7. Footnotes
2.5.2. The Thematic Script.
As early as 1924, Sergei Eisenstein critiqued the script on the basis of its ideological weakness:
Thus we are gradually coming to the most critical problem of the day: the script. The first thing to remember is that there is, or rather should be, no cinema other than agit-cinema. […]
As far as the question of the necessity or otherwise of a script or of free montage of arbitrarily filmed material is concerned, we have to remember that a script, whether plot-based or not, is […] in our view, a prescription (or a list) of montage sequences and combinations by means of which the author intends to subject the audience to a definite series of shocks, a ‘prescription’ that summarises the general projected emotional effect on the audience and the pressure that will inevitably be exerted on the audience’s psyche. More often than not, given our scriptwriters’ utterly feeble approach to the construction of the script, this task falls in its entirety to the director. The transposition of the theme into a chain of attractions with a previous determined end effect is the definition we have given of a director’s work. The presence or absence of a written script is by no means all that important.”2
The script is irrelevant to Eisenstein because screenwriters fail in their efforts to express theme. It is difficult not to wonder whether Eisenstein’s stinging critique has had at least some impact on screenwriting instruction today. Most of the major screenwriting gurus urge aspiring authors to use theme as a central organizing principle, though they vary at times in their approach. When the theme is used as the central organizing principle, it means that all decisions of structure and character have been arranged to serve the theme.
2.5.3. Broad vs. Specific Themes. [Back to Page Topics]
Casual film audiences tend to discuss their favorite movies in terms of broad themes. Examples of broad themes might be “Love hurts,” or “Every rose has its thorn,” or “Money changes everything.” The major screenwriting gurus and their influential manuals, however, tend to encourage writers to push past these broad slogans to something more specific. Robert McKee, for instance, is careful to distinguish between themes and universal values.3
“Love,” for instance, is not a theme. Neither is Truth, nor Greed. These so-called, one-word themes are in fact universal values. We can define a universal value as an issue central to human existence, encapsulated in one abstract word. Universal values play an important role in the construction of specific (as opposed to broad) themes for screenwriters. Every story is ultimately a record of value-changes, from positive to negative, from negative to positive, from positive to negative and back again, or vice versa. In building a strong, specific theme, the writer must begin with a value of some kind.
Lajos Egri, in his book The Art of Dramatic Writing, argues for a structured relationship between value and a predictive form of theme he calls the premise. A premise, in Egri’s formation, is a statement of belief about what will result from a particular universal value placed into conflict. In writing with a premise, the screenwriter seeks to prove something about the value chosen.
According to Egri, “every good premise — is composed of three parts, each of which is essential to a good [story]. Let us examine ‘Frugality leads to waste.’ The first part of this premise suggests character — a frugal character. The second part, ‘leads to,; suggests conflict, and the third part, ‘waste,’ suggests the end of the [story].”4
In other words, the premise places a universal value in conflict and predicts the result. If a writer wants to tell a story about love, she must first decide what she wishes to argue. Love will conquer all? Here we have a premise, if one that is a little weak. Egri argues that it is best if the writer qualifies her universal value by asking, “What kind of love?” The answer, of course, is great love. “Great love conquers all” is a better premise than “Love conquers all,” but it is still a little flaccid. Egri is here to help again, as he advises writers to be as specific as possible about the results of our conflict. “Conquers all” is awfully vague, but a love that “conquers even death” is a great love indeed. A strong premise, then, according to Egri’s view, may be “Great love conquers even death.”
McKee offers even more thematic precision by introducing the concept of what he calls the controlling idea:
“A CONTROLLING IDEA may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.”5
In other words, McKee’s controlling idea conditionalizes Egri’s premise, linking the outcome of a conflict to a specific action on the part of the character. The controlling idea takes the premise and adds an “if, when, or because” at the end of it. For instance, “Great love conquers even death WHEN lovers sacrifice their own self-interest,” is a controlling idea, as is “Great love conquers even death IF one lover shares openly with the other.”
“Love hurts,” “Love conquers all,” and “Great love conquers even death when lovers are selfless,” all fit within the idea of theme, since each is a value statement that could potentially shape a narrative. Screenwriters, however, have generally been encouraged to reach for very specific thematic expressions.
2.5.4. Formulating the Premise Equation. [Back to Page Topics]
Reading through Egri’s premise examples can be confusing for first-time readers trying to understand the concept, partly because his examples differ greatly in form. It doesn’t take a linguist to recognize the disparity in grammatical construction between “foolish generosity leads to poverty” and “honesty defeats duplicity” (both examples from Egri). It helps when you recognize that Egri’s examples of premise fall into two types.
The first type of premise formula is what we might call the Cause & Effect Premise. It begins with a value tied to character (e.g. “foolish generosity”), followed by a connecting verb and preposition (e.g. “leads to,” “results in,” etc.), and ends in an outcome or resulting state of being (e.g. “poverty”).
As an equation, the Cause & Effect Premise “foolish generosity leads to poverty” can be expressed as “Foolish Generosity = Poverty,” because the result of foolish generosity is poverty.
The second type of premise formula is what we might call the Opposing Values in Conflict Premise. It also begins with a value tied to character (e.g. “honesty”), followed by a connecting verb that describes the outcome or result (e.g. “defeats”), and ends in an opposing value tied to antagonizing forces (e.g. “duplicity”).
As an equation, the Opposing Values Placed in Conflict Premise “honesty defeats duplicity” can be expressed as “Honesty>Duplicity,” because honesty is said to be greater than duplicity.
When one recognizes that all of Egri’s illustrations of premise fall into one of these two formulations, the concept of the premise becomes much more manageable.
2.5.5. Analysis and Interpretation. [Back to Page Topics]
When thematic statements become the central organizing principle of a screenplay, they can serve as an analytical tool for reading and evaluating for coherence and unity. In analysis, our primary concern is not identifying the theme (though that is obviously an important first step) but determining how the theme shapes and is shaped by the text. In interpretation, however, theme becomes the guiding force. Understanding theme analysis helps us interpret a screenplay’s ideological underpinnings — its meaning.
2.5.6. Discussion Topics. [Back to Page Topics]
The following are suggested key terms and topics of discussion for college courses studying this material.
- Universal Value
- Controlling Idea
- Cause & Effect Premise
- Opposing Values Placed in Conflict Premise
- Central Organizing Principle
- Why are specific themes more useful than broad themes in analyzing a screenplay text?
- How can a discussion of theme be helpful in the analysis of a screenplay?
- Of the two kinds of premise formulation Egri suggests, which is more informative?
2.5.7. Footnotes. [Back to Page Topics]
- Faulkner, William. “Banquet Speech.” 10 December 1950. NobelPrize.org. http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1949/faulkner-speech.html ↩
- Eisenstein, Sergei. “The Montage of Film Attractions” in The Eisenstein Reader. Ed. Richard Taylor. Trans. Richard Taylor and William Powell. London: BFI, 1998. Pgs. 40-41. ↩
- 3. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 114-115. ↩
- Egri, Lajos. The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1960. Pg. 8. ↩
- McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg.115. ↩