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Theme & Scene: The Magic of Nuts & Bolts Week Five Last week, the character speeches that came shooting out revealed how far you all have come. It was rather startling to read these speeches. Why? This exercise forces you to squeeze and reveal an entire scene in one page with one character plunked into a deep pot of hot oil. If you haven’t grasped how to set up a scene, it becomes very clear when you attempt this exercise. Definition A monologue is a character speech. A character speech is not necessarily a monologue. The difference: a monologue is delivered by one character without another character in the scene. In a character speech, there can be other people on stage/screen. Character speeches are often the most memorable moments in a movie or play. Please visit www.filmsite.org. Check out their list of great character speeches in film. It’s eye opening. (re: filmsite.org. Film critic and columnist Roger Ebert has written that this site is "an invaluable repository of movie descriptions and dialogue...the site represents a labor of love.") As you witnessed in the class, these speeches can move an audience to the heights of emotion: tears, anger, indignation, contempt, etc. Chekhov’s character speech in A Tragedian in Spite of Himself is humorously tragic in that uniquely Russian way; you laugh and cry at the same time. We also moved into mapping the beats in a scene and the revision process. When you move on to longer works you select and map the progression of scenes that form the story. In the same way, you have to map the progression of beats in a scene so that the action rises, step by step, in a believable way.

Rhythm of a Scene: Rising Action There are two pitfalls that we often see when writing a scene. 1) Static conflict: Repeat beats Repeat beats flatten out the action because the Protagonist employs a tactic that has the same intent or force to get what he/she wants from the antagonist over and over again. (See diagram on next page.) In some cases, the action may rise almost up to the climax and suddenly the Protagonist backs off, gives up, or tries a weak tactic that puts them back at square one in terms of action. Essentially, the scene has gone nowhere. We’ve seen this problem pop up in class. My usual note: don’t back off from the battle, dive in. Why this happens: 

Set-up isn’t strong enough. Stakes aren’t high enough. So the protagonist’s desire/need isn’t fueling the scene. The need/desire has to be so great that the protagonist refuses to give up until he/she gets what they want. If he/she doesn’t get what they want, it’s because the antagonist is slightly more powerful and blocks them or the terms (circumstances) have changed at the climax. How to correct: Boost the stakes. Make the problem bigger (strengthen the DS). Or put your characters under greater time pressure (strengthen the PQ).


Unequal power equation. Either the protagonist or the antagonist is too strong or too weak. They have to be evenly matched for the action to rise. Think about two boxers in a 15-round fight. One boxer is too weak. After two rounds, he gets knocked out. Match is already over. But we paid money to watch two titans fight for 15 rounds. Instead, we’re in the theatre for only 15 minutes. Usually, the antagonist is too strong (holds all the cards). If you repeat information in a scene, you’ve got repeat beats. How to correct: Even up the power equation between the protagonist and antagonist. Give both an ace up their sleeve—i.e., equal leverage over each other.

Misplaced point of attack. Too soon/Just after the crucible. Again, it’s about a flawed set-up. There’s no real problem (DS) in the scene. It’s a wave good-bye. A warning. Reportage, etc. That’s about revealing information to the audience in an inactive way. How to correct: Shift the point of attack. Make sure you’ve got the DS, PQ and need bubbling in the scene.




Beat 2 Beat 1

Beat 3

Beat 4

STATIC ACTION TIME Beats in a scene: tactics to achieve goal • To flatter • To cajole • To bribe • To threaten

2) Jumping conflict: missing beats Jumping conflict occurs when important transition beats are missing in the rise to the climax. So that our reaction to the action is: it happened too quickly. Or what just happened? Why did that character jump down the other character’s throat like that? Suddenly, the audience has stepped out on you because they no longer believe that your characters would behave in this way. If you put a pot of hot water on the stove and turn up the gas, it doesn’t suddenly boil over. It gets hotter and hotter in stages until the bubbles pop up. Go to the beach. A wave doesn’t suddenly grow from 3 feet to thirty unless some supernatural force is at work. In the same way, the rhythm of a scene is like a wave.


In most cases, the same issues that contribute to static conflict are also behind jumping conflict--flawed setup, unequal power dynamic, and misplaced point of attack. 

Usually, the protagonist is too powerful in the scene. He/she gets what he/she wants too quickly and with more power than is required. The antagonist folds. The conflict seems to “jump.”

In some cases, what’s going on in the writer’s head hasn’t been fully fleshed out on the page yet. An important beat is hinted at, but not given its due weight in the scene. In the blink of an eye, that beat is gone. A typical first draft problem.

In other cases, the writer doesn’t fully understand the emotional journey that must be taken in the scene—i.e., the various transitions in emotion (action/reaction) that occur between protagonist and antagonist. If you do readings of your material with good actors, they’ll let you know if a transition is missing. You’ll hear: Why would I do that now?! Doesn’t make any sense. This character wouldn’t do that…and so on and so forth. They will protest, believe me, because they are up on stage or on screen… naked as a jay bird. They’re running on gut instinct. They know when a red flag goes off in their gut that a beat is missing. They simply can’t make the emotional transition from one beat to another with any authenticity… which usually means, you haven’t written the beat they need to make that transition. How to correct: Stitch in the missing beats.



FALLING ACTION (denouement)


Beat 3 MISSING Beat 2 Beat 1


TIME When we start mapping out our full-lengths in step outlines, these same issues will crop up. A beat-to-beat progression in a scene translates into a scene-to-scene progression of the story. Many times, you’ll find that scenes are either repeating the same information/same action or scenes are missing. The Event One last word on scene structure before I move into this week’s lecture… An event—a shift in value—has to occur at the climax. The protagonist gets what he/she wants or doesn’t, win or lose. And that involves a choice. Action: the decision to do “something” given a set of circumstances. Remember, a decision requires having to make a choice between A or B. I keep giving notes on scenes that stress “choice”—A or B. And it’s not “Let’s Make Deal”… behind door number 1, 2, 3, and so forth. It’s A or B…a fork in the road.


Lecture Five: Theme Why does the title of this course begin with “Scene and Theme?” If you can structure a strong scene—the building block of dramatic narrative—then you can craft the larger structure with a sound base. Like a house built on strong foundations, it’ll hold. If a house is built on weak foundations, it will invariably collapse. If scene is the “how,” theme is the “why.”

“Wo is der witz?” Pronounced as “Vo is the der vitz?” Translated from German:

What is the point? More precisely, what is the joke? ...the unexpected, that which goes to the heart of the matter. In contrast to many of his glum German colleagues, Werner Heisenberg was an outgoing physicist with a sense of humor. In discussions on the reigning ideas re physics at the time (quantum mechanics), Heisenberg didn’t hesitate to interrupt the chatter with “Wo is der witz?!” In the same way that a physicist searches for problems that are worthy of attention and a good dose of grey matter, an artist explores aspects of the human condition that are also worthy of attention and a good dose of heart and soul. Overview: I. Formulating Theme II. Premise: The What-If? III. Dialectic: The Dilemma

I. Formulating Theme The idea for a story can originate from any number of sources: incident, character, event, dream, an interesting location, even a piece of art. Something catches fire in the writer’s mind and a story begins to form. There’s been an ongoing thread in class about how to translate real life experiences into dramatic narrative. Whatever inspires you to put pen to page can become the birth of a great story. At some point, however, you need to ask yourself why you’re telling this story. What aspect of the human condition are you exploring? What human truth are you trying to illuminate?


Theme is extracted from the central action of the story, not vice versa. But once you start to write the story, the theme will guide you, step by step, to the climax. All actions and events resonate with some aspect of the theme. Any action or information that doesn’t relate to theme can and should be cut from the narrative. Definition Theme: an expression of a universal truth re how and why the human condition changes from one state to another. 

A controlling idea or insight that can be articulated in one sentence

Implies causality and necessity, not serendipity or contingency o Not: The King died. The Queen died. o The King died. The Queen died because of grief.

Provides a central and unifying concept for the narrative o Must not be contradicted by any major action or event in the story o Must not rely on information or events that do not take place in the story

Guides strategic choices re character, scenes, plot points, climax, etc.

What theme is not: 

Moral of the story

Familiar saying or aphorism o “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

Generalization that covers more ground than what is implied by the story

In turn, the responsibility of the artist…

You are right in demanding that an artist approach his work consciously, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist. — Anton Chekhov …is to illuminate the human condition, not to solve the world’s ills. If you manage to ask the right question re the central problem and explore the many angles, insights subtleties and even ironies that revolve around that problem, then you’ve done your job as a writer. If you attempt to solve the problem, you may lapse into didacticism or preaching to an audience who are not wedged in their seats to be converted but to be emotionally affected.

“Judge not lest ye bore the audience.” --Orson Welles There are many ways to express theme. I’ll put forth three ways that most writers have used to articulate theme. You’ll discover which route works best for you.


Route 1: Express a point of view that reflects a fundamental value with respect to the human condition.      

Crime doesn’t pay. Crime pays big time. True love conquers all. War destroys us. Fear enslaves us. Vengeance leads to tragedy.

Route 2: Formulate a sentence in which a dominant character trait leads to an outcome. Examples:     

Hubris leads to self destruction. (King Lear) Ruthless ambition leads to self destruction. (MacBeth) True love conquers all. (Romeo and Juliet) Blind jealousy destroys the object of love. (Othello) Mercy leads to reconciliation and renewed faith. (The Tempest)

Dominant character trait Ambitious Vindictive Compassionate, Ruthless, etc.


Leads to: Implies action

Self-destruction Renewed faith Isolation Damnation

When worded in this manner, theme implies that action/outcome proceed from character. In the case of classic tragedy and three-act film structure (Hollywood norm), the character’s fatal flaw leads to the resulting condition seen at the climax. In general, it’s my preferred way of formulating theme because it implies action. For some stories, however, this route isn’t appropriate. In alternative structures--minimalist, anti-structure, etc.--the protagonist’s flaw may not be the root cause for the change in value/condition. In the same way that only thirty-six dramatic situations arise in human experience, there are a limited number of themes. How many? I’m not sure anyone’s ever taken the time to list them. However, the same theme can apply to any number of compelling dramatic stories as shown in the table below.

Classical works

Contemporary Works

Paul Robeson (Othello), Peggy Ashcroft

De Niro, Pesci in RAGING BULL

Theme Blind jealousy destroys the object of love.


(Desdemona), 1930 London production of Shakespeare's Othello.

“Raging Bull” is the most painful and heartrending portrait of jealousy in the cinema--an “Othello” for our times. It's the best film I've seen about the low self-esteem, sexual inadequacy and fear that lead some men to abuse women. Boxing is the arena, not the subject. (Ebert)

Ruthless ambition leads to self destruction.

Greg Hicks (Macbeth) and Sian Thomas (Lady Macbeth), MacBeth, RSC 2005

Michael Douglas (Gordon Gekko), Charlie Sheen (Bud) in WALL STREET. “Greed is good.”

True Love conquers all or True Love transcends death (in the case of GHOST… it’s quite a literal interpretation).

Rupert Evans (Romeo), Morven Christie (Juliet) -- Romeo and Juliet, RSC 2006

Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in GHOST Hubris leads to self destruction…or isolation.

Orson Welles in CITIZEN KANE (1941) Corin Redgrave (Lear), Louis Hilyer (Kent) -- King Lear, RSC 2005


Mercy/Forgiveness leads to reconciliation and /or renewed faith.

Patrick Stewart as Prospero The Tempest, RSC 1006 Dir. Bruce Beresford (1983) The themes that Shakespeare used to guide his work have been employed since the Elizabethan age, and were certainly used before the Bard was born. The revenge theme at the heart of Aeschylus’ Oresteia (458 BC) is revisited in Hamlet and yet again in the movie, FALLING DOWN. Route 3. Robert McKee reverses the equation on theme as put forth in Route 2, stating it as such:

Value That value (positive or negative) that results from the final action of story

Cause Implies revelation

Primary reason the protagonist has embraced either a positive or negative value

Examples are: “Justice triumphs because the protagonist is more violent than the criminals.” DIRTY HARRY “Justice is restored because a perceptive black outsider sees the truth of white perversion.” IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT “Hatred destroys us when we fear the opposite sex.” DANGEROUS LIAISONS (pp. 116-117, Story by Robert McKee. See External Links.) Since my training began in the theatre, I usually go for the more standard Route 2 when I formulate theme for longer work. However, you may find that the way in which McKee formulates theme works for you. The Journey of QUILLS Douglas Wright wrote Quills as a one-act play. It was expanded into a full-length play. The final stage of its journey was a feature film starring Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslet. When Doug wrote Quills, he formulated a simple theme… along the lines of…Censorship crushes the human spirit. Practically taped to his forehead, that theme guided him through multiple drafts. What resulted during that process was complex and compelling material. (Download QUILLS in the Course Materials section.) Douglas Wright on QUILLS:


“And given the extremity of his prose, Sade raises inevitable and necessary questions about the very nature of art. What is its true function in a culture? To uphold society's tenets, or to challenge them? To reassure, or to agitate? To buttress those institutions which shape civilizations—the government, the church—or to expose them? Does political oppression actually breed—rather than stifle—provocative art? What happens when we silence our extremists? What happens when we give them voice? As I began to write Quills, these questions were more important to me than a literal, biographical account of Sade's life. (Real lives rarely have narrative and thematic continuity, and they can seldom be compressed into two hours. Furthermore, I could never claim the Sade I conjured would be ‘accurate.' Inevitably he would be a jumble of assorted facts and my own suppositions.) So I gave myself a gift; that liberating concept known as ‘poetic license.'” Note: Wright started with character and a gut reaction to a wave of censorship at the time. As he delved into character, he began to see connections between the Marquis’ struggle and that of artists in the 80’s. Theme emerged. Once Doug identified what he wanted to say, he used his theme to guide the writing. This is a typical journey. The flicker of an idea…turns into a clearly articulated point of view on human truth. That said, I’m going to use my own experience with a play in explaining the remaining sections. As I guide you through my own process, it may help you as you dive into your full-length work.

II. Premise: What-If? Drilling down from theme, the premise is more focused on the specifics of your story. Let’s return to: Echo of Week 2 The Magic If: A technique that Stanislavsky developed to support actors in those instances where they needed an “actual” reference with no personal experience re a character’s action in a scene.

If I were [this person] in [this dramatic situation] with [these given circumstances] what would I do? A premise is the what-if as approached from the POV of the writer. In most cases, writers get inspired by some incident or person and ask… what if such and such a person were plunked into… such and such circumstances… then what would happen? Our family history is ridden with strange things. The old Powell estate, Nanteos, in Wales is one of England’s haunted sites. Google “Nanteos” and you’ll find tidbits on ghosts, the Holy Grail, Richard Wagner, etc. I may tap those stories one day. But in more recent family history, my grandfather was a Harvard physicist who worked on the atom bomb. No one in the family had any idea of what he did. Why? The Powells were Quakers. My grandfather had been summoned back to the city to take over as head of the American Friends Service Committee to provide help to the British during WWII. In the meantime, he had been recruited by J Robert Oppenheimer. Issue: Quakers are staunch pacifists. Premise: What if a Quaker physicist is asked to help build the atom bomb? Back to craft:


A premise is a question that a writer asks… what would happen IF. It’s the magic IF. And from that premise, we can begin to wrap our minds around the radioactive fall-out, pardon the pun… that is, the journey that a protagonist takes given a set of circumstances (sound familiar?). Examples: What if a man who can’t communicate to his wife that he loves her suddenly dies? GHOST What if a child with a dysfunctional family gets the chance to compete in a beauty contest? LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE What happens if two cowboys fall in love? BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN If theme encapsulates the universal human truth that a story conveys, the premise opens the door to the vast potential of how your story might illuminate that truth.

III. Dialectic: The Dilemma

Drama boils down to the struggle between two opposing value systems… …and this is why someone like McKee harps on about positive and negative value or idea and counter idea. The best and easiest way to explain these concepts is to show you how I struggled with these concepts. Back to the nuclear play. I returned to the Radiation Laboratory at U.C. Berkeley and spoke with other physicists who worked on the atom bomb or who knew my grandfather. I also sought out Clark Kerr, former President of U.C. Berkeley who had resigned during the California Oath controversy in the 1950s. (Quakers refuse to take oaths.) Now Kerr was a Quaker and I wanted to get his point of view on the oath controversy as well as what it meant to him to be a Quaker. I called him up…cold. Kerr swings the door open and says: So you’re Wilson Powell’s great-granddaughter. My response: Well…er… you mean granddaughter? He smiles impishly and says: Come in, come in. I came to Berkeley thinking that I was a stranger… and he not only knew my grandfather… but also my great-grandfather who had forced him to wear a coat and tie to dinner at Swarthmore. Whoah! I tell Kerr about this nuclear play and he cuts to the chase… oh, it’s a situation where one is stuck between two absolutes…the dilemma of human experience. In diagram form:

Absolute 1

Absolute 2

No slavery Human beings shall be free

No war Negotiation Grey area

Violence is not the answer to conflict

As a Quaker, your grandfather was stuck between two absolutes. Given that Hitler was bent on enslaving the entire world, how does one stop him? Given that Quakers observe a strict peace testimony, how does one battle the likes the Hitler and still maintain integrity within one’s core belief system?


Do you do nothing and stay true to your pacifist beliefs? Stand on the sidelines and watch the world crumble beneath Hitler’s war machine? -- OR -Do you develop an atom bomb to stop Hitler (at the time UK/US thought that they were in a race with the Germans) but violate your core beliefs? Let’s distill it yet another level…

What does one do in the face of evil? What is the right action? Is the answer clear? Is it black and white? The answer falls within a gray area in which my grandfather had to negotiate between two absolutes. That is essence of drama… the battle between two opposing value systems. One side prevails, but not without a tremendous cost to the protagonist who must choose a course of action. In the case of my grandfather, he suffered a breakdown after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. In those days, they called it a mild depression… the inability to function for months, you see?

Dr Wilson Powell (UC Berkeley)

Dr J Robert Oppenheimer (far right)

Quaker, Old Welsh/English family Experimental physicist Harvard / New York City

Jewish, Old German Jewish family Theoretical physicist Harvard / New York City

However, the relationship between Powell and Oppenheimer (polar opposites) gets more interesting. They both studied the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit. In fact, Oppenheimer convinced Wilson to work on the bomb by using the argument of right action as posed to Arjuna, the warrior, by Krishna in the Gita.

Yet another dialectic! Arjuna would have to kill his family to restore justice.


“It is not exactly clear when the Bhagavad Gita was written. Astronomical evidence cited in the Mahabharata place the incidents upon which the Gita is based in the year 3137 BCE, while the Puranas suggest a date of c. 1924 BCE. Scholarly estimates place the actual writing of the Gita in the latter half of the 1st millennium BC (roughly 4th century BC), making it a contemporary of the older Upanishads.” (http://www.crystalinks.com/indiaphilosophy.html) Krishna to Arjuna: Behold My mystic opulence! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhagavad_Gita

Hamlet. If he takes revenge, he commits murder. Is that course of action any less egregious than what his uncle did to his father? Does he have the moral right to restore justice in that manner? Does he have a choice? Kill or be killed. As the legitimate heir to the throne, just how long does he count on living if he does nothing? The prince is sandwiched between two absolutes. If you go back to the value chart in the character lecture and study those conditions in which the protagonist ends up either in paradox or extreme states, you’ll discover the end state is the result of a dialectic. In Story, Mckee states: “PROGRESSIONS build by moving dynamically between the positive and negative charges of the values at stake in the story.” What he means and what I’m trying to say without sounding too esoteric… is that story builds by the continual negotiation between the two absolutes. Whether it’s a choice between…   

The lesser of two evils Two rights which are mutually exclusive A right that will enslave you and a wrong that empowers you

…it is the battle between the two poles that is the core of great dramatic narrative. The best television shows reveal a struggle between two value systems:    

SIX FEET UNDER -- the desire to live with joy clashes with running a business revolving around death GREY’S ANATOMY – young adults struggle to grow up while taking on the super-human responsibility of saving lives THE UNIT -- team of elite soldiers try and raise families while conducting dangerous missions for the greater good BIG LOVE – Mormon man tries to be a “devoted” husband while providing for multiple wives. (If that’s not a struggle, I’m not sure what is)

Night after night, we turn on the tube to watch characters negotiate between competing values systems.


Week Five Assignments Since we’ve revised the syllabus to nail down scene structure skills and acquire more advanced scene writing techniques, the assignments have changed from the original syllabus. Please do realize, however, that we will still be brainstorming ideas and writing step outlines for a full-length in this class.

ASSIGNMENT A: Talk with the Devil: the Evil Antagonist In the past few weeks, antagonists have primarily served as blocks—i.e., forces of resistance. Successful scripts employ a strong protagonist and an even stronger, more interesting antagonist. The light side is defined by the dark side. The “Devil” takes many forms. Tempter/temptress, trickster, punisher, annihilator, etc. (This class is filled with nice people. Folks have a little difficulty re getting mean and ugly in the material, although Judith’s scene with the lead pipe comes close. So, I encourage you to pour your evil side into this exercise.) Write a 5-7 pp. scene (stage) or a 5-7 pp. sequence (film) where the protagonist confronts an evil antagonist. 2-3 characters. DS, PQ, need please. Let the idea itself dictate what medium you write it in. Note 1: A sequence can be a series of scenes. However, a sequence completes one idea or one action only. Note 2: Given that last week’s assignment was hellacious, enjoy easing up a bit and have fun with this!

ASSIGNMENT B: Brainstorm three ideas for a longer work. Keep it loose. Keep it messy. Keep it free. Don’t try a slap on a theme just yet. Explore your material first. What you need to say will become clear to you.   

Write a paragraph on each. (Don’t structure it yet. No loglines or formulas.) What inspired the idea? Why is it important for you to tell this story?

Note: Use your life experiences or family history (like I did) to experiment with ideas. As well, I’ve smelled full-lengths coming out in these exercises. Again, take this week to ease up a bit and spread your wings. Boot camp is essentially over.

NOTE: Since we are not all using the same hardware or software, please make sure to post your submissions in Rich Text File or PDF. Good luck! Dakota