Friday, September 25, 2009

Changing Themes Mid-Stream

While I'm not sure where the "don't change horses mid-stream" thing actually comes from, I'm relatively sure its source is not screenwriting.

I contend that it's okay to change themes in the middle of the writing process but not during the story telling process. You start with a theme and figure out you want to go somewhere else. So, you go back to the beginning and rework the story. Your theme is there from the beginning of your story to the end. If you introduce a secondary theme mid-story, it too has been set up from the beginning. So it's not really a CHANGE.

Stories, as we all know, are transitionary during the writing process.. wait. If we all know it, why do I feel compelled to mention it? I dislike stating what goes without saying almost as much as I dislike the contradictory nature of phrase "it goes without saying" since that which goes without saying is usually pointed out the moment we decide that it does, indeed, NOT need to be said.

And why do we even say "it does, indeed"? Isn't that redundant? Because if it does, it is already a fact. Said fact's existence is established. Indeed.

Moving on.

Stories, regardless of how well thought out they are, morph and blossom and wither and regenerate somewhere between inception and outline, again between outline and first draft, and then back and forth and, quite possibly, all over the place through subsequent drafts. We start out with a purpose - here's what I want to say and how I want to say it - but somewhere in the writing process we decide to amend that purpose.

Now let me ask you this... Okay, wait. There I go again. Stating what goes without saying because if I ask a question, is there really any need to inform a reader that I'm about to ask a question when they'll figure it out as soon as the question is asked?

Where was I?

Right. Theme.

Okay, so suppose your theme starts out as a Bruce Banner and somewhere mid-story it becomes the Incredible Hulk. Anger triggers Banner's change. What triggered your theme change? Something in the story caused such an overwhelming conflict in the theme that it became something else. Maybe now, it's grander than you intended. Maybe it's more thoughtful and subtle. Either way, the theme is now a powerful force to be reckoned with.

Are you really going to try to force the Bruce Banner-ish theme, mild but oh so endearing, to take on the role of the Incredible Hulk? Banner isn't Hulk. Only Hulk is Hulk. So which is it? A Banner theme or a Hulk theme. Your theme must be dealt with either way.

Anyone following my tangled thought process at all? It really was a well thought-out argument about changing themes until I sat at the keyboard and discovered how many empty things in the English language we say like "it goes with out saying" and "let me ask you this" and "I couldn't care less". That one really bugs me.. "I couldn't care less" indicates that you don't care at all which, if true, would not merit the mention of that which you don't care about.

Okay, so Bruce Banner isn't Hulk. I had a Banner theme. Now, it's a Hulk theme. What to do. Do I let my theme evolve as the story does or do I let the story evolve around one theme or the other? Why can't Banner and Hulk co-exist as themes in my story? Maybe they can but not as a single theme. If my theme mutates mid-story, aren't I writing two stories? Should I just use whichever theme fits, right? Any ol' port in the storm?

Just as this post is a strobe-light of helter skelter flashes of lucidity and stupidity and you, the reader, have had to pause to understand anything it says, I am suggesting that if we don't know the theme to our own stories, we don't really know what it says. If we don't know what our own screenplay says, how can we say it?

I started out this post writing about changing themes but then I realized how much I really want to write about all the meaningless phrases we use in speech and on paper. I should probably just pick one point or the other and go back and edit this post so the reader can follow it. But then, neither point would be made.

You can't retro-fit a theme.

Oh yeah. Plenty of writers have told me you can just start writing a story and figure out the theme later as it reveals itself to you. But I contend that is not possible. Here's why. Only these things can happen with theme during the writing process.

  1. You start out with a theme from the beginning and stick with it
  2. You start out writing one theme but the story evolves so you change the theme and go back to #1
  3. You start out with a theme and realize you need a secondary theme so you go back to #1 with both themes.
  4. You start out with no theme and figure it out along the way and then go back to #1

So, as you can see, it all goes back to number one. So there is actually no need for me to write numbers 2, 3, and 4 because they don't really exist. And there is actually no need to ever write "is actually" because if something "is", it is real and already "actual".

You know why you can't change horses mid-stream? Because you gotta take the horse you're on back to the bank to get the horse you're changing to. You started over at the beginning of the stream with a new horse. You didn't really change horses mid-stream at all. Of course, you could take a second horse along with you and get off one horse mid-stream and then mount the other one. But again, you didn't CHANGE horses mid-stream. You had both horses all along.

It goes without saying.


E.C. Henry said...

MaryAn, a post like this makes me think you're starting to write again. Are you?

You have a lot to say. But this post has the feel of being written by a kitten caught up in the yard. Are you tangled?

Personally, I think theme evoloves from story. If you think about it in real life people witness events, then draw truths (themes) from what they've witnessed.

Now as a writer a lot of the time you start off with a high-concept, log-line, or theme. All closesly related: a summary of witnessed events. Unfortunatley those witnessed events don't exist yet, the writer has to build the events from which that theme/truth is born.

Choices shape theme. Characters make choices. Thus your characters are ultimately the bearers of theme.

Theme is contstantly challeged during the writing process. This is due to the fact as characters become alive to you, they start writing their own story. Their own story then has a derivative theme. And it is this this theme which is alive and has power, unlike the unproven log-line, high concept or theme a writer typically begins with.

Hope this helps you out. Come out of the fog. Don't trip over theme. It's what you annalyze for AFTER you have a written draft. Not during -- you got that right!

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Thanks for your thoughts, EC, but I think I have to disagree with... well, almost everything. Analyze theme AFTER you have a written draft?

If storytelling is the manifestation of what the writer has to say, doesn't the writer need to know what he's going to say before he says it?

I suppose writers could finish a screenplay and then go back and try to figure out if there's a theme and whether it will matter to anyone but that seems counterproductive to me. It sounds as logical as tossing a bunch of tinker toys out on the floor and hoping a complex machine will show up.


E.C. Henry said...

Maryan, writing is an exploration into the unknown. Whatever works for you, works for you. I like to have loose idea where I'm going then try to discover character and let them tell the story, from which derives a theme.

You wanna shackle yourself to a theme and stick to it, that's fine. What matters is that your end product is entertaining. And guess what not all memorible movies hinge on theme. Some do. I think most don't.

My advice to you is learn to play with the screenwriters legos: theme, structure, character. They're our building blocks. Learn to play with them. Leave rules and axioms to the likes of Robert McKee and Syd Field.

Writing should be fun. Stick adherance to a set of rules, or going over the basics isn't fun.

BUT at least you're posting more. That's a good sign. I hope things are going well in your life.

- E.C Henry from Bonney Lake, WA