Tell Us What Your Story is About
[Continuing our series on Theme in fiction, nonfiction, and movies … ]
I’m a big fan of Blake Snyder. If you haven’t read Save the Cat! and Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, please rectify that oversight at once.
One of Blake’s lasting legacies (he died tragically in 2009 at age fifty-one) is what he called BS2, the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.
The beat sheet is an all-purpose template for writing a screenplay. It breaks down a movie story into fifteen structural beats, e.g. Catalyst, Debate, Break Into Two, Midpoint, All Is Lost, etc.
Number Three, following “Opening Image” and “Setup” is “Theme Stated.”
Here’s what Blake writes in Save the Cat!
Somewhere in the first five minutes of a well-structured screenplay, someone (usually not the main character) will pose a question or make a statement (usually to the main character) that is the theme of the movie. “Be careful what you wish for,” this person will say or “Pride goeth before a fall” or “Family is more important than money.” It won’t be this obvious, it will be conversational, an offhand remark that the main character doesn’t quite get at the moment—but which will have far-reaching and meaningful impact later.
This statement is the movie’s thematic premise.
In When Harry Met Sally, Harry (Billy Crystal) declares right at the top, “It’s impossible for a man and a woman to be friends.” That’s the question. That’s the theme.
The theme of The Imitation Game is stated (the first of three times, each by a different character) first to the protagonist, young Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), by his best friend and lover Christopher (Jack Bannon) while they’re still schoolboys:
Sometimes it is the people whom no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.
That’s a bit “on the nose,” I admit. But it’s the theme (or at least one of them.)
Did you see the pilot for Breaking Bad?
Even if you’ve never watched the series you probably know it’s about mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) who gets a diagnosis of inoperable cancer and, to make money to care for his family, embarks upon a life of crime, mainly cooking and dealing methamphetamine, while going farther and farther off the map to become the baddest of the bad, bad, bad guys.
What’s the theme? Did series creator Vince Gilligan state it anywhere, as Blake Snyder suggests?
Indeed there’s a scene right off the bat, while Mr. White is still a law-abiding chem teacher. In class he asks his students, “What is chemistry about?” Several kids offer lame answers. Then our protagonist answers the question himself.
Change. Chemistry is the study of change. Elements combine and change into compounds. That’s all of life, right? Solution, dissolution. Growth. Decay. Transformation. It’s fascinating, really.
This speech is not up front in the pilot by accident. It’s Vince Gilligan’s statement of the series’ theme—transformation.
Here’s more from Blake Snyder:
In many ways a good screenplay is an argument posed by the screenwriter, the pros and cons of living a particular kind of life or pursuing a particular goal. Is a behavior, dream, or goal worth it? What is more important, wealth or happiness? Who is greater in the overall scheme of things—the individual or the group? And the rest of the screenplay is the argument laid out … Whether you’re writing a comedy, a drama, or a sci-fi monster picture, a good movie has to be “about something.” And the place to stick what your movie is about is right up front. Say it! Out loud. Right there.
If you don’t have a movie that’s about something, you’re in trouble. Strive to figure out what you’re trying to say. Maybe you won’t know until the first draft is done. But once you do know, be certain that the subject is raised right up front—page 5 is where I always put it.
But make sure it’s there. It’s your opening bid.
Declare: I can prove it. Then set out to do so.
My own opinion is that, though it’s a neat trick if you can state the theme up front, it’s not imperative. Most of the time the statement goes over everybody’s head except crazed film or fiction buffs anyway.
But what is critically important is that we as writers know the theme ourselves. We should have identified it and be able to articulate it, not vaguely but spot-on. Why? Because we’re the architects of our novel or movie. We have to know the foundation.
Remember Paddy Chayefsky’s axiom:
As soon as I figure out the theme of my play, I type it out in a single sentence and Scotch-tape it to the front of my typewriter. After that, nothing goes into that play that is not on-theme.
Yep. Been using The Beat Sheet for many years, and it’s the best tool. Still struggle with some of the categories, but what a huge help it’s been!
Thanks so much for this — I’ve got to go back and play with my opening scene now…
Brilliant and perfectly timed. Thank you. I’m off to check my first five pages. . . .(again).
He also started a third book that was later compiled by loved ones into the third Save the Cat book. I love all three and refuse to lend them out to friends. The third book is also super good for figuring out endings.
Thanks for the breakdown of Breaking Bad’s promise of the premise. I am always looking for it in films now but I failed to see that one.
I don’t attempt to write scripts but knowing these principals helps me be a better writer of novels.
Blake Snyder is single-handedly responsible for the Hollywood blancmange. Screenplays set in a mould and served cold.
Beat sheets need to be genre specific – Snyder’s ‘fits all’.
Thrillers and a Romances and a Detective stories all dance to different drummers.
There are far, far better beat sheets available – ie the Screenwriting Goldmine.
Studying this series got me to studying The Story Grid. Studying The Story Grid got me to studying The Odyssey. Studying the Odyssey, look what I found on p.xiii of Fitzgerald’s introduction: “The poem begins by pointing straight to its conclusion.”
Thanks, again, Steven.
Someone recently asked me what my screenplay was about.
For the first time, I said: “It’s about how things are not what they appear to be. That success on the outside might be huge failure on the inside. That intelligence on the outside might be great folly inside. Etc….”
For once, it felt right.
Before this series on theme, I said boring things about what people did in the story. Actually, I almost always lacked for words to describe it.
Now I state the theme.
Thanks. Keep it coming. I really appreciate this!
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