Thematic Structure: Umbilical Between Character And Meaning

Screenwriting books evangelize the importance of theme, without properly investigating thematic structure. They rightly identify that it’s the source of meaning in a story. It’s what separates great scripts from good ones.

But the same books invariably call for a thematic sentence, then move on as quickly as possible to a new topic. Why?

Because catchphrases have no relationship to structure. They are isolated from the rest of the writing process.

Consider SICARIO. A screenwriting book might quote Alejandro and declare its theme to be:

There is no war on drugs, only war.

This is meaningless. Not (just) because it’s detached from the point of view of any character, but because it has nothing to do with structure. Not yet…

Beyond the sentence

A story takes place from a character’s point of view. From that unique perspective, a story is a battle between two belief systems. Two ways of seeing the world. Two ways of living.

In 3-act structure, a character’s arc is a transformation from one belief system to another. In a tragedy, the hero fails to make the jump.

The argument for one value system is encoded in any thematic sentence. The opposing belief system needs its own representation. This is sometimes called anti-theme.

Anti-theme

Anti-theme is the character’s belief system when we meet them in the Ordinary World. It’s the way of being that has kept them alive until now. We, the audience, have to believe the anti-theme with our hero. We have to want it for them.

But, as Meg LeFauve points out in The Screenwriting Life, the belief system that keeps the hero alive in Act 1 will kill them in Act 3.

Craig Mazin sums it up in Scriptnotes 403:

The purpose of a story is to take a character from

[anti-theme] to the embodiment of the theme through action.

In SICARIO, the two opposing belief systems are:

A. Follow the rules

B. Fight fire with fire

System A is a kind of deontological approach to life. Do the right thing for its own sake. System B is for the consequentialists. The outcome is what matters. And there’s only one way to catch the true criminals.

This is the impossible choice confronting Kate Macy. This is the source of meaning. The story is an elaborate and balanced ‘trolley problem’.

From sentences to structure

This takes us from a single thematic sentence to a quantum pair of opposing beliefs from the character’s point of view.

How do we get from here to a 3-act structure? There’s one more crucial step. It’s the difference between a catchphrase and a belief system:

A value system is a way of living that has both benefits and costs.

For a story to be meaningful, the two opposing ways of seeing the world must be true. That means each one has a cost, and each one has a benefit.

Back to SICARIO.

Value System AValue System B
BenefitMaintain your humanity
(take the high ground)
Effective at stopping
bad people
CostIneffective at stopping
bad people
Lose your humanity
(stoop to ‘their level’)

Macy can follow the rules (A) or fight fire with fire (B). The diagonal elements in the table are opposites. The benefit of A is the cost of B. The cost of A is the benefit of B.

This how trade-offs work. If Macy follows the rules – does the ‘right thing’ for its own sake – she can maintain her humanity, but she’ll lose the fight.

If Macy stoops to the level of the criminals, she can catch the people responsible for killing her colleague, but she has to sacrifice her humanity.

This is what makes the decision compelling. This is what makes the story meaningful.

And this table is the thematic system that maps onto a 3-act structure.

Thematic structure

Here’s the punchline. The key ingredient for a meaningful story is this:

At the low-point, the character must experience the cost of both value systems.

This is the only way for the hero to make an enlightened choice in favour of one belief system or the other in Act 3.

If the story is missing any of the four quadrants of the thematic table, it will be naïve at best – propaganda at worst.

The most impactful stories don’t just include the cost of the ‘theme’ and the benefit of the ‘anti-theme’. They drive straight at them like a heat-seeking missile. This uncovers the deepest truth that the story has to offer.

Back to the sentence

So what of the thematic sentence?

With thematic structure in place, a post hoc catchphrase can now be delivered in dialogue. It can be presented from the point of view of the hero, a mentor, an antagonist, society at large, or something more abstract.

The precise wording of any such catchphrase is an issue of tone, not structure. This is the writer’s framing of the winning value system.

In the circumstances of this particular world, in this particular story, one belief system is more courageous. More generous. More aspirational.

In SICARIO, Macy chooses her humanity, but loses the fight. In the script, Alejandro delivers the punchline in voiceover from 30,000 feet:

There is no war on drugs, only war.

Other examples

thematic structure in whiplash

THEMATIC STRUCTURE IN WHIPLASH

Andrew Neiman wants to become one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time. Charlie Parker became Bird. Andrew wants to stand on his shoulders.

The two value systems that Andrew must choose between are sacrifice and balance. They’re opposites, in direct conflict with one another.

The particular labels are interchangeable. Sacrifice could be replaced with dedication or obsession. Balance could be replaced with moderation or perspective. The thematic dichotomy – the truth of the zero-sum trade-off – is what matters.

For any possibility of achieving transcendent greatness, you must give everything – and more. That’s clear. The cost is also obvious. It’s everything else.

The alternative mode of being is to live with balance. In moderation. But there’s a cost to that too. A jack of all trades is a master of none. When Andrew isn’t practising, someone else is.

Value System AValue System B
BenefitTranscendent greatnessRelationships and sanity
CostIsolation and insanityMediocrity

After the second act break, Andrew asks his mentor Fletcher if System A can be taken too far. Can you discourage the next Charlie Parker from becoming Charlie Parker?

Fletcher’s response is no. Because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.

WHIPLASH reveals the difference between thematic structure and tone. These are independent variables.

In traditional screenwriting terminology, one might describe Andrew’s want in terms of drumming success, and his need in terms of his relationship with his father and girlfriend.

In a technical sense, the story is a tragedy because Andrew doesn’t make the jump across to System B.

But there is still one more layer to be added – tone. At the climax, in this tragedy, Chazelle has us, the audience, rooting for Andrew to get back on stage and become Bird.

THEMATIC STRUCTURE IN FINDING NEMO

This is the canonical example of thematic structure.

Marlin loves Nemo. He lost his wife and all other children to a barracuda. Now he’s terrified of Nemo getting hurt in the dangerous ocean. He wants to protect him from all harm.

The two value systems in play are protection and letting go.

Value System AValue System B
BenefitNemo is safeNemo can live a life
CostNemo can’t live a lifeNemo gets hurt

Why does the story work so well? Where does the impact (meaning) come from? The fact that the thematic contest is balanced and therefore true.

If Marlin loves Nemo, he should want to protect him from all harm. Nemo getting hurt is the worst thing that could possibly happen. Except, as Dory points out, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.

Despite everything that’s happened, the more courageous, more enlightened, more aspirational choice for Marlin is to let Nemo go.

thematic structure in finding nemo

Coda: want and need

Note finally that this story architecture supersedes the concept of want and need.

In a standard single-protagonist 3-act structure, the hero arcs from ‘want’ to ‘need’.

These terms are no longer required. They are replaced by something that is embedded in the structure: value systems. Want corresponds to one column of the thematic table. Need corresponds to the other column.

End of story.

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