SCREENWRITING TIPS: Embedding Your Theme

I spend a lot of my time teaching screenwriting in both classrooms and on one-day masterclasses (with webinars coming soon – see the note at the bottom). This means that I often end up studying concepts related to education that aren’t necessarily directly associated with screenwriting. One of these has been the concept of SOLO Taxonomy, which is a way of judging a student’s understanding of a subject. It begins with a very basic and uncertain level of comprehension of the subject, but gradually builds up to a far more nuanced and complicated understanding. One such model of SOLO taxonomy, as first developed by John Biggs and Kevin Collis, is used below. Although this exists, as I mentioned, primarily as a method of gauging levels of complex understanding, I have come to use it as instead a method of embedding theme in a meaningful way throughout a narrative.

As a bit of background information, I’ve been working on a screenplay about a masseuse trapped in a room with a mutating corpse. Yes, I use academic models to deepen the thematic content of splattery horror movies. That’s me. Let’s investigate my idea using a SOLO Taxonomy and see where it leads us.

Level 1 is prestructural. The concept in rawest, wooliest form with no further analysis attached. In my case: the concept of flesh.

Uni-structural is level 2. One single meaning of the concept. Flesh is the meaty stuff on top of the skeleton. We’re covered in it. I always was crap at biology.

Level 3: other uses and meanings start to come into play at this multi-structural level. At this juncture, we might well be thinking about not just our own flesh, but the other meanings and associations that we have with the concept. Sexualised flesh. Corrupted flesh and concepts of beauty. Eating the flesh of another to survive. Flesh as home to a parasite. Here is the level where I might be able to include different concepts within my own narrative. For example, if the central theme is going to revolve around flesh from the point of view of massage, we can start to mess around with these other concepts as parallel concerns.

Meat eating, for example.

My lead character is Lauren. Maybe I’ll make Lauren a carnivore, and another character (maybe my mutating corpse, before their unfortunate demise) a vegan. Maybe I’ll make Lauren sexually voracious on a superficial, physical level (seeing lovers as ‘meat’) which not only plays with some interesting textures, but also gets away from the virginal ‘final girl’ paradigm that we’ve seen on way too many occasions for it to be anything other than a bog-standard trope (albeit a useful one that’s often fun to play with). At this multi-structural level, however, we don’t need to join these different elements. The relationships between them is not what matters; at this point we’re just looking for different examples, and different ways to emphasize a central theme. We don’t need them to relate to one another yet. That comes next.

The next step is a relational level. Here’s where we start to feed these concepts into one another. Is it possible that we can use Lauren’s attitudes towards meat or sexuality to inform and deepen the central problem in which she is locked in a room with a mutating corpse? Might it be possible that the only way to dispose of the fleshy invaders in her room (which have erupted from the mutating corpse, as such horrible things often seem to) is to eat them? Questioning attitudes towards flesh in all of its aspects is where this relational idea comes in. If we can tie in ideas of flesh as food, flesh as sexual object and flesh as comfortable home both for the creature who wears that flesh and, indeed, for any invading parasite, our script is likely to become thematically richer. Every element starts to reflect back that central concern with flesh in a way that compliments and interrogates every other element.

It’s at this point that we might want to start thinking about how to state the theme of our movie in just one sentence. By progressing down the taxonomy and coming up with interlinked ideas of the different meanings of the central theme, we can perhaps produce a question that sums up the attitude of the film and the themes that will be interrogated. In this case, for lack of anything else at the moment, let’s go with giving an unsympathetic character the line “I don’t care whether it’s hanging on a human being, on my plate or torn up on a slaughterhouse floor, flesh is just flesh. Just a collection of atoms like anything else.”

By having a character verbalize this theme somewhere in the first act, we can proceed to pull that idea apart in whatever ways we can, whilst giving the audience confidence that, thematically, this is going somewhere.

Finally, we have the extended abstract level. This is where our different concepts are not only brought together, they are combined and used as a springboard for increasingly abstract thought or the different ways of looking at that central theme. For example, it may be that we can introduce the themes of flesh in ways other than just the ones that we have already discussed. How about visually? Could we introduce a colour grade onto the final film to make the movie itself look more like skin texture? OK, this kind of idea is likely to be out of the hands of the screenwriter, but it’s the sort of visual prompt that can work its way subtly into a script and find its way into the final movie. Perhaps themes of flesh as a canvas could be brought into play with ideas like tattoos? Perhaps the other career that Lauren is dreaming of following might be a tattoo artist rather than a masseuse, which would introduce the interesting idea that she is effectively trying to change her relationship with flesh itself?

Take the time to make your way through the SOLO Taxonomy from that initial blunt, unthinking statement through to a more complex, interconnected and abstract way of dealing with your central theme. You might end up looking at it in a whole new way. Even in writing up this exercise, I’ve grown rather fond of that tattoo idea (which certainly hadn’t occurred to me before I’d thoroughly examined the whole ‘flesh’ concept).

Have a good writing day. My name is Pat Higgins, and my conscience is clear.

Note from Pat:

LIKE THIS STUFF? Please follow me on Twitter (@zcarstheme) and share this article to people you think might enjoy it. After years of teaching screenwriting to people face to face, I’m setting up a series of webinars via jinx.co.uk which will range from simple Q&As to more complicated, focused classes on specific aspects of screenwriting and filmmaking. Hope you can attend. My first book, Bloody Screenwriting: Write a Killer Screenplay in 30 Days will be out later in 2018, so if you’re reading this in the future go and buy a copy. Thanks!

 

Horror Stories @ Horror-on-Sea

Pat’s first live show of 2017 takes place this Saturday at the amazing and brilliant Horror-on-Sea festival in Southend. This annual festival is a huge highlight of the year (every year!) for the crew at Jinx Media. There are countless premieres and special events, including the World Premiere of Slasher House II from our wonderful friends at Mycho Entertainment.

Pat’s show will feature a whole load of stuff about structuring horror movies, together with uncensored anecdotes and clips from his journey through horror cinema. Don’t miss it! Tickets are only a fiver and can be bought by clicking the logo below…

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Screenwriting Masterclass and Consultancy

Here at Jinx Media, we’d like to thank everyone who attended our masterclass at the weekend. The event was a massive success, and we’ll be announcing additional dates shortly.

We’d also like to formally announce Pat’s new script consultancy service. Over the last decade, Pat has been offering feedback and notes on scripts in both professional and academic settings, and he’s now offering this service to the public.

Screenwriting with Pat Higgins

If you’ve written a screenplay, Pat would be delighted to read through it and give a 30 minute session of feedback via Skype. As both a qualified academic lecturer and a seasoned industry professional, (who has both produced his own scripts and sold others to third parties), Pat will give honest feedback and suggestions regarding structure, character, tone and more.

Just click the link right here and book yourself an online Skype consultancy regarding your script!

 

New Interview with Pat over at Micro Budget Massacre

If you haven’t yet checked out the awesome blog Micro Budget Massacre, allow us to point you in that direction. The blog was set up by our good friend MJ Dixon, writer and director of a whole slew of terrific independent features such as Slasher House and Legacy of Thorn.

Pat’s interview is the latest in a terrific series of chats with low budget horror writers and directors. The series has also featured Liam Regan, who created the awesome Troma-influenced flick Banjo, and the prolific and unstoppable Jason Impey.

Check out the interview by clicking on the graphic below!

Interview with Pat Higgins

Get the Screenwriting Masterclass to Visit Your Town!

I love running workshops and masterclass sessions on screenwriting.

Over the years, I’ve built up a real arsenal of exercises and techniques which can help screenwriters tap into their full potential regardless of whether they’re just starting out or have been writing professionally for a while. I’ve been lucky enough to spend time lecturing in very different environments, (having taught elements of screenwriting to everyone from film festival audiences to BA undergraduates), which has not only been fun but has allowed me to get used to using different techniques with different classes.

There are still a few places available for our full-day workshop in Southend-on-Sea on 4th June, but they’re going fast. We haven’t announced further dates after that yet, but I’m open to suggestions. If you can’t make it to Southend but would be interested in a masterclass taking place in your home town in the UK, drop me a line via Twitter. If we can find a suitable venue in your town, (and round up at least a dozen delegates wanting to buy a ticket), we might well be able to make it happen.

In the meantime, don’t miss the chance to grab one of the last tickets for Southend. We’ll be covering everything from idea generation to character motivation and crafting the perfect ending.

Look forward to seeing you there!

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NEW DATE! Screenwriting Workshop with Pat – 4th June 2016

Screenwriting with Pat Higgins

On June 4th 2016, there’s another chance to spend the day doing screenwriting development exercises with Pat Higgins. At a yet-to-be-disclosed location in central Southend on Sea (sounds very mysterious!) this is a rare opportunity to work in a small group to hone your screenwriting skills in a fun and supportive environment. Click the image for more information, and be sure to act quickly to take advantage of our ridiculously discounted Early Bird specials. Less than an hour from London on the train; why not spend a lovely day at the seaside with likeminded folks and kick your screenwriting career into gear?

If you want to write movies, this is the one for you.

 

Pitching to Joel Schumacher in a Lift

Screenwriters get introduced to the idea of the ‘elevator pitch’ with the following scenario:

Imagine that you found yourself in a lift with a Hollywood power-player, and you only had that 60 seconds or so to sell them on the idea of your movie. 60 seconds to convince them that the idea might be worth further investigation. 60 seconds to make them care.

This scenario works quite well as a means of making people think about the hook of their story. Amazingly gifted screenwriters can still be amazingly poor orators, and those words that flow so beautifully on paper can often dry up to a series of splutters and false starts when someone asks what their brilliant movie is actually about. Focusing on communicating the essence of a proposed movie in an incredibly short space of time can be a really useful exercise, but the idea of actually pitching in a lift is largely meant to be a metaphor.

Nonetheless, last year I accidentally found myself pitching in a lift to Joel Schumacher. And, hey, I was a teenager when The Lost Boys came out. It’s one of those movies that made me who I am; everything I’ve ever written has contained elements of both comedy and horror. There’s strands of Lost Boys DNA running through every screenplay to leave my office. I owe Joel Schumacher a lot, and I finally got to repay him by babbling for around a minute about a screenplay that I’m extremely proud of called Your Lying Eyes.

Let me back up a bit. First of all, I’m not one to engineer meetings with people whose work I admire. I feel much happier watching and listening to such people rather than speaking to them. There’s a speech about never meeting your heroes in my script for The Devil’s Music which sums up largely how I feel about it. There’s simply too much riding on it for it to be any fun. Look, I’m a massive Springsteen fan, but if you gave me the chance to sit and have a drink with the guy I’d probably run a mile. Not because I’d be intimidated (people are just people, after all), but what if it went badly? What if we simply didn’t get on? Would I still feel the same way about Thunder Road, or would there be a nagging ‘but…’ in the back of my head every time I listened to it?

So, in the interests of never getting a nagging ‘but…’ every time I watched Falling Down, I probably wouldn’t have engineered a situation where I got to pitch a movie to Joel Schumacher in a lift. But the London Screenwriters Festival had other plans.

If you haven’t heard of the festival, it’s now the largest screenwriting festival in the world. 800-odd screenwriters and speakers, plus a fair few producers and agents knocking about. Lots of people drinking coffee and talking about movies, lots of interesting events and cool stuff. On the Sunday of the festival, I had a meeting about Your Lying Eyes lined up which I was excited but mildly stressed about. It’s a really good script, probably the best thing I’ve ever written, and for this particular meeting I was determined to bring my A-game.

My mate Jim Eaves and I grabbed coffee, and we ended up in a queue for The Elevator Pitch. This was a thing set up by the festival where screenwriters could do the elevator pitch thing for real, usually to somebody connected with the UK industry. I figured it might be a nice little dry-run prior to my meeting. I figured it might be with someone I’d spoken to previously (either at the festival or in the world at large).

It wasn’t, of course. It was Joel Schumacher.

Joel Schumacher in a lift getting babbled at

I think it’s safe to say that my tight-as-a-drum pitch got punctured somewhere on its way out of my mouth and emerged as a bundle of jumbled character motivation and messy beats. Seriously, though, what do you want from me? Dude directed The Lost Boys, for chrissakes.

So elevator pitches are sometimes very real. And not just at orchestrated events at screenwriting festivals. My mate Jim I mentioned? On another occasion, he ended up randomly in a lift with a certain notorious Hollywood mega producer. But that’s his story to tell, not mine.

What floor do you want?

The Seed of an Idea

There’s a cliche that every creative in any industry will be constantly asked where they get their ideas from. I’ve heard a bunch of great responses, from specific store names to outright abuse, but I guess the reason that the question keeps getting asked is because the answer is never fully satisfying.

Anywhere.

Everywhere.

I had the idea for TrashHouse (or, at least, the idea of a chainsaw-weilding heroine who happened to be styled like a 50s soda-pop girl), whilst wandering around an outdoor museum in the States. They had a recreation of a 50s living room which I walked into whilst absent-mindedly pondering zombies and, boom, Lucy Sweet was born somewhere in my brain. Why, yes, of course you can watch her in action. Here’s our short from last year.

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I had the acorn that would eventually grow into the idea for Strippers vs Werewolves after labelling a Sky Movies VHS recording (which probably contained Kandyland and Stripped to Kill, or at very least two movies that were so similar to them as to require DNA testing to tell whether they were actually those films or not) as ‘Strippers vs Nutters’, which then became a running joke for years (as I detailed in this blog entry over on the Huffington Post)

Strippers vs Nutters

Ideas can come from anywhere. And, of course, sometimes they don’t come at all. What can you do? What can you do if you need an idea, and nothing is forthcoming? Well, there are a bunch of things that I can recommend if you are trying to get your poor, long-suffering brain to crap out that acorn of potential.

There are several great idea generation exercises in Blake Snyder’s brilliant Save The Cat (which is still flat-out best book on screenwriting I’ve ever read) and some of them can be found at this link over here.

I also recommend grabbing yourself a nice bunch of random words, writing them down and playing with them in any way you see fit. Sometimes just jogging your creative instincts out of their usual patterns can be really productive, and throwing in something random can be a great way of doing that.

Here’s something a bit more unusual. Try drawing a schematic map of a building that you’ve visited in real life (overhead view, nothing fancy, don’t worry if you can’t draw because no bugger is ever going to see it but you). Once you’ve finished, take a look at the layout and see what genre and plots the location would be most suited to.

Just to try an example, here’s my off-the-top-of-my-head sketch of a flat I lived in around 2001.

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There are a number of things that immediately come to mind looking at this image. The first one is that my own rule about not worrying how awful the drawing is because no bugger will ever see it has clearly led me into a false sense of security in this case, particularly as some bugger (specifically YOU, you bugger) is now looking at it. Try and put this, and my lack of any drawing ability, from your mind.

I’d forgotten a lot of details until I drew this image. The blind on the front window only covers the middle pane of glass, thus allowing a partial view into the lounge from the street. This immediately gives me ideas for plot and incident, most of which would be best suited to a thriller. The guy who worked in the shop opposite used to watch the going on in our flat with interest, and relay my life back to me with an alarming amount of detail whenever I popped in for cigarettes. Maybe he could be a witness to something?

Back to the flat. Next up; the only way to the toilet is through the main bedroom. There’s some vague idea here for either a scatological comedy (perhaps of the unwanted houseguest subgenre) or, again, a thriller. Probably dependent if the character was trying to get into the toilet or out of it.The whole place could be a fucking nightmare in a case of fire, or course. So many places to get trapped. Or to hide.

Yeah, I reckon a domestic thriller would be the way to go with this location. If I had the little map sitting next to me while I wrote, I’d have so many ideas for little bits of business which simply wouldn’t cross my mind (in terms of how characters could get from room to room, or what they could or couldn’t do) without a strong sense of the layout of the location. If you know of a location that you might be able to use for an indie shoot, why not try the exercise with that?

Once the idea is in place, of course, the real fun begins..