Monday, April 4, 2011

Theme, Character and the Transformational Arc

by Jacqueline Fauni

 "Don't wait for your destiny to happen -- create it."  

In a nutshell, this is why writers write.  We have an innate desire to create fictional worlds by drawing inspiration from our own lives.  According to screenwriting consultant Tawnya Bhattacharya, who so eloquently phrased our lot in life in the quote above, storytelling stems from the need to express our beliefs, values, and goals -- or our own personal themes.  

Her workshop, Theme, Character and the Transformational Arc, last Tuesday illuminated the process of finding our stories' themes as a complex and intensely personal experience. 

Tawnya defined theme as "the heart of your story," so the process of finding it involves getting in touch with what you want to say, what you think of humanity, and what you really care about.  Since theme plays such a central role, it has to pervade your story entirely -- from your main character's emotions, goals, and actions, to the more subtle elements of symbolism, contrasting characters, etc., which is why it's essential to find and flesh out your theme first.

So how do we tackle the daunting task of finding our story's theme?  Here's a peek at the four-quadrant approach that Tawnya shared with us (note: the inverted numbering reflects its deconstructive process).  

(2) Flaw -- Tawnya brought up a great point about the relationship between theme and your main character's flaw -- simply put, they're complete opposites.  She also mentioned that our characters' wants aren't what they need, but to get what they want, they need to cure their flaws.  When working out our themes, we have to start by focusing on our main characters' "before" state; their stage of life and the flaws they have to overcome to get what they need and, in doing so, carry out the universal messages we're trying to convey.

(3) Second-Act Journey -- To get from the "before" state to the point where our themes are realized, our characters have to go on an adventure, develop relationships, and learn from experiences that make them confront their flaws.  At this stage, we work through the meat of the story and map out our characters' transformational arc.

(4) Climax -- When we examine the turning point in our characters' transformational arc, we get a particularly vivid sense of the example we want them to set for our audience -- whether it raises them up with a feeling of glorious triumph or sinks them into an all-time low.

(1) Theme -- Once we've worked out the events we want our characters to go through (especially the magical moment of their transformation), our theme begins to emerge.  At this point, we step back and ask ourselves, "Why did I put my character through all this?  What's the point?  What is the lesson learned?"  You might not get a straightforward answer the first time around, but brainstorming and analyzing your thematic threads will help you whittle down to the heart of your story.

To learn more screenwriting tips and techniques from Tawnya, visit her site at