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A Thought on Theme
Posted in My Journey as a Screenwriter 4 min read
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C. Neil Davenport. Monday Blog. 11/07/2022

A Thought on Theme

In the midst of having coffee with Christopher Dorr, one of my UNCSA grad professors, a discussion about theme arose and how to look at it in a different light. Similar to holding a prism at just the right angle to the sun… Take note: This is the reason why getting together over coffee with an influential figure is so vital. Discoveries of the most profound nature are unearthed when two people who are both passionate about storytelling simply sit together and talk. Nonetheless, the segment of the conversation which struck me was the alternative way of viewing theme within narrative design.

If you have read enough books on screenwriting as I have, you will find they all start saying the same thing… especially when it comes to this subject. No matter how you dish it out, a narrative’s theme is basically the writer’s central unit point of expression, and or argument which is examined throughout the story. One book goes so far to describe it as a statement posed which is later adhered. Another book says a theme serves as a story engine that slowly bends the protagonist’s character arc through a series of milestones, and an additional text elaborates how it has a hidden agenda build within its context to convince the audience on a particular perspective, but Chris in all his wisdom simply took a swig of coffee and said…

“A theme is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question.” Took another sip, “And after the answer is given, then the following question is ‘okay, how?’ which is your story.” 

Christopher Dorr

My mind was blown to say the least. Here I am focused and bogged down on all the different extremities of a theme and how can it be utilized in the most efficient way that I forget what it actually is and how it is used.

Chris used numerous examples to demonstrate this new way of looking at theme, but I’ll speak on two. The first example was contemporary, Netflix’s limited series The Queen’s Gambit (2020). If you are not familiar, as per IMDb, it is about an introverted orphan in the 1960s who discovers she is a chess prodigy, but stardom comes at a price. Watch it. Highly recommend anything by Scott Frank.

Normally when you ask me about theme, I think of the subtext, ‘what is under the iceberg?’ type of stuff. So, I would touch on topics of female empowerment within a male dominated environment. Then when you ask my brother, someone who does not have any correlation to the study or practice of storytelling, he looks at the surface level. So, he would touch on elements of genius and drug addiction. Neither one of these are wrong, but in Chris’ perspective the theme of this story is, “Can an orphan find a family?” and the answer is, “Yes,” which leads to, “How?”

…This is the moment where I closed my eyes in astonishment.

The second example Chris used was more traditional, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). As per IMDb, the aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty in postwar New York City transfers control of his empire to his reluctant son. It is a classic, highly recommend.

To me, it is about the American Dream, the father-son dynamic, and family. My brother would remark on entrapment and history. Again, all correct, but let us use Chris’ perspective.

It’s helpful to note that Michael Corleone, the reluctant son of the aging patriarch is the protagonist. So, the question is, “Can a son take over his father’s business?” The answer is, “Yes.” Okay, “How?” It is incredible how the story unfolds with this use of theme.

Now, I will remark that when this technique of theme is used on both existing stories and stories that are currently being developed, the ‘How?’ element can be challenging due to its lack of direction. When you examine the ‘How?’ element of The Queen’s Gambit, to someone who’s never seen it, the possibilities are endless. How does an orphan find a family through chess? Same thing goes for The Godfather… But I think that openness helps make this type of theme fantastic.

I think the ‘How?’ element needs to be open and directionless in order to provide the storyteller a window of creative opportunity to ask, “How does it actually happen?” Applying this method, I believe helps shape the uniqueness of the narrative. For example, two different storytellers could take either question, answer them in their own words, and two different stories could be told.

Photo by: C. Neil Davenport (2022)

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