The Theme of a Screenplay

Last evening, my good friend Dawood (I don’t want to call him my student anymore; he’s now a Film School faculty) came to my office in Chennai to discuss about his idea of shooting a series of short films. Dawood well believed short films have become a widely recognized segment among film viewers, may be thanks to Facebook and YouTube! Well, the point why I want to write this blog today is something that struck to me when I was hearing what Dawood narrated as his short film screenplay last evening. I asked him a simple question after I heard the script: Did you have something like this ——- as the theme before you started working on the script? He answered yes; and I was truly happy to hear him say that.

Creating a ‘premise’ or ‘theme’ for your screenplay before you start working on it is very important, whether you write a short or long feature script. I always ask my students: “What is the premise of your story?” And I ask this question on purpose to let the student analyze on a fundamental whether the screenplay has succeeded or failed. If it fails, it means the student failed to convey to the audience what is driving his story; or in another perspective why the audience should care?

You may wonder why I keep on harping on the ‘theme-factor’ in classes or discussions on writing screenplays. Though creating a theme for the story seems like a simple enough task, I strongly believe that 90 percent of the films written by students or novice writers fail the ‘theme-factor’ test. Often times, what makes a story move aren’t what inspire us to sit down and attempt to write a screenplay. The source of inspiration may be a great idea for an opening, a setting, a character or a plot twist. While there’s nothing wrong with starting with whatever stirs our imaginations and passions, at some point you should ask, “What is my story about?”

In his book The Art of Dramatic Writing (1946), teacher and playwright Lajos Egri discusses at length how premises work. Egri states:Everything has a purpose, or premise. Every second of our life has its own premise, whether or not we are conscious of it at the time. That premise may be as simple as breathing or as complex as a vital emotional decision, but it is always there…Every good play must have a well-formulated premise…No idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise.

The premise should be the driving force behind every event in your screenplay. A good premise is derived from emotions–love, hate, fear, jealousy, desire, etc.–and revolves around a character, a conflict and a conclusion. For example, the premise of William Shakespeare‘s Othello is that unchecked jealousy leads to death. Othello is the character, his jealousy of Desdemona is the conflict and death (of both) is the conclusion. In Aamir Khan’s movie Taare Zameen Par (2007), the premise is that a dyslexic child needs to be understood by others to discover the child’s innate talents. The conflict is that none understands Ishaan Awasthi; and Ram Shankar’s diligent approach to find Ishaan helps the boy discover himself finally. In James Cameron‘s film Titanic (1997), the premise is that love conquers death, physically and spiritually. Rose is the character, the sinking ship and Rose’s forced engagement are the conflict and the conclusion is that Jack Dawson’s love helps her beat death and frees herself from her fiancé. In Jonathan Demme‘s film The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the premise is that courage destroys evil. FBI agent Clarice Starling is the character, the conflict is her fear of the serial killer Buffalo Bill and the conclusion is that she overcomes her fears in order to defeat her opponent.As noted by Egri, “A good premise is a thumbnail synopsis of your play.”If your story does not have a clear premise, it will lack focus and drive. For example, if a story is more “illustrative” than dramatic, it may not maintain an audience’s interest. I have seen a recent film Va Quarter Cutting (Tamil), which in spite of the directorial and cinematographic excellence falls into this category, I guess.

If a story has more than one premise, or if the premise changes along the way, it will confuse and bore the audience. Either way, the script won’t work. However, some screenplays, like Steven Gaghan’s script for Traffic (2000) and Alan Ball‘s script for American Beauty (1999), are able to succeed with multiple story lines and points of view. This is because while these movies may seem at first to be without a premise, in fact, each separate storyline has its own clear premise.What are the premises of some of your favorite films? Maybe you have a few ideas for a story, but haven’t narrowed your theme or premise down yet. Maybe a simple premise could provide you the starting point for your first screenplay.

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