Thursday, August 15, 2013

Developing Theme

While written directly for romantic comedies, the lessons on theme pulled from Chapter Five of Billy Mernit's excellent book Writing the Romantic Comedy are universally applicable. The full chapter is available in PDF at the end of the post.

Developing Theme

You've got to know what you think you're writing about. I mean what the damn thing is about, first of all. In some cases you never quite decide and then you get into trouble.
Buck Henry

Themes that I like to explore have to do with questions and problems I have about myself.
Richard Lagravenese

What do you want to know, in the writing of it?
Deena Metzger

   A former student recently came to me for consultation on a romantic comedy she'd written that wasn't getting a good response. Here was her pitch: Joe, an American, orders himself a foreign bride via an Internet service. For both Joe and his prospective wife Jan, the marriage isn't about love, it's about practicalities, with both of them hoping to satisfy pragmatic needs. But when Jan arrives to marry Joe, she finds that he's misrepresented his appearance and his circumstances, and they don't get along at all. So Jan angrily demands that Joe now find her a legitimate mate.
   As Joe helps Jan, "they fall in love and end up together," I supplied. The writer resignedly agreed that yes, of course, that's how the story went, and this seemed to be her problem: no matter how she tried to twist and tweak it, her romantic comedy always seemed to end up on a pat and predictable course. Since by now she herself seemed fairly unenthusiastic about the story, my logical question was, "What got you interested in the idea in the first place?"
   Well, this guy Joe, she allowed; she knew such men existed, and she was fascinated to know: What kind of a person would do a thing like that—enter into such a clinically arranged marriage? Good question. Some of the feedback she'd gotten made her wonder if such a man could really be the hero of a romantic comedy. Depends on his motivations for making such a seemingly unromantic choice, I conjectured, and the specifics of his life situation. Did the writer know anyone who was like this guy? How about within the marriages she saw around her?
   Instead of trying to solve plot problems, we began a freewheeling discussion of marriage in general, and the writer's marriage in specific. Although she at first resisted delving into "personal stuff," the more we talked, the more interesting the talk became. Because it turned out the writer had strong opinions on the subject. It turned out she wasn't sure if she believed that a successful marriage was predicated on a storybook romance. Her own marriage hadn't been wildly romantic in origin, but had lasted twenty years and was still going strong, while she'd seen a lot of brides and grooms who'd started out madly in love quickly crash and burn. So the question we found ourselves pursuing was, "What is the vital ingredient that makes a marriage work?" Is it honesty? teamwork? a trust fund?
   Whatever the real answer was, the question challenged us. Once we got onto this track, we were both more enthusiastic about her material, and we were able to start thinking about her characters in fresher, more intriguing ways. Maybe Joe thought x was the key and Jan thought it was y. Maybe they both had to discover that the secret marital ingredient was actually z.
   Within the hour, the writer had a more well-defined protagonist, an antiromantic antihero with real issues to resolve. And suddenly the whole trajectory of her story was anything but predictable. The writer left our discussion no longer knowing if Joe and Jan would end up together, but she knew something much more vital: she knew the reason she was telling this story. She'd connected with what was important about it for her, and in doing so, she'd gotten me hooked. As a newly married man, I was genuinely curious to see where a story that tackled this issue would lead.
   A screenwriter's resistance to getting into "personal stuff" is absurd. It's got to be personal, if anyone's going to care about your story, and theme is the arena where your personal experience, attitudes, and insights come into play. Experienced writers understand that what's universal comes out of what's most personal—out of a fiercely personal, passionate point of view. Just as we relate to characters who have strong wants, we relate to writing that's strongly felt.
   A good romantic comedy doesn't only show us how a couple gets together, it explores what their getting together means. What is it about this couple's conflict that has something to do with us? Answering that question has proven to be one of the most important ingredients in making a contemporary romantic comedy work. Theme, premise, point—whatever you call it, this slippery extra-special something has got to be there.
   What's it about?
   Describing your plot doesn't necessarily answer the question. When people in the business pose it, they really want to know why the plot goes the way it goes—and why you think your story needs to be told. What's an audience going to relate to in it? What will they take away from it after the lights come on? What'll make them come back to it for another viewing?
   What's it about?
   Do you really know, so clearly and so fully you don't even have to think about it? If you do, bless you, but you might want to read this chapter anyway, even if it's just so you can pat yourself on the back afterward and say I told you so. Because the theme issue in screenwriting is probably the trickiest one of all. Many a potentially great romantic comedy has fallen on this particular sword and died without ever feeling or seeing the fatal wound. When a movie fails, it's hardly ever blamed on the lack of a theme—yet no A-list writers in Hollywood ever go into a draft unless they're armed with one that works.
   One that works for them is what bears emphasizing. A theme isn't some outside-in element, a message that needs to be pasted onto a story to make it more meaningful for the world at large. It's a personal idea that becomes a powerful storytelling tool. Once the writer of "Joe and Jan" knew she was trying to define the secret of a successful marriage, she was able to shape her characters and plot accordingly. The writer had something to learn, and her characters were going to help her learn it.
Something to learn. A point of view. A meaning. These are all pretty general notions. So let's begin with a definition.


Here are two helpful approaches to defining theme that come from writers of fiction. The first is Stephen Minot's: "Theme comments on the human condition." Though not every screenwriter writes about people exclusively, writers are human and can't help writing about even aliens from a human point of view. Minot's statement implies universality: a writer who has something to say about being human is speaking to all of us.
   The second approach comes from Janet Burroway: "Theme speculates on a possible truth." This has more active phrasing, implying exploration and discovery. It's an attractive idea, borne out by the many enduring movies that came from writers who were writing to learn something.
   Both statements are good for starters, but practically speaking, how do you put a "comment" to work inside a draft? What does "speculation" actually look like on the page?
   The tool I suggest using, when working with theme, is an axiom. A dictionary's definition of an axiom is particularly apt for working screenwriters. To paraphrase Webster, an axiom is a statement, accepted as true, that's used as the basis for an argument.
   "A statement, accepted as true" echoes Burroway's "possible truth." Let's say that after some exploration, a screenwriter decides that the vital ingredient in a successful marriage is trust. She then makes this her "basis for argument," her guideline for the development of story lines. Given this possibly true idea about trust, the screenwriter sees how each of her characters embodies or disproves it. How about an unfaithful husband who abuses the trust in his marriage to keep it going? A couple of acrobats who feud all day and have to catch each other in midair at night? The writer's plot will put her axiom to the test.
   The derivation of the word axiom makes it especially appropriate. It comes from the Latin and Greek, meaning "something worthy." This speaks to the nature of your truth and your plot. Is it truly interesting? intriguing? worth exploring? An audience coming to a romantic comedy is prepared to laugh, perhaps cry, and to have an experience that's meaningful to them. Whatever truth and argument you're choosing to explore should have real relevance and resonance to the culture you're in. What you're talking about when you talk about love is, hopefully, part of a conversation that your contemporaries are already having.
   But where does theme enter a piece, and how? The thrust of your axiom may not be clear to you at the outset. We should never underestimate the importance of our unconscious in the writing process, and sometimes the underlying meaning of a story is discovered as a writer blindly follows her characters. How far in advance do you need to have your theme defined?


One of the past century's most influential screen writing books is not about movies at all. The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lejos Egri is a book on playwriting, but its principles, applicable to movies, have been picked up on by many screenwriting gurus and scribes. This may be partially due to Egri's devotion to the three-act structure and his dogged insistence on observing classic (Aristotelian) rules of dramatization—a novel approach to try in a business that isn't exactly up on rules or classics. (I once heard a junior executive call something "a classic, like Ace Ventura.")
   Egri's word of choice in the theme arena is premise. He insists that a writer can't begin a play, let alone sustain it, without a premise, a clearly defined statement of purpose—an axiom, of sorts. But Egri demands that an axiomatic statement be an active one, made up of three parts. If you want to explore dishonesty, Egri says, it's not enough to say your play is "about dishonesty." What's the problem with dishonesty? Why is it the wrong way to go? Well, for one thing, the truth is bound to come out sooner or later. Fine, then, state your premise as "Dishonesty leads to exposure."
   What's implied in this premise is a protagonist, embodying dishonesty, who gets his comeuppance. And each part of such a statement suggests part of a logical three-act structure. "Dishonesty" is your first act (setup), "leads to" is your second act (conflict and crisis), and "exposure" is your third (resolution). Voilà! Theme and structure, wedded in four words. You can see why such a concept has proved enticing to writers struggling to whip unruly drafts into shape. Having such a premise can certainly keep your major story beats on track.
   Many a screenwriter has gone this tried-and-true route. It works. But personally, I don't agree with Egri. What bothers me about applying an Egri premise to a work in progress is that it aces out discovery. Having your thematic material decided so definitively at the outset effectively sabotages exploration. If all of your conclusions are foregone as you begin telling your story, you risk telling a story that's too pat and familiar. You've closed off your options, which is why I think of this approach as working with a "closed" theme.
   Let's say that what intrigues me about dishonesty is how often it doesn't lead to exposure. Maybe I want to write about a character—not so hard to find in today's ruthless working world—who's routinely dishonest but has nonetheless become hugely successful. I'm interested in exploring the effects of chronic dishonesty on a person's psyche. Is there really such a thing as karma? How do people who are forced to be dishonest (in top secret government employ, for example) deal with truth in their personal lives? How do they make distinctions? Is honesty always the best policy, absolutely? What about an honesty that destroys someone's life? What, then, are the ethics of honesty?
   If in writing my screenplay I'm really trying to learn something about dishonesty, then I don't want to start out with a premise that leads to a neat, predetermined resolution. I want an axiom that's open-ended—an "open" theme. What I've found—evidenced in interview after interview—is that the best screenwriters most often start their spec scripts because they're trying to answer a question that's important to them. And the answers are discovered in the process of writing their drafts.
   Having an axiom expressed in the form of a question is an effective method of defining your thematic turf. "Is selective dishonesty a necessary component of a successful romantic relationship?" or "How honest does a mate have to be?" would be perfectly valid axiomatic questions for the Joe-and-Jan writer to use to begin a first draft. Another contemporary notion of working with an open theme is to take a core idea and put it through variations, much in the manner that a symphony states a musical theme and then develops it. "How is love sustained—through honesty or dishonesty?" Such an exploratory axiom might yield complex, even contradictory conclusions. Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors is a masterful example of this kind of theme work, which leaves disturbingly ambiguous questions unanswered at its close.
   The latter approach may come under the don't-try- this-at-home heading for a novice screenwriter; if structure and basic story sense is still your weak area, then employing "an Egri" as you start out might prove far more helpful for your draft. But remaining open to discovery (i.e., allowing the writing to open up your closed premise once you've completed a first pass) is another viable way to go.
   This brings up an oft-debated issue concerning theme. Somewhere between "Don't start without an axiom you can write on the wall" and E. M. Forster's famous "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" is an interesting gray (or rainbow-colored) area. As we've noted, many writers go in with only a question or a character issue to explore. A general rule of thumb would be to have at least an area of interest identified. Richard Curt is has noted that the genesis of Four Weddings came out of his observation that for some years, the only time he was able to get together with a particular group of friends was when he ran into them at weddings. He then became intrigued by the idea of telling the story of this group, using the weddings as a structure. We can say that the intersection of "group of friends" and "weddings" was an area of interest that led him down other thematic paths—the question of what might keep the group's most eligible bachelor from getting married, for example.
   Some writers, who have the time and dedication to let their process be truly organic, follow Forster's lead and write a whole draft with no conscious notion of axiom or theme whatsoever. Then they look at the story they've told to see what comment or question their unconscious has raised within it. Sometimes the repetition of an idiosyncratic action or image is the unconscious waving a flag. What are you telling yourself thematically, for example, if you've written about a free spirit who always finds himself caught in confined spaces?
   But ultimately, at some juncture—be it the end of extensive outlining or the completion of a first draft—the conscious has to join forces with the unconscious and start to shape the material. If your material is going to resonate meaningfully, conveying your personal point of view and speaking to a larger audience, some kind of axiomatic truth has to be expressed.


"Why are you leaving me?" Joe beseeches Jan. "I was only telling you the truth." Jan pauses on the threshold. "Well, honesty isn't always the best policy!" she retorts, and the door slams. All that's missing is the subtitle: Get It?
   The first and foremost, most obvious rule of working with theme is that it can't be artificially imposed on the material—or artificially expressed. Writers have to avoid what's been dubbed the "Fortune Cookie Fallacy," meaning, if one of your characters verbalizes your axiom as banally as it's expressed in one of Hung Fat's fortunes, your theme may be just as disposable.
   Actually, if you're working with a viable theme in your screenplay, it's already being expressed without such on-the-nose soapbox pronouncements. Your characters are embodiments of thematic concerns; they're the ones arguing the sides of your possible truth. And who wins the argument is crucial. A writer's attitude, belief system, and/or point of view gets expressed in three places: in the growth of the main character, in the resolution of the story, and in the storylines of its subplots.
   Theme in character growth: A quote from yet another fiction writer, Robert Penn Warren, is pinned to my writing room wall: "The secret subject of any story is what we learn, or fail to learn, over time."
   As we've noted, the transformative power of love is an underlying, long-abiding romantic comedy idea; it's the übertheme of the genre itself. In the most involving romantic comedies, how the main character is affected by love, what the main character chooses to do when love enters his/her life, or whether the character is changed by love is often the point of the story. What has your character learned by meeting, losing, getting? Answer that question and you enter the realm of theme.
   Theme in story resolution: It Happened One Night ends with its upper-class heroine (Claudette Colbert) running out on her society wedding to be happily reunited with the working-class good guy played by Clark Gable. This bride's flight signifies her embrace of better values. Contrast the climax of Runaway Bride: when Julia Roberts leaves Richard Gere at the altar, it means she hasn't gotten over her neurosis; when she later suggests they have another kind of wedding, it signifies that she's worked through (rather patly and off-camera) her self-actualization issues. Two different thematic takes, but a common testing ground: where your protagonists end up is the clearest indication of the point you're trying to make.
   Theme in subplots: Similarly, the subplots of a romantic comedy are another arena where theme is played out. Moonstruck's concerns about "settling or not settling"—central to the romance between Ronny and Loretta—are acted out in the secondary story lines featuring Loretta's parents. Tootsie's preoccupation with the meaning of friendship, slipped deftly but clearly into the final scene between Michael and Julie ("We've done the hard part," he tells her, "we're already good friends"), is echoed throughout the movie in its various subplots (e.g., an angry Sandy telling Michael, "I'd take [your lying] from a lover, Michael—I don't take it from my friends!").
   Note that a vital corollary to all this is thematic consistency. If our "Joe and Jan" writer reaches the conclusion that trust is the essential foundation of a successful marriage, than we'd better see a resolution that illustrates the triumph of trust—not an ending that emphasizes, say, great sexual chemistry or the amassing of wealth. In fact, any storytelling component that doesn't conform to a screenplay's theme confuses and diffuses a movie; an audience intuitively feels the wrong turn taken. One of your jobs as a writer is to test every character arc, image, and story line in your script against your axiom. If the same theme is being expressed in some way throughout, your story will have the integrity it needs.
   To see how theme is developed through characters, plot resolution and subplot, let's turn to a case study.


When Harry Met Sally

Screenplay:  Nora Ephron
Director:  Rob Reiner
Leads:  Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan
Released by Castle Rock in 1989 (96 min.)

Log line: Over many years, two seeming opposites forge a male-female friendship—which nearly ends disastrously when they become lovers.

Harry Burns and Sally Albright meet in the late 1970s when they share a drive from their Chicago University campus to New York City after graduation. Cynical Harry doesn't believe that men and women can be friends because sexual attraction always gets in the way, and bright-eyed optimist Sally is appalled when Harry makes a pass at her, since he's supposedly in love with her good friend Amanda. They part when they arrive in Manhattan.
   Five years later they briefly meet again on an airplane. Sally's surprised to hear that Harry's getting married, but his determinedly male point of view alienates her once more. Five years after this, they run into each other in a New York City bookstore; Sally's just broken up with her longtime boyfriend Joe, and Harry's being divorced by his wife Helen. Both have matured, and they become friends. This is a new experience for Harry, but he warms to it; they support each other through a difficult period of single life. Still, their unspoken attraction is a subliminal threat, especially after Sally exhibits her sexuality in an argument, proving to Harry that women can successfully fake orgasms.
   Harry's best friend Jess and Sally's best friend Marie fall in love, move in together, and are preparing to marry. Sally, devastated to learn that Joe's getting married, turns to Harry for consolation… and the two end up making love. Harry, scared by this turn, alienates Sally with his in-denial behavior. After a big blowout, she refuses to see him anymore. Harry slowly but surely comes to the realization that he's in love with Sally, and he runs to find her at a New Year's party, where his fervent love declaration and tacit marriage proposal win her back. The friends become mates for life.

   When Harry Met Sally, a huge success upon its release, seems to be one of the few romantic comedies that men wholeheartedly embrace. This is probably because it unashamedly expresses a quintessentially male, antiromantic point of view. Nora Ephron's script gets away with this by having Harry's dark sentiments instantly countered by sunny Sally's more expected and accepted female point of view and, of course, by having Harry ultimately embrace that POV in a love-conquers-all finale.
   What most people remember about the movie, besides its justly celebrated orgasm-in-a-deli centerpiece, is its ostensible subject matter: the question of whether a man and a woman can sustain a friendship without sex. While the script itself is a model of economy and clarity that belongs on any romantic comedy writer's shelf, in the published edition of the screenplay, Nora Ephron has provided us with an uncommonly honest, informative, and useful analysis of the creation of a movie from a screenwriter's POV. And interestingly, her introduction reveals that—according to its author, at least—the gender-friendship question is not what Harry is about.
   The genesis of the movie stems from an idea that Rob Reiner brought to Ephron (and we should all be so lucky):

He wanted to make a movie about a man and a woman who become friends, as opposed to lovers; they make a deliberate decision not to have sex because sex ruins everything; and then they have sex and it ruins everything. And I said, let's do it.

   In the course of discussing the story, Ephron sits with Reiner and his producing partner Andrew Scheinman and learns about how men perceive and deal with the opposite sex. She's appalled ("sort of my wildest nightmares of what men thought"), but soon puts the news to good use, as she realizes ("long before I had any idea of what was actually going to happen in the movie itself") that she can model her male protagonist on Rob Reiner.

So I began with Harry, based on Rob. And because Harry was bleak and depressed, it followed absolutely that Sally would be cheerful and chirpy and relentlessly, pointlessly, unrealistically, idiotically optimistic. Which is, it turns out, very much like me.

   Note that Ephron starts with character, not plot. And what she assumes, in developing her story concept ("it followed absolutely"), is not only good romantic comedy conflict (she's making her leads as dynamically opposed as possible), it's an example of what we've identified as a means of expressing theme: her two main characters are going to represent two sides of the argument she's beginning to explore. Finally, note her comment that Sally is much like herself. Will this script get personal for the writer? It already has. Ephron goes on to say that as she began her first draft, she did have a subject in mind,

...which was not, by the way, whether men and women could be friends. The movie instead was a way for me to write about being single—about the difficult, frustrating, awful, funny search for happiness in an American city where the primary emotion is unrequited love.

   And there we have it, from the write r's mouth. Given the concept suggested by Reiner and Scheinman, and characters based on Reiner and herself, Ephron began to use the story as a means to express her experience, insights, and point of view about being single. The beauty part, in terms of seeding conflict, is that she had an ally. While she explored the single life from a woman's POV, she had Reiner on board to express the man's.

Movies generally start out belonging to the writer and end up belonging to the director ... what made this movie different was that Rob had a character who could say whatever he believed, and if I disagreed, I had Sally to say so for me.

   This is the dialectic that's been largely responsible for the movie's universal appeal. Harry couldn't have ended up being a chick flick with Reiner at the helm—who was, remember, the man who seeded the idea in the first place. Following Reiner's lead, Ephron worked out a story in which Harry and Sally become lovers after being friends and then decide to go their separate ways; what they've learned has prepared them both for the next important romance in their lives:

I wrote a first draft about two people who get each other from the breakup of the first big relationship in their lives to the beginning of the second. Rob went off and made Stand By Me. We met again and decided that Harry and Sally belonged together.

   Note here an important factor in working with theme and story: flexibility. While such changes in intent don't erase Ephron's original thematic area of interest (i.e., urban single life), we can read between the lines; evidently Ephron and Reiner realized that with two such lovable not-quite lovers on their hands, a happier ending would be more satisfying. This decision has significant repercussions for the finished film's ultimate meaning, as we'll see, but for now, observe Ephron's admirable willingness to keep shaping and redefining her story arc. She goes on to describe writing an additional half-dozen drafts.
   Ephron is unusually gracious in crediting her creative team and the actors. Late in the process it was Meg Ryan, for example, who suggested actually faking the orgasm in the deli, and comedian Billy Crystal came up with the scene's topper (given to an older customer played by Rob's mother, Estelle Reiner): "I'll have what she's having." Again, we should all have such an ideal collaborative process in our work.
   Ephron goes on to describe how the finished film reflects everyone's input, and her conclusions show how much her own conception of the movie's theme has shifted over four years of rewriting (plus the shooting of the actual picture):

Rob believes that men and women can't be friends… I disagree... and both of us are right. Which brings me to what When Harry Met Sally is really about—not, as I said, whether men and women can be friends, but about how different men and women are.

   Aha. Somewhere between "the single life" and "the male-female friendship issue," we've landed on a third thematic through-line: gender difference. So what do you think? Is Harry true to Ephron's original area of interest? Reiner's axiomatic question? Ephron's hindsight conclusion? I believe that the movie has all three things embedded in it and that, cumulatively, these thematic strains add up to something else again.
   While Reiner's contribution forms the backbone of the central story line (remaining true to his original concept in everything but the ending), Ephron's thematic subject is evidenced in the dialogue throughout and in some nonverbal montages—it fills out the canvas of the movie. Every time Harry and Sally aren't debating or enacting the difficulties of forging a friendship with someone of the opposite sex, the "funny, awful" aspects of single life pick up the slack. Thus, in between what we'll call for the moment "Reiner's stuff"—the scene of Harry and Sally's second meeting (airplane) and their third (bookstore)—we have "Ephron's stuff": a scene where Sally and her female friends discuss the travails of singledom in the context of Sally's recent breakup (Marie, reacting in horror, "But you guys were a couple. You had someone to go places with. You had a date on national holidays!").
   The third thematic strain, "differences between men and women," surfaces wherever Reiner's focus and Ephron's focus intersect. A scene in which Harry and Jess discuss Harry's meaningless sexual encounter of the previous night has Harry marveling that he and Sally can openly discuss such a date, while Jess remains fixated on Harry's conquest: "You made a woman meow?!" This cuts to Sally and Harry at the deli and Sally's incredulous/disgusted interrogation of Harry on what she finds significant: How did he manage his quick exit from the date?
   Man impressed, woman appalled; the catalyst for Sally's orgasm demonstration comes out of this collision of differences. When Harry smugly insists that no woman has ever faked an orgasm with him, Sally notes bitterly: "Oh right, I forgot. You're a man." And she proceeds to prove him wrong.
   Alrighty, then—single life, men-women friendships, gender differences ... but does this stew of thematic ideas ever cohere? What, after all, is the theme of When Harry Met Sally?
   Let's test our theories. We said that character growth is one area in which theme is expressed. So what does Harry learn over the course of the story? It's laid out for us in the penultimate scene, when Harry rushes to Sally's side and declares his love, only to be initially rejected. "You can't just show up here," she informs him, "tell me you love me, and expect to make everything all right. It doesn't work that way." Harry rallies:

How about this way? I love how you get cold when it's seventy-one degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle right there when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you're the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night…

   Harry goes on to say he wants to spend the rest of his life with Sally, but what's most important about his wonderfully specific enumeration of what makes her lovable is this subtext: the very things that used to rankle Harry about Sally have turned into her most endearing attributes. Harry used to couch all his pronouncements about gender differences in negative, hostile terms. But falling in love with her has created a shift. Harry now accepts and appreciates the differences between them.
   Now check the story resolution. When Ephron and Reiner decided they wanted Harry and Sally to end up together, they were pointing their disparate thematic materials in one direction. To have let these two lovers drift apart would have been to embrace the tyranny of difference. You see, the movie would've said, men and women are deeply incompatible, they can't be friends because they're too damn different. Instead, the joyful defeat in the finished product tells us, vive la différence, or, to put it more soberly: accept the inevitable compromise.
   Here's a hypothetical "Egri" for it: Embracing gender differences leads to romantic happiness. An axiomatic question could've been: How can two such different genders achieve compatibility? As a last spot check, consider the subplot: the mirror personalities of the two protagonists, Jess and Marie, do in fact quickly hurtle past their gender differences and achieve domestic harmony by dealing with them equitably. The one low-key fight between them that we're witness to shows Marie, in time-honored gender role tradition, correcting Jess's bad taste by ridding their home of his wagon-wheel coffee table. His capitulation after her show of good faith (she's suffered with the table thus far and will continue to suffer should he insist) indicates that they'll still live happily ever after.
   Right after the movie's ominous second-act climax (Harry and Sally make love), Ephron neatly underlines this point with a deft recapitulation of her favored thematic strain, as Jess and Marie, cocooned in their premarital bed, end their respective phone calls from the traumatized postcoital Harry and Sally. "Tell me I'll never have to be out there again," Marie says. "You'll never have to be out there again," Jess says, and they kiss. Thus, with a shudder in the direction of that "awful, funny" single life, the movie subtly nudges us in the direction of its conclusion: Getting past those differences is worth it.
   I specifically chose Harry for this case study because—in spite of variants on its "man versus woman" issue being sounded in the dialogue, images and beats of nearly every scene—its theme remains in some respects entertainingly elastic. There are many other romantic comedies built on more straight-up, textbook axioms, but Harry (and Ephron's discourse) demonstrates how a good theme is a flexible, ever growing entity and, unlike fortune cookie slogans, is so much an organic part of the whole that it can't be patly extracted. When a writer is working theme into every element, the movie itself is what best expresses it.
   One interesting thing about the unconscious aspect of theme work is that a movie may mean different things to its creators—and to its audiences. But the point is its presence, which unifies character and story development and adds to the substance and power of a romantic comedy. Though what I'm positing as Harry's theme was never articulated as such by its creators, its ultimately positive spin on the singles/gender-friendship/difference issues can be palpably felt in the finished film. And whether or not you agree with my specific take on the axiomatic truth at its heart, there's no denying that the presence of When Harry Met Sally's theme is what made it one of the most distinctive romantic comedies of the modern era.



Theme is the arena in which our personal passions get expressed. The most compelling stories come out of a writer's personal exploration of human experience, and this is especially true in our character-driven genre.
   A good tool to use in working with theme is an axiom—a possible truth that's going to be argued or explored in the working out of your story. Some writers like to work with a predetermined (closed) premise, a statement that lays out the entire trajectory of a story in thematic terms. It's often more rewarding for a writer to approach material with a question that the writer would like to explore; this kind of open thematic approach allows more room for discovery.
   Whether one begins with an axiom or arrives at one after an exploratory first draft, a romantic comedy's theme is generally expressed through the growth of its central character, the resolution of the story, and the nature of the subplots employed. It's important that the same theme be consistently expressed throughout. Working with universally resonant material elevates the movie's significance and accessibility, whether or not the ultimate message its audience comes away with is exactly the one originally intended.

Exercise: Developing Theme

   1. Making it personal (intended for those beginning a first draft): Think of one of the most painful, humiliating, embarrassing things that ever happened to you with someone of the opposite sex.
   Now take a deep breath, and see if by writing a brief paragraph or two about the experience you can find the humor in retrospect.
   Once you've done this, identify a question or two that the experience raised. Can you fashion your question into an axiomatic theme?
   Now do a more freely fictionalized rewrite on your true-life incident, making it more clearly illustrate that theme.
   This is the screenplay theme process in microcosm. You might want to try it with your lead character. Is there an Incident in your outlined story that lends itself to such exploration? Something in the character's backstory?

   2. Listening to your draft (intended for those who have a completed draft and are approaching a rewrite): Analyze the arc of your protagonist(s) over the course of the story. Does your lead character learn something and/or grow in some way, however incremental? Define that lesson or growth in a simple sentence.
   Similarly, what does the resolution of your story express in thematic terms? Write the sentence.
   Address your subplot(s). How does your subplot echo, contrast, or play out the issues evinced in your "character growth" and "resolution" sentences? Write the sentence.
   Now combine the essence of all three sentences into one axiomatic statement or question that speaks to the heart of your thematic intent. If that proves difficult, pay close attention to where anyone of the three statements diverges. Play what-if to see how a character, story ending, and/or subplot could be altered so that it better expresses your master sentence, or working axiom.

   3a. Theme in imagery (for all writers still in search of a viable axiom): Identify an area of interest for your piece. Free associate around it (e.g., from the word weddings, what do you see in your mind's eye?). Now jot down whatever images and phrases come to mind. Do any of these speak to theme?

   3b. Set your working title aside and brainstorm a short list that addresses theme (my favorite is Enemies: A Love Story).

   3c. Look through your piece and see if there are any recurring motifs—in story beat, dialogue, and imagery. Are people always on the run? Stuck in the same place? What is a movie short on physical contact but full of recording devices, phones, and TVs (e.g., sex, lies and videotape) trying to say?

Mernit, Billy. Writing the Romantic Comedy. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001. 87-106

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