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"When we are reading a book and come across an idea or theory that appeals to us, that 'rings a bell' with us, we 'recognize' it to be true. Yet this idea or theory may be one of which we have never before consciously thought. The word says we 're-know' the concept, as if we knew it once upon a time, forgot it, but then recognized it as an old friend. It is as if all knowledge and all wisdom were contained in our minds, and when we learn 'something new' we are actually only discovering something that existed in our self all along." -- M. Scott Peck

Truth is one of those movie elements that seems to matter mostly to screenwriters, and just one other group. It can become a low priority throughout the development and filmmaking process, in favor of plot and character and action and effects --

And then, at the end of it all, it suddenly becomes important again... when the audience watches the movie.

That's the other group that cares about truth: the audience. Audiences do want mystery, and excitement, humor, romance and all that. But the best of movies offer an additional feature. The frosting on the cake. The thing that can elevate a movie from good to the status of classic --


Call it truth, wisdom, insight, epiphany, revelation, or theme... truth always works up there on screen. It may never show up on a response card, but an audience hopes for the story to be 'right,' for it to resonate within them, for it to be 'about something.' The audience eats up truth whenever it's presented -- truth about the human spirit, truth of the world, truth of a particular character, or the truth of an ideal. It's never overlooked; in fact, the audience is searching for it. And when they find it, it's the ultimate way for the audience to connect with a story.

Jeffrey Katzenberg cares about truth. In story meetings he looks beyond the flash, the razzle-dazzle -- what he refers to as 'tap dancing' -- of the pros. He doesn't get caught up in the clever plot twists, funny lines, eye-popping special effects, spectacular storyboards -- or the compelling personality of the artist giving the pitch. Katzenberg expects all those things to be there. He knows that at his level, the film is going to look great and it's going to sound great and the story will be clever and witty and impressive. He knows that if those elements don't happen to be there yet, as time goes on, the pros that work on the picture will be able to find them. So he ignores the tap-dancing, and focuses on one thing that isn't a guarantee:

A unifying, worthwhile theme. Some compelling powerful truth that makes the movie worth making. Quite often, even the pros don't get this right.

Most readers here are aware of Samuel Goldwyn's maxim: "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." We're supposed to entertain, not teach -- and I seem to be saying the opposite.

It's true; I am.

I think the Goldwyn quote applies more properly to heavy-handed clunky 'state the theme' moments than to overall stories.

Theme is more than just one character undergoing a change, or 'learning a lesson.' Ideally, the theme or 'truth' of your movie is the heart of your movie. Imagine Yoda speaking in that grave, sing-song tone to Luke Skywalker: "Theme is not an element added. It is the well from which all other elements spring." Yoda closes his eyes and nods his head sagely. "Yes, plot, story, character, tone... theme in motion sets them all, theme defines them all... and theme unifies them all, a reason it provides for elements to be together all in one movie."

Contrary to Goldwyn, I believe a powerful theme, properly executed throughout a story, is an excellent form of entertainment.

Let's run through a few story elements with an eye toward theme:


Katzenberg takes the 'protagonist-learns-a-lesson' technique a few steps further: he explores whether each character can, in some way, reveal a facet of the overall theme. One technique is to shape the villain's character to illustrate the dark side of whatever positive theme the protagonist's journey reveals.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is an example. When Gaston spies Belle and declares, "She's the prettiest girl in town. That makes her the best..." he's mapping out the movie's moral landscape ('You can't judge a book by its cover' & 'Beauty is only skin deep') by giving voice to the opposite view.

Finally there's a partial answer to the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" Sometimes the desire to express a theme (or shout it from the streets) is the original inspiration for a story. This is especially true for 'idea' films, where theme is so prevailing a story element it becomes the organizing principle of the movie.

In the film SIRENS, the Hugh Grant character and his wife try to talk a painter into withdrawing some of his (perceived) lewd paintings from a church-sponsored exhibit. This plot is then pushed far into the background, freeing the characters and situations to explore the topic of sensuality. One of the themes that emerges (there's probably a better way to put it) is: "Proper behavior is often what is personally fulfilling, not only what is socially mandated."

In the great movies, the story exists as a tool to create situations that will reveal the theme. CASABLANCA illustrates the emotional fulfillment of altruism. What better story to support it than that of a cynical man... who has a love so deep and true that nothing else matters... and who chooses to give up that love to greater purpose.

In STAR WARS, when Han Solo returns to aid Luke Skywalker, the satisfaction the audience feels is not just from the clever plot twist that resolves the film. Han's return is the thematic high point of the movie: the forces of good have reached even Han Solo's heart, and have caused him to take action, action that directly results in the conclusion of the film.

In the upcoming THE MASK OF ZORRO there's a scene that underscores this point -- by doing it wrong. Zorro engages the villain in a sword fight -- but it's just a sword fight. It's not exactly boring, but the audience just sits there watching, not all that involved, because the fight has no larger moral or thematic purpose. Action that isn't imbued with some kind of greater meaning can get dull pretty quick. The original scene had Zorro fighting his way to achieve a greater objective: to save people in danger. This would have illustrated an aspect of the theme, that one must move past revenge to achieve redemption.

Unfortunately, the scene was changed during the course of production to accommodate staging and blocking. It was only when the film was assembled and shown to an audience that the problem became apparent to all. (Hopefully, there will be time to fix this prior to the summer '98, release date.)

One trick Ted and I use is to let the villain articulate the theme. If the theme needs to be stated in the course of the film, somehow it's easier to take when it comes via the sneers and mockings of the villain.


Here's a clever technique that Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale used in BACK TO THE FUTURE: let the sub-plot state the theme. Marty McFly's character issues find form in the movie through the sub-plot: the problems of his parents, who don't have the confidence to risk taking the action that is in their hearts.

Rather than load Marty down with a bunch of scenes to lay out the theme, Zemeckis and Gale covered that ground with Marty's father. This allowed the theme to be bluntly stated (by Marty himself, teaching his own father what he himself needed to learn), yet, because it was couched in sub-plot, it didn't land as too heavy-handed.

So -- how do you find a worthy theme? I can offer three suggestions. One practical, one pretentious, and one just plain silly.

#1. One step further

This is the practical suggestion. It's a test. Let's say you stopped someone on the street, and told them your basic set-up. What would their first response be?

Pretend you pitched a love story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Most people would guess that the theme is, "Love conquers all."

Okay, that's your starting point. Now take it a step further. After all, you're the professional -- you should at least be able to do better than the average person on the street. So push the 'cliché' theme one step further. Do a story about the fact that sometimes love doesn't conquer all -- and how do you live with that?

#2. Critical thinking

This is the pretentious suggestion. As a writer, it's your job to challenge the status quo, to examine conventions, to be wary of social norms, to constantly question, and seek the truth. It's the Fourth Estate idea, writer as watchdog. You trade in the coin of ideas. Don't present the common, easy ones; search for the thoughts that are worthwhile. Challenge yourself, and your audience. Ruminate and meditate and ponder. 'Nuff said.

#3. A wisdom library

Here's the silly suggestion. (Guaranteed, you won't read this in any other book or article on screenwriting.) The idea is, if you're going to include wisdom in your screenplays -- well, then, you're going to have to gain a little wisdom yourself. So go out and buy some. Get a couple of those Famous Quotations books in your library. Aphorisms, proverbs, maxims, and sayings, etc. Read 'em and ponder.

Sounds lame, perhaps. But it beats getting wise the hard way, through thirty to forty years of brutal life experience.

You can add a volume of American Folklore, a book on Greek proverbs, quotable Shakespeare, etc. Collections of poetry, plays, analysis of great literary works (in addition to the works themselves, of course). Build yourself a little wisdom library.

In fact -- for the second half of this column, just for you, I'm going to list a collection of original aphorisms. Just some thoughts and observations I've jotted down randomly over the years. Some 'Deep Thoughts,' along the lines of Richard Bach's "Illusions" and Robert Heinlein's "Excerpts from the Notebook of Lazarus Long."

Also, I must confess: I have a hidden agenda. Just once, someday, somehow, I'd like to land a quote in one of those quote books somewhere. So if you happen to be inspired by any of these, well -- you can quote me on that!

One who loves is easier to find than one to love. And it seems this way to everybody.
Self-esteem is the prize awarded by you to you for playing by your own rules -- in which case, you'd think it would be easier to come by.
Because a thing is free does not mean it is not also priceless.
It is a rare man who can prevail in the face of comfort.
Freedom is fragile and elusive, for rarely does the appreciation of it exceed the pleasure of being able to tell others what to do.
To prepare to do something is often merely to put it off. The preparation period ends not when you are ready, but when the time to prepare runs out.
It is nearly a universal quality of human beings to be able to recognize the Truth -- and that's Truth with a capital 'T' -- nearly always when it is presented to them. Yet it is a rare quality to be able to define the Truth, and to make those presentations.
A screenplay isn't so much a blueprint of a movie -- it's more like a travel guide. One can read about how wonderful a place is, check out the points of interest, and perhaps even the best order in which to view them. It helps to better plan a schedule and expenses. But realize that, when the travellers actually arrive at the location, their gonna toss the travel guide into the back seat and go out there and see the sights for themselves.
Grief's agenda is to make you into a new person, so your old self can be left behind, company for the one who has been lost.
You don't need to find a perfect person to experience a perfect love.
Confidence precludes the occurrence of some of life's most unpleasant and insoluble problems.
Compatibility ought to be defined by how often two people intensely desire the same thing, not how successfully they are at making compromises over their differences.
There is but one tick on the accuracy scale between 'optimism' and 'denial.'
There are no real choices in love. You simply come to realize what you must do, and then you do all that you can do.
Joy that ends before its fulfillment plays in the heart equal to sorrow, until time reveals the difference by bringing forth real sorrow, or joy again.
It is important to give people the opportunity to reject who you truly are.
Once learned, the ability to disagree with a smile pays valuable dividends for a lifetime.
Correctly interpreted, the phrase 'at the very least' means 'at the very most.'
When you start dating someone, there is one single top level of response: the one where you find yourself calling up friends to say, "This is it, I'm in love!" and all the songs on the radio have new meaning. Don't fool yourself -- any other feeling is less, and indicates it's just a matter of time till you move on.
I think there are two distinct human species on this earth -- no, not male and female. The distinction is between those people who hear God speak, and those to whom God chooses to remain silent.
Because a concept can't be proven by logic doesn't mean it can't be disproved by logic.
The heart forms emotional bonds faster than it knows a desire for permanence.
Faith, born of doubt, in seeking to erase it, cannot but confirm it.
Women will sacrifice love to attain their dreams; men will give up their dreams for the sake of love.
Solutions are poison to problem-solving. There are few greater obstacles to advancement than that which we already know.
Reject that which rejects you, quickly, and you will go far in life. The fox had the right idea about the grapes.
Would that happiness were as inevitable as sorrow!
Loss can live only in the imagination, and so by its own nature is false. Despite this, it hurts like hell.
A wise man learns to trust his foolish heart.
Time goes faster as you get older, nature's poor compensation for the curse of having kids.
A child should have every advantage -- including those taught by disadvantage.
Most tribulations are carefully selected, thoughtfully maintained and closely cherished.
Anger is a more noble emotion than indifference.
My lousy way of getting it done is better than your great way of not doing it.
The magic of a secret decoder ring lies not its ability to code and decode messages, but in allowing children the belief that they possess knowledge worth keeping secret.
You can tell ignorance from knowledge by this tell-tale sign: it is usually much, much louder.
True love requires that the loved one be fully known, in a way only their loving in return can reveal.
Unrequited love ALWAYS contains an element of self-hate.
Mistakes are the byproduct of action -- and thus an accurate gage of effort.
Most will choose to leave someone who can't bear to see them go.
A fool harvests his opinions in the spring.
Personal happiness is so important, most choose to let someone else take care of it.
Cowardice is a luxury of youth, which has time to spare. Age brings courage.
The search for joy leads to a doorstep.
Here's a theory: the difference between real life and theory is that in theory, real life and theory are the same, but in real life, they're different. Of course that's just a theory. I wonder if it's true?
Talent is truth on display.
Movies aren't made, they happen.
There has never been an example of a picture of a squirrel that was in the least bit interesting. This will not stop people from continuing to take pictures of squirrels.
We grow young from our graves, stretching our lives out like elastic, reaching back to grab one brief day of youthful joy, to dance in the sun, and then -- SNAP! -- it's over.
When your feelings are the strongest they can possibly be, then you must be in love, for though we have no proper definition for the word, we know there is nothing beyond it.
Human beings are compelled to adopt a belief system; some paradigm to provide meaning, purpose, and understanding to our lives. A quick survey of the world shows that pretty much any idea will do -- it need not reflect reality or truth, merely function to fascinate, distract, and compel. We are designed for belief, not for truth.
What brings the greatest joy may also bring the greatest sorrow; sadly, never the other way around.
In youth, no one wants your opinions, and in old age, there aren't any left you think are worth giving.
Hate, seldom justified, most often just reveals a desire to hate.
It's easier to be old than young. You make just as many blunders, but you've become much more adept at not recognizing them.
You are an adult when, faced with important decisions, you choose to have more faith in yourself than anything else.
Help somebody once, be ready to help them twice. Help them twice, and be ready to help them forever -- so don't help them twice.
Hollywood is a fantasy world filled with fake people telling lies to the world and each other. The only thing real is the money.
The resolve to diet is most easily summoned on a full stomach.
It seems quite proper to fear achievement, which, after all, is proof that you've successfully moved an experience from the delightfully anticipated future into the forever and sadly lost past. Avoid as long as you can the ultimate indignity: a lifetime achievement award.
We need two words to replace the word 'want.' One word for when you just want something, and another for when you want something strong enough to change in order to get it.
Give me a man who is brilliant, well-read, experienced, articulate, exhibits kindness, empathy and exquisite taste, who lacks just one thing -- leadership ability -- and I'll show you a writer.
There are millions to be made in telling people what they already know.
To be truly 'smart' is not to show cleverness, inventiveness, speed of thought, or the ability to quickly access vast amounts of information -- it's each person's varying ability to accurately and correctly observe and interpret the world.
It's not that Hollywood doesn't respect writers, it's that Hollywood doesn't respect good writing. After they throw out the great script, the powerful scene, or the well-written line (at the request of the director, studio head or star) they really do need and respect (and pay handsomely) the writer that they hire to come in and try to fix things.
A major drawback to being unmarried is an ever growing list of past lovers truly missed.
Permanent change happens only by finding something new to like.
"I can't" is how a child says, "I decided to quit."
Lying most often manifests itself from lack of courage, not a desire to deceive.
How do we not rue the many unchosen paths in life? A blessed lack of imagination. There are enough real glories along any path to swamp our meager ability to picture alternatives.
Where need exceeds knowledge, religion is born.
The 'Columbus Effect' states that knowledge is overrated; instead, the world rewards action. Better to strike forth in the absolute wrong direction than wait for the permission of certainty, which never comes.
If God offered you your whole life to live, and in exchange, all you had to do was die for a few seconds, would you take the deal?
There is no 'i' in partnership. Actually, there is, but the ability to not see things that are there is one of the keys to making a partnership work.
I understand the parameters you've laid out for the answer you expect, but they don't match the reality of the situation, and actually preclude the correct response you pretend to seek.
Some say success is determined by who you know. Others claim it depends on the quality of your work. The truth is, the quality of your work determines who you get to know.
No wonder screenwriters are so unhappy. They rarely get laid, but manage to always get screwed.
Hollywood films are shaped not by the hierarchy of talent, but by the hierarchy of power.
To be rational is to be terrified. To the degree that we are not terrified is the degree that we are irrational. Which helps explain why all those television preachers look so relaxed.
Wisdom is a fabulous thing... it allows one to take foolish actions with almost no confidence at all.
The writer is not blessed with a greater ability to know, simply a greater willingness to admit.
Some problems have clear answers and succumb to direct action. Others are solved only by embracing a process, and trusting to time, chance, and change to bring about the solution.

And finally, one last inspirational aphorism, provided especially for all the readers of WORDPLAY:

Success is less rare than the courage to attempt it.

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