03 July 2012

Plot, Story, and Theme

Have you ever committed to cleaning and organizing something -- the garage, your desk, your finances, whatever -- and once you start digging into the mess you discover that things are far worse than you suspected? I'm having that experience right now as I re-break Pin-Up Girls as a screenplay.

For the past week I have been engrossed in a very important question: What is the story of Pin-Up Girls? I know the plot, but what is the story? I blame John August and Craig Mazin. I discovered their podcast, "Scriptnotes" and have been soaking up past episodes like a ShamWow. Episode 39, "Littlest Plot Shop" hit me at around the same time I began outlining PUG. Thus spaketh Craig:
Well, when you go through a plot like that you get a lot of “what” questions, like — what happens? This woman seduces a man to save a guy to do a thing. So, what happens next is what bad writers are constantly asking: what happens next? And I think good writers are always asking: why should this happen next?
I know the events of PUG. I know the "whats"; what are the relationships, what happened to Scotty, what does Helen do in response, what does Ruby do, etc. And I may have actually spent some time asking and answering "why," but not nearly as much as I should have. The fact is -- and I'm obsessed with this concept right now -- PUG is a plot without a story. Or perhaps a plot with a weak story. Either way it's functionally the same.

The worst part is, story is related to theme, or as Mazin puts it, "central dramatic argument." From episode 23 of the podcast, "The Happy Funtime Smile Hour":
But the reason I made it up [the term "central dramatic argument"] was because the word “theme” can be distorted when we talk about writing screenplays and theme. Some people can use the word theme the way we should probably use the world motif like brotherhood, or justice, or bravery. Those are motifs. But they are not actually useful when you are writing a movie. What is useful when you are writing a movie is what Aristotle, going all the way back to Poetics, called “unity.” And that is, at its core, an argument, and what I call a central dramatic argument: an assertion that is the answer to a question, that you could agree or disagree with, but ultimately is at the… It is when people say, “What is this movie really about?” It’s about that.
Why is that the worst part? Because I'm an idiot. From the original PUG pitch document:
[Regarding theme] I have to defer to the great Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski. In his book Towards a Poor Theatre he wrote:
I do not put on a play in order to teach others what I already know. It is after the production is completed and not before that I am wiser.
It is very difficult for me to discuss the themes of a work-in-progress; I'm almost superstitious about this. I can, however, give you a sense of where I'm going. "Pin-Up Girls" deals with comunication and miscommunication, and the effect this has on relationships. Further, it deals with the new-found freedom that American women encountered during World War II, and how this altered traditional gender roles. Personal responsibiity and artistic responsibility are subjects that always interest me as a writer.
Waa-waa-waaaah ...

Two things: Jerzy Grotwoski's lifetime goal was to remain poor, and I know better than to write things like the above. Maybe not when I actually wrote it, but certainly now. It occurs to me lately that the point of storytelling is sharing what we've learned about our basic humanity. Storytelling (I believe) sprung up out of a basic need to share experiential knowledge. "How Not to get Killed by a Wooly Mammoth" was an early box office smash.

It's probably time I get over my bad self and become more willing to share my own observations and experiential knowledge of life.

In closing, John Carpenter:
Every great work has something that’s thematic about it. Not a message, because I don’t think movies do messages very well. They fall flat. Socially, I mean, some great films were made back in the ’30s and ’40s and you can see that they were placed in the time they were made, but their themes are for all time. The biggest thing is the story, but within that you need some thematic element that gets the audience going, that reaches out to them.