The Primacy of Theme

tremors 3Part One:

A Theoretical Approach

Segment 1

It All Starts With Theme

Part one of this essay will focus on designing a set of tools that will march your script toward non-episodic completion. The first of these techniques is wrapped in the injunction which acts as a title for this segment:

It all starts with theme.

[Eventually, of course, we’ll also see that it ends with theme too.] Once you are satisfied with what you want to express in your theme, you then have to revise that sentiment until you can state it in 10 words or less. Wash it of unnecessary crumbles, trim of it unnecessary fat, sand your statement down until you can:

Fit your theme on a bumbersticker.

For some reason [which I can never quite wrap my mind around] this idea is incessantly subjected to the… but why?

Why, writers want to know, do they need a theme?

Objection One aka The Tremors Objection:(1)

It seems that S.S. Wilson, one of the authors of Tremors, has said [more than once] that he and his writing partner, Brent Maddock, had no theme in mind when they designed the story for Tremors. It was their explicit intention [while writing the script] that it not have a theme. According to Mr. Wilson, their only goal was to pay homage to the B movies of their youth, while also reinventing the genre by putting a couple of drifter types into the hero roles.

And yet, when I wrote my review of Tremors, I found that it had one of the more strongly expressed themes of any script I’d analyzed. Is it possible that Mr. Wilson just doesn’t know his own writing?

Of course not.

I suspect that Mr. Wilson was being a bit demure when he said that he and Mr. Maddock had no thematic intentions when they plotted their story. After all, Tremors is meant to be a B movie about giant people-eating-worms.

If, however, we take Mr. Wilson’s claims about his script seriously for a minute, we find there is another possibility latent in his intentions to write a themeless script:

Every script has a theme whether you want it to have one or not.

If you think of a story in its simplest form, you will be thinking of a character with a problem to solve. That’s it. I like to [because I’m obtuse this way] think of stories as literary factorial machines. You will remember from your high school pre-calculus classes that a factorial is the multiplication of a number by every number that comes before it. The answer to “4 factorial” (2) is 4x3x2x1 or, 24. Stories are exactly like this. You are taking the literary factorial of the problem to solve. You are seeing which solution [from the multitude of solutions available to your character] for her problem, you want to allow her to use to solve her problem. As soon as you make this choice, you’ve chosen a theme.

Your script will be so much better if you make this choice consciously.

Another popular objection is that some stories aim to capture the uncertainty that pervades life. This will be:

Objection Two aka The Heisenberg’s Matrices Objection… and it will be leveled soon.


1 My thanks to internet interlocutor “CE” for being one of those who opposed my thematic ideas so forcefully. If not for his insistence on themeless scripts, I would not have read Tremors.

2 This should be represented as 4!.


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