Why Do You Want to Make That Picture? Is "Theme" or a "Central Organizing Principle" Essential for Succesful Storytelling? Screenwriting Tips from Stanley Kubrick, Lajos Egri and Jen Grisanti

"Why do you want to make that picture?" 

 [See the video above, where Steven Spielberg, at around the 3-minute mark, shares how director Stanley Kubrick asked the one essential filmmaker's question]

Think about the one question that Stanley Kubrick repeatedly asked Steven Spielberg.

Not "what's the plot?"

Or "what is the 3 act structure?"

Or "what obstacles does your central character overcome?"

Kubrick wanted to know (essentially): what thematic question draws you, the filmmaker, to this story?

Why do you need to tell this story?

Does your central character grapple with a life question that matters to you?

This personal theme-driven approach to filmmaking - asking the filmmaker to consider how their project reflects their own concerns - is one of the key tools taught by script doctors and story consultants like Jen Grisanti:

"Here is one of the most important questions I ask my clients and others I work with: what does your central character want? My next question: why do they want it? The reason so many people have difficulty conveying what their central character wants is because they don't know what they want in their own life. This is why I encourage my clients and my audience to do the emotional work. When you do the emotional work in life, you help clarify what you want and why you want it. When you clarify what you want, it helps you define what your character wants in the stories you tell."

Note: This reliance on "theme," "meaning," or what some might call a "Big Idea" or "Central Organizing Principle" was also taught by one of the 20th century's great writing teachers, the late Lajos Egri (who called this central organizing principle of great dramatic literature the "premise"):

"Let us suppose that we want to write a play about a frugal character. Shall we make fun of him? Shall we make him ridiculous, or tragic? We don't know, yet. We have only an idea, which is to depict a frugal man. Let us pursue the idea further. Is it wise to be frugal? To a degree, yes. But we do not want to write about a man who is moderate, who is prudent, who wisely saves for a rainy day. Such a man is not frugal; he is farsighted. We are looking for a man who is so frugal he denies himself bare necessities. His insane frugality is such that he loses more in the end than he gains. We now have the premise for our play: "Frugality leads to waste."

The above premise -- for that matter, every good premise -- is composed of three parts, each of which is essential to a good play. Let us examine "Frugality leads to waste." The first part of this premise suggests character -- a frugal character. The second part, "leads to," suggests conflict, and the third part, "waste," suggests the end of the play.

Let us see if this is so. "Frugality leads to waste." The premise suggests a frugal person who, in his eagerness to save his money, refuses to pay his taxes. This act necessarily evokes a counteraction -- conflict -- from the state, and the frugal person is forced to pay triple the original amount.

"Frugality," then, suggests character; "leads to" suggests conflict; "waste" suggests the end of the play.

A good premise is a thumbnail synopsis of your play."

Like Egri and Kubrick and Grisanti, New World storytellers (especially those making non-linear or interactive stories that do not fit the recognizable shapes of a 90 minute movie or a half-hour TV episode) may find that expressing their "premise" (as Egri suggests in a single sentence) is a great way of honing their narrative and organizing their story.

As Egri wrote: "The premise should be a conviction of your own, so that you may prove it wholeheartedly. Perhaps it is a preposterous premise to me -- it must not be so to you. Although you should never mention your premise in the dialogue of your play, the audience must know what the message is. And whatever it is, you must prove it... The premise should not stand out like a sore thumb, turning the characters into puppets and the conflicting forces into a mechanical set-up. In a well-constructed play or story, it is impossible to denote just where premise ends and story or character begins."

If you're a young screenwriter, I strongly suggest following Kubrick's lead - ask yourself why do you want to make that picture. If you have trouble expressing your theme, perhaps the Egri exercise of reducing it to 1) a central character's defining trait 2) an active verb that implies conflict and 3) a result that suggests the end of the drama might help.

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