“What Is the Theme for Your Story?” by Joan Y. Edwards
Theme is one of the most difficult story elements to understand. Many people confuse theme with plot. The theme is the author’s view of the world, the moral to their story, the lesson the characters learn in the plot they unfold.
Paul Peditto brought up an interesting topic in my interview of him on my blog. He figures out his theme first, outlines, and then writes his story.
Melissa Donovan states, “Some experts have suggested that authors shouldn’t think too much about theme until they’ve produced a draft, while others believe that theme is so integral that it should be present throughout story development.”
Should you figure out the theme before your write the story?
Should you wait until you have written your story to see what the theme turns out to be?
Either way is fine.
What exactly is the theme? How do you figure out the theme of your story? Why is it important to have a strong emotional theme?
Shawn Coyne author of The Story Grid, says theme is the message you want the reader to discover from reading your story.
Jerry Jenkins says, “Plot is what happens. Theme is why it happens.”
Usually when I get an idea for a story I know what the one word theme idea is like love or fear, but how my story unfolds determines what my final view on the theme for this particular story. What do I want the readers to discover about love? Love is long lasting or love fleets like the wind. What do I want them to learn about fear from the characters in my story? Fear defeats everyone or everyone can defeat fear. People will help you face your fears or fears are dauntless even with help.
Readers want to relate to your story. The theme is how it reaches them on a deep level. It has an emotional pull. It connects with the heart and soul of your readers.
When someone reads your story, they find out your view of the world and human nature because of the plot (what happens) and characters (who does it) in your story.
An author shows us his view on life through the experiences of his characters in a particular set of circumstances. This is the theme for his story.
What is your answer when someone asks you, “What is your story about?”
Chances are you will relate the short pitch for the story, then you’ll probably mention what the main character learns from the events in your book.
Can a mere spider save a pig from death?
Lesson learned: Even the smallest creature can save someone.
My Cousin Vinny
Can two boys be convicted of murdering a clerk when all they did was forget to pay for a can of tuna?
Lesson learned: Even the least experienced lawyer can save cousin and his friend from a murder conviction when he accepts the help of a friend.
Twelve Angry Men
Can one juror change the mind of eleven other jurors when he has reasonable doubt that an 18 year old committed murder?
Lesson learned: Take your responsibility to protect life seriously and believe you can make a difference.
Ponder the deeper meaning of your story, what lesson, message about human nature or the human condition does the plot and actions of the characters in your story do that gets an emotional reaction from the reader.
Please leave a comment. Share your favorite movie or book with your question about the story and what you learned from it. Thank you for reading my blog. I hope it helps you.
I took a playwriting course with Script University in November 2020 with Paul Peditto, award-winning screenwriter, playwright, and director. I learned a lot. He has a way of making you feel great about your writing and showing you ways to make it even better.
I am very honored that he agreed to let me interview him on my blog!!! Feel free to ask questions or leave comments for him.
Welcome, Paul. Thanks for letting me interview you today. My readers and I are excited you are here.
You’re welcome, Joan. I’m glad to be here with all of you. Let’s get started.
1. Where were you born? Where do you live now? Where would you like to travel and why?
Born in Ithaca, New York. Living in Chicago since 1988. I would SO love to travel right now, but there’s the little matter of COVID. When I get two shots in my arms, it’ll be wings up. Europe? South America?
I almost don’t care, so long as it’s out of this Twilight Zone episode of a cage I’ve been living in since March.
2. How did you get interested in writing screenplays?
I wasn’t school trained. I wrote a play about my drug-addicted girlfriend who died. That was well-received in Chicago and elsewhere. My brother, Christopher, wanted to make it into a movie(with him in the lead role, of course!) so I was tasked with writing a screenplay for the play. There were no computers then so I counted out the spacing on a screenplay and made those scene, action, character tabs on my manual typewriter to adapt the play in screenplay form. It got made years later with Calista Flockhart in the lead role. She got famous with Ally McBeal shortly after and our little movie–which started out in our tiny theater in Chicago–ended up on Entertainment Tonight. Made over 2 million though we never saw that money. That’s another story!
3. Who helped you believe in yourself as a writer?
My brother, Christopher, ran Igloo theater in Chicago so the instant I wrote a new play he put it up. Without him, I would have had no idea if the plays were any good. Seeing the effect your writing has on an audience is an incredible experience and one of the true joys of being a playwright. Every night, it’s new. So yes, that helped me develop my own style and compass. If you don’t have faith in your own stuff, who else will?
4. What are you writing now?
Not much. COVID era, very little getting made. No theaters are open here in Chicago. I made some Xtranormal movies (animated) on YouTube this summer. Check ’em out on my Youtube page.
5. Which is your favorite genre and film?
Don’t have a fav genre but TAXI DRIVER is my fav movie. And that says everything you need to know about me!
6. What is your favorite screenplay you wrote and why?
CROSSROADERS was the most complete script. This was about casino thieves. Although it never got made, it won semis at Nicholl Fellowship and was optioned by Haft Entertainment–makers of Dead Poets Society. it came very close to being made. There was a budget and a director attached to it. It looked good to go. Unfortunately, ROUNDERS came out just before it and the producer got cold feet. Now it makes a really effective door stop.
Just shows you with Hollywood, how close you can come and it still not happen. This goes back to the writer’s compass I was talking about.
I know that’s a good script and if it was cast with name talent it could and probably would win awards. But without an agent to push it and needing millions, it sits on the shelf. It’s what drove me crazy about the L.A. movie scene and why I eventually moved into writing micro-budget stuff like CHAT, the last movie I made in 2015. There comes a point where as a writer you just want to make SOMETHING without needing the money or approval of others. So you write a play you can produce yourself or a micro-budget film you can make for low money.
7. What is the difference between a novel, a stage play, and a screenplay?
This isn’t a question that can be answered in a nifty short paragraph. maybe the better question is the difference in how these formats communicate.
Film is a VISUAL medium. Juxtaposing images for emotional impact. The Novel has INNER MEANING and MONOLOGUES that film can’t have(not without voice over, anyhow) so all that has to be turned into images if you write for the screen. For instance, a 30-page passage in AMERICAN PSYCHO about business cards plays as TWO pages, two minutes in the screenplay.
Stage plays are about the WORD. You suspend disbelief. We’re not in China like a movie, we’re just implying it. But all that stagecraft is to support the words of the playwright.
Playwright, for me, has always been higher on the priority pyramid than screenwriters. Screenwriters drive up in clown cars. Tennessee Williams will forever be Tennessee Williams.
8. What questions do you ask when deciding which screenplay contest to enter?
I concentrate on major contests. Nicholl Fellowship, Sundance Lab, Austin, maybe Page awards. Go to moviebytes.com to see a master list of all the contests.
Nicholl Fellowship is the Academy Awards of screenwriting contests. Easily the most important.
When I got semis at Nicholl (which means your script is down to 150 out of 10,000+) I had 25 producers, managers and agents email me the next day. They hawk the Nicholl list. This is how it works in the usual L.A. system. Get the agent, get the manager, get assignments, etc.
Screenplay contests are good because you don’t need an agent to apply. Anything you can do proactively, without permission from L.A. is a good thing.
9. How do you decide to write a new screenplay?
I am THEME driven. I write a script because the subject matter means something to me. Someone near me was arrested recently for marijuana. (Yes, can you imagine that in this day and age?) They’re trading weed stocks on Wall Street and people are rotting in jail for growing marijuana. This bothered me enough that I spent 5 months writing a screenplay about it. This is my sole concern when organizing characters and story. It’s the only way I can justify spending months on a project because it means something to me. And hopefully, it means something to the audience. That universality–that it impacted me and, therefore, will impact the audience is really the key for new screenwriters and playwrights to consider.
10. What three craft books do you recommend screenwriters study?
SAVE THE CAT, Blake Snyder, is the big structure book these days
SCREENWRITERS BIBLE, Dave Trottier, is the format book.
To answer this would take 15 weeks of a 3-hour per week class. The cute fast answer would be to read as many screenplays as possible on IMSDB.COM, learn the craft. Also, understand that it’s never done, even when they’re paying you. There will always be rewrites, even when they’re shooting the movie!
12. How is writing a screenplay different than writing a novel?
I’ve only written one novel so I’m not qualified to answer this. This goes back to what i said before about film being a VISUAL medium and a novel being a place of WORDS and INNER THOUGHT.
13. How many sentences is too many for a line of dialogue in a screenplay?
This question reminds of that scene in AMADEUS when the King tells him his opera had “too many notes.” And Mozart responds there were exactly as many notes as was necessary to finish the opera. There’s no one model for creativity. If it works, it works. You know it, too. Sure, you have to concern yourself with length more in a screenplay–how many four-hour movies did you see lately? While with a novel, it’s a novel at 300 pages or 1300? There are no 1300 page screenplays.
14. What writing exercise do you use to to help you write a scene ?
I outline my screenplays extensively. It might take weeks, but I figure out the story beats ahead of time, and get them down on paper.
When I start writing I’ve basically already written it in my head. If I get stuck anywhere, I can move to the next scene in the outline. While I’d recommend outlining, that’s my process. Writers have to do what’s natural for them so outlining might not be right for some. You could argue that you want more spontaneity, You want your characters to speak to you organically. And that’s fine…as long as they keep speaking to you! Nothing worse than getting to page 23 and they stop speaking to you!
15. Different screenwriting books talk about beats. I get confused. Would you please explain what a beat is and how it is helpful.
The definition of a beat is the smallest actable unit in a scene. There could be multiple beats–which means which character is driving the scene, dominating it. So, beats within a scene, scenes within a sequence, sequences within an act, acts within the screenplay. These are structural units. like Russian nesting dolls.
16, What is subtext and how can writers use it to deepen the impact of their writing?
Subtext is saying it without saying it. it’s saying everything BUT the thing. it’s the opposite of exposition where you tell the audience exactly what the character is thinking.
17.What does it mean when they say the writing is on the nose?
It means exposition. Means it’s too on the head, too obvious, too stated and predictable. Always try to surprise your audience.
18. If screenwriters would like for you to critique a screenplay, what questions do you ask yourself to help you evaluate it?
Every script has different upsides and down. Some scripts are genre-based, meaning bigger budget thriller, action, etc. Some are character-driven–more Art House, movies you’d see at Sundance, smaller stories told in a drama, dramedy or comedy.
Commerciality matters, of course, but a good story rules the day in the end. Characters too, gotta “give a shit” and care about the journey, have an emotional investment or just plain fascination. Originality by definition means I’ve never seen it before. That’s rare indeed. in the end writers should NOT be worrying about what others are going to say about their work. They should be writing down to the core of what matters to them. You can’t go wrong if you stay close to that honesty.
Paul, thank you very much for answering my questions. My readers will be very excited to meet you and learn from you.
Paul Peditto is an award-winning screenwriter and director.
His low-budget film Jane Doe starring Calista Flockhart won Best Feature at the New York Independent Film & Video Festival. Six of his screenplays have been optioned including Crossroaders to Haft Entertainment (Emma, Dead Poets Society). He recently wrote and produced the micro-budget feature Chat, currently distributed on iTunes, VUDU, YouTube, and Dish Network by Gravitas Ventures.
Over the past decade, Mr. Peditto has consulted with over 1,000 screenwriting students around the world. He has been Featured Speaker at Chicago Screenwriters Network, Meetup.com, Second City, and Chicago Filmmakers. He has appeared on National Public Radio and WGN radio, and reviewed in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, L.A. Times, and the New York Times.
Peditto is an adjunct professor of screenwriting at Columbia College. Under his guidance his students have written and produced films that have appeared in major film festivals, have semifinal placings at Nicholl Fellowship, and have won awards and screened at film festivals around the country. His new book, The D.I.Y. Filmmaker is available through Self-Counsel Press on Amazon.
Thank you for reading my interview with Paul Peditto. He is willing to answer your questions, so please leave your comments and questions. We look forward to reading them. Feel free to share his interview with your writer friends.