Pixar Rules of Story #3 – Your Theme Will Out!
Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about until you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
I have read and re-read Stephan Bugaj’s write up for Rule 3 and have been umming and ahhhing about what to write and what I think about theme. I was struggling to drill down to the essence of the rule when it suddenly became very clear… and I’ll get back to that in a bit.
The reason I was getting confused is that Stephan also talks about the theme or meaning of your film being bound up in the ending of your story and, rather than wait until you have written the whole story to discover your theme, you should start with the ending and work towards it. He describes how you shouldn’t even begin to write your story without knowing how it ends and, hence, knowing what it is about.
There are reasons to think about starting at the end, and we will come back to them in more detail when we look at Rule 7. So I have put that aside for a while because, ultimately, this rule is not really dependent on your particular writing structure and whether you start at the end or the beginning (in my opinion).
Theme, of course, is important. It is what your story is all about, its the meaning, heart and soul of your tale. However, because we are in awe of the importance of theme, we can sometimes get too hung up on worrying about identifying it and stifle our creative juices.
This is where the other elements of this rule come into play – “get it done” and “rewriting.” That’s what writing is all about after all – writing is rewriting. There is plenty of time to rewrite and edit your screenplay and ponder theme. Most writers will argue that you have to do this several times to get it right anyway, so the first time, you just need to get it down on paper and get that first draft out. You can worry about theme later.
I am not sure, personally, whether you even have to know what your theme is before you start – although having some idea is probably sensible.
You may have an idea of what your theme is, or you may not but, either way, it is likely to emerge and develop organically as you write. This will lead to a richer end result than if you are stopping and starting as you write, trying to wrangle and force your theme into each new scene. Most of us know that, by the time we get to the end, the theme may well have changed anyway, so all of that wrangling is a waste of time. We think we know what our stories are about when we start writing but, often, we find that they are about something else by the time we have finished them. So take time to enjoy the writing and let the theme(s) emerge organically.
So, in it’s simplest terms, and regardless of how we plan or outline our work and whether we know our theme before we start writing, the essence of Rule 3 is about letting the theme emerge as you develop the story, don’t try and force it:
Just get it written, the theme will out!
NB – Since originally writing this post over a year ago, I have found that my themes do tend to develop over time and during the writing process. I find that I can waste time and get far too stressed during the first draft if I worry too much about what my theme is and how to show it on the page. I find it better to have an idea of theme, but let it develop organically over time andas the screenplay itself develops.
Of course YMMV…. so:
Do you worry about identifying your theme before you start or do you let it emerge during rewrites?
Where does theme come into your writing process?
Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #4 – The Story Spine
Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!
And, if you didn’t see it, check out Rule #2 – Know your Audience
(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images)