Is the Subtle, Theme-rich Screenplay Dead?
Theme-rich Screenplay Treated Unfairly?
The plot-light, theme-rich screenplay is often – at the script development stage at least – unfairly maligned with the phrase ‘nothing happens’. But there are many that more than make up for that ‘nothing’ with atmosphere, character and theme, from INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS to ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE to BEFORE SUNRISE.
All those, of course, have the benefit of hefty names behind them, but when it comes to the heft-less screenplays of less established writers, working on projects the world hasn’t heard of yet, this kind of narrative is a tougher sell. Before deciding if the frenzied, attention-poor world we all inhabit has caused the theme-rich screenplay to cross the Styx, it’s worth examining the reasons it might be in the ICU in the first place…
Changes in the way we communicate have both:
- facilitated submissions to agents and production companies in far greater numbers
- and made those submissions that much easier to ignore
For one, a screenplay no longer sits on a desk looking incriminatingly un-read; it sits in an inbox unincriminatingly not looking like anything.
But the increased submissions also place greater demands on the time of the execs and producers who have to read them. This can often lead to a ‘fractured read’, whereby the exec, forced to grab what little time they can to read the screenplay, ends up reading 20 pages one evening, 34 the next lunchtime and the final 50 that evening.
Part of the nature of the plot-light and theme-rich screenplay is that this lack of single-serving concentration is far more detrimental than it would be to a taut thriller. In a taut thriller, you know when you stop reading that you’re up to the part where it turns out the FBI agent‘s husband is the Ambassador’s inside informant.
In a plot-light/theme-rich screenplay, you might be on the 53rd page of the protagonist‘s existential ennui, and no matter how brilliantly realised that ennui is, it’s never going to be as easy to slip back into as the thriller.
It doesn’t naturally segment as well, because, of course, that was never its intention, plus theme is a narrative through-line, meaning its interruption is far more damning than that of plot, which can change at the twist of a motive or click of a trigger.
Add to this a 2015 study by Microsoft in Canada that infamously concluded that our attention span decreased from 12 seconds to 8 between the year 2000 and the year 2013, which is apparently less than that of a goldfish (which has an attention span of 9 seconds, though it seems far more surprising that the human attention span was only 3 seconds better than the goldfish’s in the first place), and we start to see the difficulty posed by more thematic, ‘airy’ narratives.
Essentially, they are ‘wholes’ in a way more plotted narratives aren’t; narratives that don’t just use the idea of thematic build-up to bolster their plot, but in some cases use it in place of plot.
All of the above pressures result in a general lack of focus (and potentially unread script) that ends up putting far greater stock in bitesize variants of storylines like loglines, pitches, one-pagers, quick emails (and there are in fact producers who prefer to be on board with a project before the script is written, and so whose opinions on a project are purely dependent on it’s perceived marketability ahead of time).
Here lies part of the issue: a theme-rich screenplay is less reducible, which is down to…
Concept vs Theme
It’s important to differentiate between the two.
- the aim of a concept is to be original
- the aim of a theme is to be universal
This means that the former is almost always going to be easier to pitch, because the line ‘It takes place in a world where human limbs have become our primary currency’ (which very few things do), implies something infinitely more marketable than the line ‘It deals with family, grief and our ever-present fear of death, showing us how those things can lead us to make the same mistakes over and over’ (which describes most winter evenings).
As John Truby puts it:
“Theme is the author’s view of how to act in the world.”
That’s not an easy thing to pitch, because it’s not a story; it’s a slogan.
And it’s not just that a concept is more readily marketable, it’s that the explanation of a concept inherently reveals the specifics of a story in a way description of theme can’t quite match. Given enough time, and enough words, this isn’t a problem, but a reliance on loglines and pitches and snappy emails reins keeps ‘enough words’ an elusive prospect.
It’s easy to identify the problem if we use some examples. Let’s take the IMDb loglines of a few films.
1.’A week in the life of a young singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.’
2.’A science teacher, his wife, and a young girl struggle to survive a plague that causes those infected to commit suicide.’
3.’A quiet observation of the triumphs and defeats of daily life, along with the poetry evident in its smallest details.’
4.’A woman, accidentally caught in a dark deal, turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic.’
Though some may recognise these films immediately, it’s striking how they play in this ultra-concise form.
It’s safe to say that 1 and 3 were better received in their final forms than 2 and 4. However, being high concept sci-fi thrillers, 2 and 4 are instantly more suited to the reduced form.
1 and 3 demonstrate alternate ways to reduce the theme-rich screenplay to a single line. With 1, we see an attempt to describe the concept of a theme-rich narrative, which is obviously a hugely difficult task given the script doesn’t rely on concept in the first place. As a result, it ends up feeling like a line from a news story, a series of facts.
We know something about the central character (he’s young, he’s a musician, he’s in Greenwich Village in the 60’s), but we know nothing about the conflict he’s going to face, the characters he might interact with or, more pertinently, anything about the themes that actually form the core of the narrative. The logline completely fails to convey what it needs to.
With 3, we see the opposite, a line that adheres to the thematic basis of the script, but struggles to capture it in the limited time it has, leaving it completely non-specific. Who’s this about? What’s ‘everyday’ about them? Are they a nurse? A teacher? A poet? What are they going to do? Lose their job? Move house? Mow their lawn? And who with? Their spouse? James? We have no idea.
Neither present conflict. Neither effectively outline anything about their narrative progression. But neither are ‘their fault’. It’s just the burden the theme-rich screenplay has to bear. They’re comparatively irreducible.
1 and 4, in contrast, present:
- concrete protagonists (the science teacher, the woman)
- conflicts (the plague, the turned tables)
- secondary characters who could either feed into or help overcome that conflict (the wife, the young girl, the captors)
- potential transformations (the struggle to survive, the transformation into a merciless warrior, the latter being a bit less potential and a bit more a hundred percent definite)
By blankly describing their concepts, they almost can’t avoid simultaneously revealing elements of their story, because the two are inseparable in a way that plot and theme just aren’t.
With the theme-rich narrative, expressing it concisely becomes a choice, one that yields something completely mundane on one side and something completely vague on the other. With the plot-heavy, theme-light screenplay, a logline is inherently going to cover both concept and narrative drive in just as few words.
But more than that, while loglines 2 and 4 are telling us what the film’s about, 1 and 3 are trying to tell us what the film is, because that’s what they’re selling. You can see it in the first few words: ‘A week in the life’ and ‘A quiet observation’ vs ‘A woman’ and ‘A science teacher’. Only the latter imply agency. It’s easy to see which task is the easier one, and 1 and 3 end up suffering unjustly for it.
Anyway, for the sake of clarity, the films are, in order:
- INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
- THE HAPPENING
Text vs Subtext
Ignoring this initial hurdle, let’s say the script does get read. Sadly, this concept/theme dilemma carries over. This may be a little reductive, but we can more or less see concept or story as the means by which a narrative examines theme, or as Truby puts it –
“It is a sequence of actions, with moral implications and effects, designed to express a larger theme.”
– meaning the former is textual and the latter subtextual.
This may seem an obvious point, but it’s a lot easier to read text than it is to read subtext, because one’s immediately apparent and the other is… sub. Taken in the context of shorter attention spans and fractured reads as above, any narrative that relies more on its underlying elements than its overlying ones is going to suffer far more than the opposite.
This isn’t to downplay the importance of theme in a tightly plotted film – of course, it still plays a huge role, and often enhances the narrative as a result. It’s just that when reading/watching a high concept, fast paced narrative, the themes become less important if only because there’s something more immediate to engage with. A lack of focus isn’t necessarily a problem, because the narrative seeks to engage the reader/viewer on both a superficial and thematic level, with the former, in some cases, actually being the more important of the two.
Potential vs Quality
This leaves the plot-light and theme-rich screenplay in a very weird place, especially if they’re unlucky enough to be judged purely on their outlines.
If a project is to be judged based on how marketable (or at the very least, appealing) it sounds in its most condensed form, then we’re in a position where the perceived potential of an idea is worth more than its ultimate quality, and this is a pretty damning position for the theme-rich screenplay to be in.
If it’s to be judged on the (potentially fractured) read of the script itself, then its at the mercy of the focus of the reader, and to what extent they manage to appreciate it as a cohesive whole, something that’s often, as the above discusses, hindered by the pressures of an environment that doesn’t necessarily allow the required level of focus.
The unfortunate truth is that plot-light, theme-rich screenplays are often sunk by the very thing their audiences ultimately enjoy: the fact they they ask more of us. Asking more of an audience is a great thing. It respects their intelligence and, providing it’s done well, is likely to engage them more effectively as a result.
Asking more of a time-strapped, script-laden producer/exec/script reader, however, doesn’t come with quite the same benefits. The script may well be impeccable, but its impeccability is two layers deeper than the one about the quantity surveyor who witnesses the assassination of the mayors wife from an opportune angle.
Does all this mean the theme-rich screenplay is dead? Well, no. Not really. It just means that, sadly, it has to jump twice as high and be a little pluckier and luckier than its plot-heavy brethren.
And having a name helps.