Friday, October 3, 2008

A moving line: about writing

Last Friday, I mentioned the on-line writers’ critiquing group some of us are building at Every Day Fiction, and suggested that such a group, when it works well, is one of the most important tools a writer can use.

This week I had that notion come back to me from an unexpected direction.

My son and I wrote a screenplay last winter, it’s called Black Rock. He works for a film production company in Ohio, and so he brought a bunch of actors together to read through the script. I’m almost three thousand miles away, in Seattle, so I wasn’t able to be there, but he filmed the get together and promised to send me a DVD, once he had it edited.

That was in July; we’ve both been busy and so I figured it would get here when it got here. It showed up in the mail on Tuesday; I watched it that night. Hearing your words read aloud can be enlightening for a fiction writer; for a screenwriter, it is what it is all about. You get to hear someone else’s interpretation of what you intended, you get to hear what flies and what falls flat, and sometimes you get to hear the unexpected.

I sat through the reading, making notes, trying to filter out my own feelings and, when a scene did fall flat, to determine whether it was the fault of what we wrote or the fault of a poor reading. That happens; it’s one of the handicaps of working with unpaid volunteers.
It was during a free-for-all discussion after the reading that the unexpected occurred. The actors were offering their thoughts on character motivation and plot weaknesses, and then one of them said, “Well, it’s all about fathers, isn’t it?”

My son was there with them, on the screen, and I was thousands of miles and months away, watching, but we both said, “What?” at the same time.

“It’s about how fathers influence the actions of their children, particularly when they’re not around,” the actor said. And then he began to tick off points on his fingers.

“Frank and his dead father; Liz and her rich and doting daddy; Bob Shavers and his retarded son. Even the surrogate father relationship between Frank and the newspaper editor. It runs all through the thing.”

What he was talking about was theme, and he was right; we just hadn’t seen it; at least not that particular theme. The theme we identified, and had woven throughout the script, was that a child grows into the adult they will become as a result of a series of situations in which they are put under pressure.

Theme is the universal truth behind a story, and it’s one of the three elements that have to be developed, as a story unfolds, if an author is to succeed. The other two, of course, are character and plot.

Of the three, theme may be the most difficult to examine. In most cases, an author comes to a short story, novel or screenplay with some idea of her characters’ identities and what it is that will happen to them. But one of the quickest ways to kill a good story is to begin it with a theme in mind. Unless you are really, really good, you run the risk of preaching; and no one wants to read a sermon or a lecture.

But as a story progresses naturally, theme will show up as a conflict of values or morals. It most likely will be a strong opinion that the author holds that comes out in the mouths of her characters. And it almost always presents itself as a recurring symbol.

When I called my son, after watching the edited DVD, and asked him why he hadn’t told me about the father theme, I could hear his grin.

“I wanted you to see it for yourself,” he said. “Good thing I had the reading, huh?”