I was prompted to write this post after being asked for some writing advice. A friend was trying to write a TV show pitch and wanted to know the best place to start. Though I am far from the most knowledgeable writer on the planet – or even my school – I gave him some of my go-to rules, which I am now sharing here, albeit more concisely.
Theming is an idea that I find a lot of amateur writers dismiss out of hand. Something to be “discovered” or “considered later”. I respectfully disagree. I always start with one of my two main themes in my work: life-changing decisions, and facing one’s own mortality. My current feature-length script project began life as a film about a life-changing decision – an undercover F.B.I agent is forced against his will to work for a criminal mastermind – but over time it became more of a story of mortality. A great many of my characters were struggling with the deaths of loved ones, or their own impending demises, and I have radically doctored the script to suit this new theme. My main theme changed, but there was one there. Working backwards from a theme helps steer the story, and fill in any gaps in the story beats. A theme is often confused with the moral of a story, so much so that the terms are used interchangeably. I often think of the moral as a lesson, but the theme as the class. Often a writer doesn’t quite know what they’re trying to say with their work until they’ve finished it – this is their moral. But the actual premise tends to reflect an idea of some kind. Find what that is, and then think about your actual message as you write.
Now that we have our theme, we need a central character. And what I tend to do when setting out my protagonist is start with what they want to be, not what they are currently. Aspiration drives people in real life. Someone who wants to be a musician will spend hours practising to be better. Just as a boxer will spend hours at the gym, or a writer will (or should) spend hours writing. If you want an audience to empathise with a character, give them a dream, something they want to be. Batman wants to fight all the crime in Gotham – it is by no means a practical or remotely reasonable goal, but it’s what motivates every action he takes from then on.
Depending on the story you want to tell, this dream can come in a number of forms. Short or long-term, big plans or little objectives. Max Rockatansky’s goal in the Mad Max franchise is simply to avoid being killed by the harsh environment he lives in (just like most people who live in Australia). And whilst there are twists and turns in what his objective at certain moments are, they are all in aid of his one aspiration.
Ok, so with a theme to discuss and a protagonist to support up to their goal, what a story needs now is something conflicting. Something that will either make the hero’s goal crumble to dust, or make it seem further away than ever before. A person or an event, or even just an inanimate thing, but it’s best if it has something to do with the theme. To take all of my points in one example, take the case of John Wick:
Theme: A person cannot change who they truly are.
Dream: John wants to have a quiet retirement, free of violence and death.
Scream(s): John’s wife dies of cancer, and the son of his old criminal boss takes his two most treasured mementos of her.
This is just one of the ways John Wick is brilliant. The writers took such a messianic, unstoppable hitman and presented him with something he cannot shoot or punch – cancer. He wanted to leave the life of death behind him, but lost his love to a truly insidious fate. Then, everything else he loves is taken from him in a violent attack from on old friend’s son. Do you see how the “Dream” and “Scream” parallel, and both are tied to the “Theme”?
So if you’re looking to write a story, start with these three elements. Everything else should come naturally.