It’s easy to get lost in a rewrite. Who here has felt lost in a rewrite before? Anyone who is not raising their hand is a liar, or has never written a script.
There are many different ways to attack the rewriting process but today we are going to talk about one way that, in my opinion, is the most important way. This is not the only tool you will use to rewrite your script, you will need to rewrite your script several times, but I always make sure I do an entire draft dedicated to theme.
Why theme? What actually is theme?
Theme is the message you are sending out into the world. Theme is the truth that you see clearly that maybe others don’t. Theme is the call to action for everyone who reads and absorbs your script. Theme is the question you want the audience to walk away pondering. Sometimes theme is the moral. But, most importantly, theme is your message. It’s what your story is really about – it’s the truth in the make believe.
Whether you are aware of it or not, your script has a theme -- and if you don’t choose the theme, a theme will choose you. (And you may not like it.)
If you write a script where a character always does the right thing but in the end they get murdered, you are telling the world that “always doing the right thing leads to your own demise.” Now, if that is what you believe and what you want the audience to walk away with - by all means, write that story! But if that’s not what you believe, or if it is but that's not the message you want your audience walking away with, well...
Perhaps you need a different ending!
Theme is what your story is really about. It’s the heart. And it’s a great compass with which you should navigate your rewrite.
Anatomy of theme - or how to define theme in a way that helps you write.
Theme can be defined in many different ways, but if you are a storyteller there is one particular way to define theme that will help you the most.
Topic + Movement = Result
Topic - something somewhat universal that is embodied by your main character.
Movement - transformation or conflict.
Result - The end of your story (where you choose to end it) the aftermath, the cost, the prize.
If these elements are not present, you have not fully formulated your theme, and it will not be as helpful to your rewrite as it could be.
A few examples of good themes:
The need to be perfect leads to self-destruction
Jealousy destroys the thing one loves most
The desire to listen saves you from hell
Lying murders true love
Honest conquers corruption
Compassion leads to financial reward
Promiscuity leads to artistic success
Theme should have movement - theme embodies the change of your main character.
These themes are the truth reached at the end of your story - but at the beginning of your story, your theme is usually very different.
Let’s take Barton Fink.
Barton Fink is all about listening, it starts with Barton not listening or hearing anyone/thing else but his own words from his own play on stage. It ends with him sitting on a beach trying to listen and hear someone else.
So we see here how your Topic (embodied by your main character) goes on an awesome journey and transformation, resulting in a truth that the writers/directors believe about the world.
But it’s not just two steps. Barton goes from not wanting to listen or hear anyone else, to recognizing the need to listen, to trying to listen but being able to, to listening but not able to actually hear, back tracking to not wanting to listen, to listening and finally being able to start to hear.
Even though it seems like a small emotional journey, it takes him to hell and back again.
A great example of a HUGE change is Walter White from Breaking Bad, from “Mr. Chips to Scarface” in six years.
It doesn’t matter if the emotional journey is huge or small. What matters is that there is transformation, change, and movement with that topic throughout your script.
In fact, that’s called structure.
Great structure comes from the changes your main character goes through in relation to your theme.
This provides the audience with the feelings of change, transformation, and movement that will keep them invested and entertained.
This should happen approximately 6 - 8 times in a feature film. Most characters in order to fully arc need about 6 - 8 sequences to get from beginning to end.
You can think about structure and theme like a traditional relationship. If your goal going out and meeting people is to eventually get married and have kids, you would never (or perhaps should never) continue to date someone for six years who won't even move in with you, or call you their boyfriend. You need to feel the progress. First you casually date, then you become exclusive, then you meet the friends and family, then you move in together, then you get engaged, then you get married, and then you have kids and become a family. (Note: this traditional view of relationships is used as a teaching tool and does not reflect the beliefs or desires of Jessica Hinds.)
If you stay stagnant too long in one of these phases...you're going to get broken up with.
In screenwriting, that means a reader is going to stop reading your script and toss it in the “pass” basket.
So how do you discover your theme?
Yes, discover! The great thing about theme is that you don’t even have to think about it until after you bang out a first draft and guess what? It will be there.
Your unconscious brain has already slipped in the groundwork of your theme. All you have to do is look for it! (Thank you unconscious - you are so cool!)
Step 1 - Read your script a bunch of times
You need to get to know what you actually wrote. So read through your script several times, specifically looking for the change and transformation of your main character. Write down all the ways your character has changed. If this is hard to discover, you can also read just the first and last 15 pages back to back - that tends to make more subtle changes in character stand out more.
Step 2 - Choose your topic
Now hopefully you have a list of topics. Choose the one you have the strongest feelings about, the one that has the most to say, the one that is the most universal, powerful etc.
For example - let’s say your character has changed in the following ways:
Confidence: Not confident to totally confident.
Selflessness: Super selfless to selfish.
Seriousness: Silly to serious.
Hair color: Blonde to red.
Job: Dancer to lawyer.
Education: High school to College grad.
Relationship status: Casually dating losers to committed relationship with a good guy.
Don’t choose hair color or job. That’s lame!
A few notes: confidence, selfishness or seriousness are more likely to be powerful universal topics, while education and relationship status might be a result (status and love). Hair color and job are probably just plot indications that help to externalize the change so the audience to see it.
Step 3 - Write down the result
How does your story (in it’s current state) end?
Step 4 - What is the movement?
Write out your theme in its entirety. What is the topic? How does it move, and what is the result?
Taking oneself seriously leads to success.
Overcoming shyness leads to love.
Step 5 - Decide if this is something you want to say
You may do this and realize that, at the present moment, your current draft is saying something you don’t want it to say. That’s okay! You can easily change that by changing your ending, or by simply letting your film end in a different place in your character's journey.
In Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty - the princess rides off with the prince and the story ends there. The theme is “true love conquers evil.” But if you watched a bit longer and we saw them settle into the castle, and we watched them as work gets in the way of their relationship, sure enough we might see the prince asking the chamber maid if she wants to ‘Netflix and chill’.
Now our theme has changed to “true love eventually fades.” Or if we had ended the film earlier, when the princess was sleeping/dead and the prince was held captive by Maleficent, the theme would be possibly even more depressing.
So, if your theme is not something you believe in, see if you can end the film in a different place -- or if you need to, go ahead and change your ending.
Instead of getting married, Sleeping Beauty and the Prince move to Silicon Valley, create a startup offering nootropic solutions for those suffering from ridiculous sleep disorders. What might that theme be?
How to use theme to discover structural problems in your script.
Now that you have your theme, you want to read through your script and write down when your theme changes. You don’t need to change anything yet, first just see what you have going on.
Example Topic: Compassion Theme: Compassion heals all wounds.
Sequence 1: No compassion leads to financial success. Sequence 2: No compassion causes loss of family. Sequence 3: The desire for compassion leads to community. Sequence 4: Compassion creates opportunity. Sequence 5: Compassion allows others to take advantage of you. Sequence 6: Denying one’s own compassion leads to isolation. Sequence 7: Compassion heals all wounds.
It is not likely that after your first draft your list will be this polished, in fact it is more likely to look like this…
Sequence 1: No compassion leads to financial success. Sequence 2: No compassion leads to loss of family. Sequence 3: Refusing one’s own compassion leads to isolation. Sequence 4: Compassion heals all wounds.
“Hmmmm, she went from having no compassion to denying her compassion...I have a few steps to fill in…”
But now you know exactly what you need to write!
1. How she gets that compassion, and then
2. What happens that makes her deny it?
In fact, right now, why don’t you take five minutes and write down your version of this character, whoever you want her to be, in whatever world, in any genre.
How does this compassionless woman find her compassion, and then what happens that makes her deny it?
Now that we know how to fill in bigger structural gaps using theme, let's get down to how to rewrite a sequence based on theme.
Rewriting sequences based on theme.
So your big building blocks are in place. You have your beginning, middle, end, as well as change happening throughout that middle section. (Act 2 is too big - it must be broken up.)
You know that by the end of the script you are saying something you believe in, but let’s look a little closer to make sure your structure within each section is doing what it needs to do.
“Sequence One: No compassion leads to financial success.”
You want to take this section out, print it out and dedicate some time to just focusing on it. Don’t worry about anything else - just focus on these pages.
Step 1 - Read the sequence a bunch of times.
You need to get to know what you actually wrote. So read through your sequence several times, specifically looking for the change and transformation of your main character. Write down all the changes.
If this is hard to discover, you can also read just the first and last scenes back to back - that can make more subtle changes stand out more.
Step 2 - Choose your arc!
In the first scene, your character has a little bit of compassion. Perhaps she lets a driver in front of her in traffic and it causes her to be late to work and lose her job.
Then by the last scene of this sequence she shows no compassion and cuts in line in front of a crippled old lady at the lotto counter and buys a winning lotto ticket.
So in this sequence you are creating an arc for this character that goes from a little compassion to no compassion.
Step 3 - Check every scene.
Now every scene in between the first and last of this sequence you can check to see if you are arcing, moving forward, the compassion (or lack thereof) in the main character.
Write down, at the end of each scene, how this scene moved that character one step closer to the end of the sequence.
Step 4 - What if a scene doesn’t move the character one step closer?
Let’s say you read through seven scenes in the first sequence and you find two of them do not have any movement in regards to the main character and her compassion. You now have two questions to ask.
“Can I cut it?”
If you can just cut the scene and the story still works...awesome! Get rid of it, the tighter the script the better!
But let's say the story just doesn’t work without the scene then you need to ask yourself…
2. “How can I make these scenes about my theme?”
Now you know exactly how to approach the rewrite of this scene.
How to use theme to rewrite a scene?
You might think – “Okay, this scene has to stay, because this is when she buys a new car and meets Dave (who is important later) but right now nothing about compassion is happening in this scene. Well what if instead of Dave just selling her the car she sees him getting yelled at by his boss and she feels compassion for him so THAT’s why she buys the car - BOOM!”
Now your scene is structurally important for your theme and the audience can continue to keep the eye on the ball. (The ball being your theme, of course.)
DIY Scene Theme Rewrite.
Below is an open scene, you can use this over and over again to practice rewriting using theme.
... FADE IN:
EXT. CEMETERY - DAY
A BUSINESSMAN speaks on his cell phone.
BUSINESSMAN Of course Jerry!
A few plots away, Helen stares down at a headstone.
“HERE LIES BOBBY JUNE: LOVING FATHER, SCRABBLE ADDICT.”
BUSINESSMAN (O.S.) I told him to shove it up his ass!
Helen takes a deep breath. She places flowers on the grave.
BUSINESSMAN (O.S.) And that son of a bitch did it. BOOM! ‘Merica - fuck yeah!
Helen looks over at the Businessman.
HELEN Please keep it down.
The businessman comes over to Helen, He unzips his pants and urinates on the grave. He smiles, zips up and walks away.
Helen cries. FADE OUT.
So let’s say the two things that have to happen here are Helen visiting the grave and the man pissing on it. Let's just say, for later in the story, those two things need to happen.
Now rewrite the scene. Anything can happen so long as Helen visits the grave and the man pisses on it, but rewrite it focusing on the movement of one of the following topics.
In fact, if you want to really get good at this, rewrite this scene seven times, one for each of these topics. Or come up with more topics and rewrite the scene based off those!
Then all you have to do is repeat!
So now that your first sequence has movement of your topic in every scene, you can go to sequence two and do exactly what you did in the first sequence. Continue this, so on and so forth, until you have reached the end of your script.
Note: this doesn’t mean you are done with rewriting. (Sorry!) But at least now you know that heart of your story -- what it’s really about.
The truth that you are putting out into the world is present and strong on every page.
The Rewriting Rule for Sanity.
“Focus on one thing at a time.”
If you are going to do a draft of your script focusing on theme, focus on theme. Don’t get caught up in every little formatting mistake, or two-dimensional secondary character, or cliché dialogue. You will drive yourself nuts.
Just like cleaning your house, you want to start with the top and work your way down. If you're going to dust, dust! Then when you are done dusting, if you want to wipe down all the surfaces, wipe them down. Eventually you’ll work your way down to sweeping and mopping, in good time.
But if you are in the middle of dusting and you stop to wipe that dust off the floor, you are just slowing yourself down, and making more work for yourself because you know when you wipe down those counters, crumbs are going to fall on the floor. And then you are going to have clean the same spot twice! What a waste!
Accept the fact that when you are rewriting a script what you are focusing on will get stronger and tighter and cleaner. It might make other parts of the script messier, temporarily, but that's okay!
They can be messy. You’ll clean it up when it's time to do the floors.
Jess Hinds The Crass Shaman
The Crass Shaman
Written by a dyslexic, proof read by an apathetic foreigner.