Over the last few years, I’ve done over forty workshops, although to be fair, I’m not really sure about the number. People and their wips are unique, but the workshops are starting to blend. In the beginning, I had horribly geeky titles that attracted people like me, and I rarely had problems. Sometimes though, I’d get a wild hair and use a catchy title, or people would recommend my workshops. In some ways, it was a good thing. Preaching to the choir only helped me to see one aspect of a bigger problem—the brilliant idea.
Maybe it’s parasitic or something, because it’s hard to tear a brilliant idea from the host organism. Not that I’m trying to stop someone from being brilliant, but high concept is just an idea looking for a way to express itself. I mean—look at all the duds—Snakes on a Plane!! Giant Gorilla makes off with Beautiful Woman. It doesn’t mean anything.
Gorillas in the Mist is a better story than King Kong, because it’s got focused theme. King Kong has “beauty and the beast.” An idea to hang theme on, which means brilliant ideas are the first step in a process, and sometimes that process stops short. What’s up with the giant gorilla? Is it spectacle or story? Gorillas in the Mist can be boiled down to “woman makes friends with gorillas,” but it’s all about love and humanity.
It helps to think of theme as a word or umbrella idea that contains a lot of questions or statements. Love isn’t a theme; it’s a general catch-all. A movie can be about love, but nothing about love says “giant gorillas” to me. Maybe I add in “woman makes friends with gorillas” and end up with:
Love > woman makes friends with giant gorillas.
I want to write a story about love, using a story where a woman makes friends with giant gorillas.
How do I show that? And what do I want to say? Theme comes in two forms, a statement or a question. The difference is focus. When you pick a theme, you pick a position. Then you either explore or prove that position.
Can love turn a peaceful woman violent and will it change her? v. Love can turn a peaceful woman violent and it will change her.
An exploration is a process that leads to a conclusion. Most character-driven stories have question themes. A statement is something that is “proved” in the process. Plot-driven stories, because the outcome of a statement theme is pre-determined, fall into the statement category.
While most stories have theme, not all stories have conscious theme, which is probably why moving from a big idea to an actual theme is hard. If you’ve got everything down, great characters, good writing, and a big idea—but you’re still stuck and can’t get farther than Samuel Jackson swearing on a plane, it’s more than likely because you haven’t found the other two parts of the equation:
Love (what the story is about) + woman makes friends with gorillas (big idea) = Can love (for the gorillas) turn a peaceful woman violent (after she makes friends with them, and they’re systematically destroyed by poachers) and will it change her? (character-driven question theme/ how to show that)