Write-it Wednesday #11 — Theme Pitch

24 Aug

First of all let’s get this out of the way:



Two weeks without prompts! And in the last weeks of summer no less! My bad.

But! rather than dwell of the past let’s jump right into it with what I think is a very useful prompt. I use this idea with my projects and with movies etc that I see.

So, what is a Theme Pitch?

Most of you are probably to young and innocent to remember the first outside guest workshop the club held. My high school show-choir-director-by-day/screenwriter-by-night came up to give part of his workshop on screenwriting. It was great fun. He breaks down Rise of the Planet of the Apes beat by beat and I’ve actually seen that twice, but never seen the rest of the movie. Eh, she shrugs and takes a sip of tea.

This instructor, Kevin Lasit, has a particular way of pitching his and others’ projects. He omits plot and character entirely and jumps right into theme.

For example, instead of saying “Wicked: the Musical is the untold story of the witches of Oz, following the Wicked Witch of the West as she falls from grace, making unlikely enemies and even unlikelier friends along the way.”

a Theme Pitch would be something like: “Wicked is about friendship. It’s about relationships with the people who change the path we’re on, whether they come into out lives for an hour, or come to stay.”

Sappy, I know, but on the thematic level, that is what Wicked is about.

And, let’s just play this out for a second, because theme is something I’ve always struggled with, and maybe some of you do to. It all started back in grade school. Do you guys remember when you were first being taught to analyze literature? Suddenly it wasn’t okay to like a book because it had good characters and and interesting plot and led you on a vicarious experience through a different world. It had to be about something. And not just anything. It had to be about Family™, or Friendship™, or (everyone favorite) Loss of Innocence™. That really pissed me off. Suddenly these stupid Themes™ were supposed to be more important than everything else in the book, than the words, the characters, the story. All of that was there to present a theme, nothing more. At least that’s what I felt like my teachers were telling me. Maybe they were oversimplifying to give us youngins a way to understand the concept. Maybe they had a view of literature different from mine (and that’s fine by the way). But honestly, if I hadn’t had Harry Potter (and then others similar genre series) to hang on, I might have come out of grade school hating reading. Because what a bunch of bullshit. I couldn’t understand why, if theme was all they cared about, these super fancy writers didn’t just write a quote: “Loss of Innocence is tragic — Steinbeck” “War is bad — Hemingway” etc. It seriously miffed me that, as I was understanding what I was being told, so many writers created rich worlds and characters only to make a point, only to state a theme. The experience of the world itself didn’t matter, it was only an absurdly ornate soapbox and megaphone.

Obviously I understand that’s not what’s happening, but it took me a long time to realize that theme and story have a much more delicate and nuanced relationship than I had been led to believe. What finally flipped the switch for me was understanding that theme can exist without intent. A work can have strong and important themes even if it wasn’t created specifically to voice them. Themes often evolve along with a work itself and grow with it, not because all authors are assholes using literature to beat you over the head with their points (some are, for sure, but not all), but because stories mean things to people. They remind us of experiences we’ve had and people we’ve known. They give us a place to store and explore our feelings on topics very personal to us, and that we’d never considered before. Themes help us talk to each other. One of my best friends recently asked me to duet “For Good” with her at her upcoming wedding, not because Gregory McGuire or Stephen Schwartz dictated that a major theme of Wicked would be friendship, and therefore we must agree, but because the show focuses its attention on something very real and important to the two of us. It gives works and notes to something we have experienced, providing us a shorthand to express how glad we are that we met each other, and how much we’ve changed because of that. That’s what a theme is. That’s what a theme does. I didn’t understand that for a very long time.

You probably think I’m an idiot for not grasping this sooner. All I can say is, conceptually sure it made sense, but a false dichotomy between school themes and analysis and the vicarious enjoyment of reading for fun prevented me from understanding that themes are big part of the enjoyment and fun I got out of reading, and are why certain stories meant and mean so much to me.

*rant over*

Sorry. I really don’t want to go do what I’m supposed to be doing today.

So — your prompt is to write a couple of theme pitches. They’re short, so try one or two for your own projects, and a few for movies, shows, plays, etc that you like.

Since themes evolve with a story, finished works will likely have clearer themes than a work-in-progress. Projects you’re neck deep in will be harder to read than ones you experience as a casual fan. Challenge yourself to think about all the possible themes your project has, or has had (changes along the way may have drawn you toward or away from certain themes). This might also be a good time to look for and flag any Unfortunate Implications   (elements that imply themes you don’t particularly want in your work, see TVTropes) for later consideration. You might notice some of your personal interests coming through. Which themes would you most want your work to represent?




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