Category Archives: Theme

Screenwriters: Are You Writing for the Wrong Audience?

When you write a novel, you write for your final readers – the consumer who will purchase your book. You don’t write for an agent or an editor or anyone else.

When you write a screenplay, however, you write knowing your final viewer will never see it. So who are you writing for?

While we screenwriters envision our version of our stories on the screen, our real job is storytelling. Because we are telling a story that others will pick up and retell – adding their own twists and turns, making it their own in their telling of it. And ultimately, it will land in a director’s hands who will “catch the vision,”see it through his or her creative lens and bring the story to life through the cast and crew. This can sound incredibly frightening when you think of how intimately you know your characters, their stories, what they’re after. And how hard you’ve worked at creating scenes that tell that story. And you’re right, it is a matter of trust.

But it is also a matter of perspective. If you write solely with the idea that your words on the page will be the final result, you miss the full weight of what you can contribute and do with the story for the other creative professionals it will be entrusted to.

As I’ve said before, a screenwriter is the first trustee of the story.

We have certain responsibilities that no other creative professional – not even additional writers – can fulfill.

We carry the honor of “origin” – the story first presented itself to us and no one will ever know that original story better than we will. But, stories are more than description, action and dialogue – all stuff that can and most likely will be changed.  So what is that we have that others don’t?

The meaning of the story.


When someone else “catches the vision” of your script – it’s the theme they catch. They may or may not like the way you’ve told the story, but if they catch the theme, they’ll respond to it. If that theme resonates with them creatively, spiritually and financially, they’ll pursue it. Because at the heart of this business is storytelling. And theme drives story.

So what do our colleagues need from us?

1. A soul-driven story.

This means that your characters have human qualities, seem realistic to our emotions and move from a place of pain, need, hunger to growth, truth, and freedom. It means you write your own soul into it. You put the “humanness” into the story.

2. A story they can shape.

A well-crafted story has shape and is malleable. Actors and directors will bring life to your story that words on paper never can achieve – and they do that by being individuals and bringing their best creativity to the process. If you give them leeway in a script by giving them a solid theme-based story that they can spark ideas off of, they will. They’ll work with what you’ve presented, work with the characters, and create scenes that best present the theme.

3. Willingness to let go and let them.

If you’ve carried the theme well in your script, you’ll have faith that it will be carried into the final version of the story. Scenes, dialogue, description may change, but the story will a solid foundation to stand on and you will be able to trust others as they take responsibility for it. Remember, there’s always more than one way to get a message across. It’s the message (theme) that counts.

4. Understand their roles in the process.

As writers it’s too easy to get trapped inside our part of the process. We need to learn more about the people who will be the other trustees of the story.We need to understand their roles in the creative process and how they use the script as a working document.

Mark Travis‘s book Directing Feature Films gives a wonderful presentation of a director’s perspective of the script and the process a director may go through to capture that vision and continue the trust of the story. (He also has a very caring, respectful attitude toward writers and actors, which is refreshing and nurturing.) Exploring the craft of the other creative professionals who will be entrusted with the story is essential to understand what it is they need from you in the original script.

When you write from the perspective of theme – then you free yourself from the weight of seeing every word as “do or die” – and can tell the story in a solid way that presents the  meaning of the story through the spiritual problems, growth and fulfillment of the characters. How that happens in the story may change. But the essence of the story will remain. And that’s where writers can find the deepest fulfillment. Knowing that our job is to present a powerful, moving story that touches the human spirit and inspires others to share it with the world, too.





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.

On Theme

“We are the voices for the deeper, unspoken dramas in other people’s hearts.” – Dorothy Bryant, writer

Theme. It springs from who we are. From what’s unsettled in us. And when you honor it, it reaches out gracefully and grabs people by the heart.

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