Theme and Throughlines in Screenwriting

Many thanks to Stuart Innes for this very entertaining and informative guest post.

‘Theme’ is a tricky beast.  It’s the sturdy packhorse that guides us – the writer – away from the sleepy hamlet of our opening chapters, through the thick forest of dead trees, to the shiny citadel of our cathartic finale.  Where we probably go and kill an evil wizard or something.

But writing stories takes time.  And if you’re not in control of your theme, you’ll get tired and bored, and all those little side paths full of exotic-looking flowers will start looking like an interesting place to take a wee wander.  And before you know it, you and your theme are frolicking in the foliage, while your audience twiddles its thumbs, wondering when the heck you’re going to get back that whole evil wizard thing.

So yeah, a strong, solid theme/horse.  How do you get one?  Recently I attended a meeting of the Edinburgh Screenwriters Group, where guest speaker Hyan Thiboutot – a very intelligent man (possibly a wizard) with 17-years of experience writing and script doctoring for North American studios – had some thoughts on the subject.

Hyan’s first advice is to identify your story’s theme.  Some folk will tell you just to start writing and let the theme find you, but Hyan disagrees.  The sooner you nail your theme, the quicker you can get down to writing the bits that are important.

Okay, you’ve got your theme.  Hooray!  Now go out and find some variations on it.  And then, make sure that each of your characters inhabits one of those variations.

To illustrate this, Hyan used the Frank Darabont movie, The Shawshank Redemption.  The theme of Shawshank is “Institutionalisation”, and so each character in the story represents an aspect of it.  Like this:

  • Warden Norton (Head of Prison): Embodiment of the institution.
  • Captain Hadley (Head Guard): The Warden’s apprentice; his likely successor.
  • Bogs (Creepy Guy): Oppressed by those above him, an oppressor of those below.
  • Brooks (Old Guy): Institutionalised.  Can’t hack life outside of prison.
  • Red (Morgan Freeman): Borderline.  On the verge of being institutionalised.
  • Andy (Tim Robbins): Refuses to be institutionalised.

Note how the protagonist and main antagonist are at opposite ends of the scale, so as to create maximum amount of conflict.  Pretty cool, huh?

Some films are content to have just one theme – an outer conflict if you will.  That’s fine, but if you’re writing something that requires a lot of depth, you can go and add a second theme – an inner conflict.  In Shawshank, it’s “Hope”, and it goes like this:

  • Warden Norton (Head of Prison): Manipulates people’s hopes, crushes them.
  • Captain Hadley (Head Guard): The Warden’s apprentice; his likely successor.
  • Bogs (Creepy Guy): No hope for himself, and destroys hope in others.
  • Brooks (Old Guy):  No hope.  Suicidal.
  • Red (Morgan Freeman): Borderline.  Not sure he can believe in hope.
  • Andy (Tim Robbins): Embodiment of hope.

So, Shawshank’s outer conflict vs. inner conflict is “Institutionalisation vs. Hope”, and because those themes are rooted in every character, the story never loses sight of what it’s about.

Wow!  Now how do we actually write this thing?  Hyan says that, on average, a 90-minute film will have about a dozen ‘throughlines’… but it varies wildly (Batman Begins has 25 of them!!).  A ‘throughline’ is screenwriter speak for a plot thread, and it traditionally comes in five parts (or ‘beats’):

  1. Introduction of Character
  2. Conflict arises
  3. Conflict gets worse
  4. Conflict comes to a head
  5. Character exits

The Andy/Bogs conflict is a throughline, but so too is the sub-plot of Red’s parole.  You don’t have to involve the protagonist in every throughline.

Most throughlines are dealt with in the mid-section of the story.  While your Opening sets the scene, and the End narrows the focus to one or two central conflicts (the biggest ones), the mid-section is where you can set the other, lesser variations into conflict with one another.

There are a few different ways you can handle this:

  • Broad: Jump from throughline to throughline, until they all converge on a single point that wraps them all up.
  • Sequential: Deal with each throughline one by one, start to finish, start to finish.
  • Multi: Each throughline is completely independent; different stories that never converge (think Paul Haggis’ “Crash” – separate stories on a single theme).
  • Mix: Some throughlines are dealt with in their entirety, others advanced in jumps.

Whew!  It’s a lot to take in, but it’s fascinating stuff, and makes me want to make sure I’m well prepared before I saddle up for my next piece of writing.



[For more information on the monthly meetings of the Edinburgh or Glasgow Screenwriters Groups, check out Scottish Screenwriters]


Interview With Sergio Casci

Sergio Casci is a Glasgow based screenwriter whose television credits include River City, Personal Affairs and Sea of Souls. His first feature film, American Cousins (2003), a romantic comedy about a Scots-Italian fish and chip shop owner who takes in his American Mafia cousins when they go on the run, was voted third best Scottish film of all time in a poll by The List magazine. His most recent film, The Caller, stars Rachelle Lefevre (New Moon, Twilight) and Stephen Moyer (True Blood). Filmed at the end of last year in Puerto Rico, the psychological thriller about a divorcee tormented by sinister phone calls will be released later in 2010.

I got into screenwriting while I was working as a BBC news trainee. After a couple of years I realised that I wasn’t temperamentally suited to being a journalist. When a big story broke other people were desperate to get sent on it and I was hiding in the toilets. I was a bit of a wimp. I was talking to a newsreader there about how lots of Scots-Italians come from this one small village in Tuscany called Barga, which is where my family come from, and she thought it was a great idea for a documentary. I went to speak to somebody who worked in features at BBC Scotland and she put me in touch with this documentary maker, Don Coutts. We came up with an idea for a documentary and I went over to Barga with him and he directed it. It was a really lovely film; very lyrical, very warm hearted, because he’s that kind of director. We got to know each other very well and it turned out that we both really wanted to make films so I went away and I wrote a full length feature screenplay, a sort of European political sex comedy thriller, which – given that the films that tend to succeed are single genre films – was destined for failure. It was a real learning experience so I thought I would be a bit less ambitious and try to make a short film.

My first short film was called Dead Sea Reels and it was about a magical piece of film which, when you play it through a projector, shows you what you need to see. The film went on to win an international award was very well received. That gave me a lot of encouragement. I wrote more short films which Don directed so in the end we made three short films together.

I started writing for television after that and eventually I reached the stage where I was earning as much from writing as I was from journalism. I had a lot of work lined up so I thought, ‘This is the time to jump.’ As soon as I left my job at the BBC, all the work immediately dried up. I had a shocking six months. It was almost like the universe had conspired to fool me.

The thing that saved my career was River City. I got involved when it was just being set up and they gave me quite regular work which meant that I could feed my family. With River City you get a bible, character outlines, the back story of each character and, if you go in for a commissioning meeting, they’ll give you an A story, a B story and a C story. Within each story they’ll tell you where they want the characters to start and finish and you have to bring the thing to life and inject as much drama as possible.

Writing for a continuing drama is not that different from writing your own film. With River City you’re working with someone else’s show so you have to listen to their ideas and suggestions. There are so many people involved – writers, technicians, producers – that you all have to follow what the centre is saying, otherwise it would spin out of control. If you are writing your own film it will only get made if someone puts money in. At the point where someone puts money in, you have to listen to their ideas and suggestions. If you were a writer who had millions of pounds of your own money to finance your film, I suppose you could do what you wanted, but in cases where somebody does write and direct and produce their own film, the finished work suffers. I can’t think of a single thing I’ve written that hasn’t been improved by other people’s input.

I’ve got many, many weaknesses as a writer but one of my strengths is dialogue. There is a rhythm and a poetry to dialogue and until it’s right, it offends me. Musicians wince when they hear a guitar being played out of tune. I wince when the rhythm and tone of dialogue is not right. I don’t write the way people talk because that would be dull. You want the dialogue to be effective but still sound natural so that a person watching thinks that that is how people talk. It’s fraudulent. I don’t think you have to be great at dialogue to be a successful screenwriter. You can be a brilliant screenwriter but crap at dialogue and you get someone in to fix it. Getting someone in to fix the structure or the character development or the plot is much, much harder.

One of the lead actors in American Cousins was a brilliant character actor called Dan Hedaya. When he had a scene he would try to cut the dialogue down as much as possible. He thought that the purest form of acting was with no words spoken at all. When he had a scene with nine or ten lines he would often cut it down to two or three. On every occasion his version was better than mine because it achieved everything I intended with my dialogue but in a much more efficient and emotionally charged way.

I still keep hoping that one day American Cousins will find a mass audience. It didn’t have the resources behind it to publicise it properly. It’s really heartening that the people who’ve seen it seem to genuinely love it, the only problem is that so few people have seen it. If you have a film that people really hate and you generate controversy then you get journalists writing about you. But American Cousins wasn’t controversial.  It was just a film that made people feel good. That’s no use. Maybe if we’d shot a puppy in the first scene… I’ll have to remember that for my next movie.

I think some people were pissed off about the chip shop mafia in American Cousins I mean how stereotypical can you get? – but I wrote that film very much for me. I wasn’t thinking about what would appeal. The fact is, for a hundred years the vast majority of Scots-Italians worked in cafés and chip shops and ice-cream shops. My great grandfather came to Scotland in 1899 and worked in a café. My grandfather then worked in a café and my dad worked in a café. Yes, it’s a stereotype but the reason that stereotypes and clichés exist is because they contain a great element of truth. I don’t have a prejudice against stereotypes. I think it depends how you use them and where you go with them. The Mafiosi in American Cousins is a heinous stereotype but I would argue that the portrayal of these people in the film was not stereotypical.

My big thing now is The Caller. I’ve always loved supernatural thrillers and horror movies and I’ve always loved comedy so I’ve tried to do both in my career. I think there are a couple of laughs in The Caller but in terms of genre it is very definitely a supernatural thriller. The film’s in post production but I’ve seen bits of it and it looks great. It’s nothing to do with me, it’s the producers and the director and the actors to thank for that. Puerto Rico is a wonderful place to film, with great crews and a fabulous variety of locations. I went over for a week to watch the filming but I wasn’t tempted to offer my own ideas. On set the director is boss and if he wants my opinion I’ll give it to him, otherwise I’ll just let him get on with his work. Don’t interrupt a surgeon in the middle of a brain operation!

At the moment I’m working on two projects which are adaptations of my wife’s [Helen Fitzgerald] novels. One’s a feature film screenplay for her thriller, The Devil’s Staircase, and the other is a TV idea based on her Krissie novels and it’s called Dead Lovely. You do have to perform major surgery when you adapt a novel because it’s this great, sprawling, panoramic thing and you can’t just plonk it into Final Draft and put in on the screen. You have to decide what the essential parts are and distil them into a three act movie while remaining true to the spirit and intention of the novelist. The good thing about working with my wife is if I collapse two characters into one or do something radical, instead of sitting there worrying, ‘Oh my God, will the novelist now stalk me for the rest of my life?’ I can just ask her and, more often than not, she’ll come up with solution that’s better than mine. From her point of view the good thing about working with me is that she knows the person adapting her book is never going to betray her vision. She’d kick my head in.

God on Trial – Frank Cottrell Boyce

Last night I went to a screening of God on Trial to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. The film is set in Auschwitz during World War II and is about a group of prisoners who decide to hold a trial against God for breaking his covenant with the Jewish people by allowing the genocide to take place.

The screenwriter, Frank Cottrell Boyce, was present at the event and answered questions from the audience about his inspiration for the film.

He had heard the story of the trial as a young man and it stuck with him. “I was just a bit daft about it really,” he said, explaining that he was moved by the fact that the story ended on a note of hope. His own faith, however, made him doubt if he was qualified write the screenplay. “I’m a Catholic. Should I be writing about a Jewish subject? It seemed quite blasphemous to have a trial of God.” He spoke to a Rabbi about it who told him that in Judaism there is a “very strong tradition of wrangling with God.” This convinced Cottrell Boyce to go ahead with the project.

He knew that for the story to work, God had to be found guilty. Cottrell Boyce asked the Rabbi for a list of arguments that might be used to make a case against God, then he sat down and read the Old Testament. “It’s a tough read. It’s a remnant of a brutal age. It’s hard to reconcile that with anything you want to believe, really.”

This research, as well interviews he had done with Holocaust survivors, provided Cottrell Boyce with the material he needed to write the screenplay. “It troubled me a lot writing this film. One of the things that held me together was talking to the people who had been there and still had their faith intact.”

When it came to rehearsing the script, Cottrell Boyce realised that his first draft focused too much on intellectual arguments. “I had to give the actors something to hold on to. The answer is not intellectual. It’s about your relationship with God.” He introduced a more human element to the story, allowing the characters to talk about their experiences at the hands of the Nazis.

One of the questions raised in the film is about the nature of goodness. Why do good people suffer? What makes a person ‘good’?

“We do get very hung up on the question of evil. I get evil. It’s just part of the evolutionary process really. Goodness is inexplicable. There should be more questions about goodness.”

Cottrell Boyce believes that the film is relevant even now, 65 years after the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, because “the Holocaust is not unprecedented and it is not alone.” He cited conflicts in Northern Ireland and Iraq as examples of atrocities happening in our own lifetime. When asked what had changed for him personally as a result of writing the film, Cottrell Boyce said that praying for him is no longer about saying please and thank you. Now he is asking ‘why?’ and “that is a fantastic gift.”

Screen Lab 2010…

…is now taking applications. If you are thinking about a career in screenwriting then this is the course for you. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Here are my notes from Screen Lab 2009: Day 1, Day2, Day3.

This year there will be a whole day on adaptations. I have a note scribbled in the margin of one of my notebooks saying that 80% of last year’s films were adaptations so  it should be a very useful and informative course.

BBC Writersroom Roadshow – Dundee 2009

Can you get a hernia from coughing too much? I have come down with a stinking cold and my cough mixture is only offering temporary relief. It tastes foul, too. I wish I were a kid again and medicine tasted like banana milkshake or strawberry Ribena. I am constantly too hot or too cold and my veering body temperature seems to be completely independent of whether or not the central heating is on. As I walked shivering through the streets of Dundee yesterday to go to the BBC Writersroom Roadshow, I had no idea if the abundance of people in t-shirts was due to uncharacteristically warm weather or to the hardy nature of Dundonians.

The roadshow kicked off with George Aza-Selinger telling us a little bit about the Scotland Writes competition. After that, Paul Ashton ran through some advice on what the BBC Writersroom is looking for in the first ten pages of a script.

I’ve already blogged about the Scotland Writes launch event and the Edinburgh Screenwriters meeting where we heard more about the competition so there’s not a lot of new information to add to that. Regarding the synopsis, they are looking for “a two page summary, just to give you that chance to add in information at this stage that we don’t know yet from reading the first ten pages.” You don’t need an episode or character breakdown in your synopsis – “If you need to describe the characters outside the script then the script isn’t really working”. You do need to say what the story is about and why you are telling it – “People need to know the whole feel of the story rather than the details.” About the impending postal strikes: “We will blog about it on our website and let you know. You can always send us an e-mail if you want to know your script has arrived.”

Now for the BBC Writersroom Guide to the First Ten Pages:

  • Start the story on page one, grab the reader’s attention straight away. Don’t preface, set-up or introduce story or characters.
  • Format is incredibly important. Master the format and make it your own. Watch drama, see how the stories are structured. “Too many people try to subvert the format before they’ve mastered it.”
  • Direct the action and the story. Write what an actor can show. Don’t direct the camera.
  • Know your world and story, genre and tone. There should be a focused way in to your story, “don’t try to set up too many storylines at the beginning.”
  • “Character is the most important thing.” Characters have to be compelling on an emotional level. Avoid cliche, subvert stereotypes. “Come up with people you want to spend time with. You don’t have to like or admire them, you just have to want to see what they are going to do next.” Your characters have to make the reader sweat, cry, laugh and cringe. “We spend a lot of time reading scripts that are really well crafted, well turned, but it doesn’t make you feel anything.”
  • There are only a finite number of stories so you need to have a fresh, unique perspective.
  • Good dialogue expresses character.” Don’t write on the nose, use subtext.
  • “You need that desire to tell a story – that’s got to be there or you can’t do great writing.”
  • “We need a sense, when we get to the end of a script, that the ending is inevitable but not predictable.”
  • Be yourself. “We’re looking for writers; we’re looking for people.”

Further advice on creating your best possible first ten pages can be found on the BBC Writersroom Website.

Scotland Writes and BBC Television Drama

Last night I went to an Edinburgh Screenwriters meeting where the guest speaker was George Aza-Selinger, a  TV drama script editor at the BBC. He talked to us about Scotland Writes and about submitting material to the BBC.

The first point of contact for new writers is the BBC Writersroom. They will read the first ten pages of all scripts submitted to them. If you are submitting a script via a production company or an agent it can go through BBC e-commissioning.

There are two common mistakes that people make when sending scripts to the Writersroom: failure to get into the drama right from page 1 and sending a script that is not suitable for the BBC channels.

George Aza-Selinger says, “You really need to hook the audience from the top and then keep hooking them throughout.” If you don’t have your viewers gripped right from the beginning they will turn off the TV or change the channel.

He gave us a brief summary of the TV drama slots available across the four BBC channels. You can read about the requirements of each slot here. George Aza-Selinger told us that BBC3 “is really interesting, seen as a clean slate and being concentrated on at BBC Scotland” which made me think that it might be good to bear the drama content of BBC3 in mind when writing my script for Scotland Writes. He did warn us, however, “don’t write too self-consciously for the slots. Let the story tell itself. Think about the characters.” After you have got the story and characters down you can think about which slot your script is most suited for and do the rewriting with that in mind.

While the Writersroom is a great starting point for new writers, George Aza-Selinger pointed out that “it is really difficult to get your own original drama on BBC.” He suggested increasing your chances by writing for long-running drama series such as Doctors or River City first, or writing for radio. “There’s a lot more opportunity to come in at grassroots level in radio.” If writing for radio appeals, check out this excellent post from Michelle Lipton on the Radio 4 Commissioning Process.

Although the Scotland Writes initiative is funded by the BBC Writersroom, the guidelines for sending scripts into the Scotland Writes competition are more specific than the Writersroom guidelines. The writer must have been born or be living in Scotland. The script must be a 60 minute pilot episode for a series or serial and must reflect contemporary Scotland. George Aza-Selinger strongly advised basing the script in Scotland rather than having a Scottish character in another country. The Scotland Writes judges will be looking for “authenticity of voice.” They don’t want scripts where “the writer is trying too hard or the characters aren’t quite right or it is too much like something else on TV.” We were told not to worry about budget when writing our scripts. “If the script is strong enough it might be possible to raise the money for it. Or you could go back to the characters and find a way to rewrite keeping the good bits and losing the expense.”

To enter the Scotland Writes competition you need to send your pilot script and two page summary of the series, along with your application form, to the BBC by 2nd November 2009 .