Theme is something a reader is often asked to comment on in script reports. Sometimes it is very obvious: “good versus evil” for example is one of the oldest themes you care to mention and can be applied to hundreds, if not thousands, of stories whether they’re movies, shorts, TV or novels. Sometimes a theme is a specific message the writer wants to communicate – and usually these can be applied to moral tales of where society is going; how women and/or children should be treated; how fortune favours the brave; how life is a triumph of hope over experience; how moral cowards, fascists or bullies will always get their comeuppance. Sometimes the very stories a writer chooses to write will communicate the theme that most concerns them; if you remember I call this re/presentation and believe it is part of your voice as a writer. However a reader will need the privilege of reading most, if not all of the body of a writer’s work to really be sure of this idea – and even then, their own perception may colour this. For example, a loyal reader of mine believes the theme that “infects” my body of work is:
Life is shit. Get over it.
My take? Yes, there’s a certain element of that through my work – regardless of genre. I’ve written (with varying degrees of “success”) comedy, horror, thriller, supernatural thriller, psychological drama and action-adventure now and certainly, characters have to face a lot of crap to get what they want in my stories. But drama is conflict, as our old mate Syd is so fond of saying. I’m also from the school of “Get on with it”; I have no time for people who bleat about how terrible their lives are yet do nothing to help themselves. You don’t want it this way? So change it. Yes it’s hard: none of us live charmed lives. But sometimes the only person with the power to change your life is you. Cheesy, yes; a cliche, undoubtedly; but like all cheesy cliches there’s truth there.
So what is my theme, according to me?
If I had known then what I know now, would I have done what I did?
Guilt, remorse, a wish to turn the clock back, a belief that future happiness is based on “undoing” past wrongs are all present in my stories, no matter the execution; no matter who the protagonist is – male, female; strong or weak; young or old. Interestingly, the antagonist is nearly always stronger than the protagonist; usually physically (and usually a male pitched against a female); I have one script in which twin boys are pitched against each other, identical in every way but for the fact the slightly younger brother is more academic, more sporty, better with words than his slightly older, nerdier twin. Even in the two scripts where I have a protagonist who is also THEIR OWN antagonist, their “dark side” is stronger than their goodness, which is more vulnerable and looks like it will be crushed in its wake.
Of course, it’s all too easy to imagine we “know” the writer from the page or production. I’ve noticed in several of the blogosphere’s very own James Moran’s TV episodes, he has characters open their front door – AND SOMETHING BAD HAPPENS. In Torchwood, a character is killed by an alien sleeper agent with a spiky arm; in Spooks: Code 9 a character is killed in a similar way, only by a knife-wielding human. It would be very easy to suppose James himself has opened the door himself to something threatening, but in reality it’s actually just a very effective, dramatic screenwriting device and nothing more. There is such a thing as reading between the lines TOO MUCH.
It does pay however to be aware of the theme of your story – and which themes preoccupy you as a writer AND a human being (‘cos they’re not always the same). Many writers resist the notion of communicating anything in their stories – “It’s just a story” they’ll insist – but a story is a communication in itself, no matter the medium. Whilst readers and viewers can take theme, symbolism and allusion too far, there is more than a good chance you will be asked what ideas concern you as a writer, whether it’s in an interview or on a script report.
So I’ve told you mine: what do YOU want to write about?