Protect Your Work’s Message, Not the Words
Theme, or message, is the DNA of your creative work. It’s not something you consciously add or layer on top of it. It’s where the Story touches the human soul. Message comes from within the work, it emerges organically and exists before the work comes into being. It’s there, though sometimes it takes a bit of gentle digging and patience to uncover it.
As the Writer, you’re the first Trustee of the Story. It’s your job to shape, craft and decide how the Story can be expressed in the most powerful, effective way. If it’s a novel, these decisions are entirely up to you. For a screenplay, this is where you have the most power, up front, to direct how a reader experiences the script and to ensure the Story has the substance to make it through the creative collaboration of nearly 200 people. It is your first and often only chance to lay out your vision for the characters and theme for the other writers who will be tasked with contributing to it.
Which leads to a question: does the Story ever really belong to you? I don’t think it does.
We’re the first Trustees. Charged with caring, nurturing, and writing the strongest Story we possibly can. Giving the Story the best possible chance of growing up into a powerful, self-reliant film by the sheer quality of our storytelling’s framework.
No matter how robust a script is, other people are going to take over caring for it. We have to remember our role as First Trustee and when given the opportunity, be willing to stand up firmly for what we know is sacred to the Story and the characters, and be willing to stand down, as well. And to do that professionally, we have to remember that there is more than one way to get a message across.
When I was starting out as a features writer, one of the first things I had to learn was to “let go” of the story to hand it over to an editorial team. I quickly learned that there is always more than one way to tell a story and still get the same message across. It’s the message you have to protect. Not the words.
When you are driven to protect the message, and not the words or expression, you’ll be able to craft your work to its fullest, and most powerful, potential. And when others are given the task of contributing to it, you’ll know what to measure.
It’s true that once your Story is bought, you may never have another word to say about it again. All the more reason why we have to make sure a script is the strongest, most robust ‘framework’ it can be.