Sunday, March 15, 2009

Stephen Duncan on Theme

Duncan (2006) identifies five types of story conflict themes:
"1. Man versus Man
2. Man versus Nature
3. Man versus Self
4. Man versus Society
5. Man versus Fate" (p. 26-27).
In individual movies the screen writer "puts a face" on the abstract titles. Nature = Jaws.

"The next step is to find the one word that is the theme of the story. Then, find a cliche that best articulates your one-word theme" (p. 27, Duncan's emphasis).

Duncan gives the following example from Shrek: "Tolerance: Don't judge a book by its cover." [Very relevant example for this particular research blog.]

"Every single scene in these films explores the one-word theme in some way, whether it is a pure exploration, antithesis, or an unusual facet of it" (p. 27).

Duncan also identifies some common sources for themes (in cliche form): the Bible (e.g., from Ten Commandments, "Thou shalt not kill.").

According Duncan a writer can establish a theme in two ways in a script (i.e., physical and metaphysical). The "physical central question" is: Does the protag accomplish the task (e.g., catch the killer). The "metaphysical central question" takes the form of "spiritual, humanistic, universal" question (Can true love conquer all?) or a "hypothesis"/"thesis". Example from Chinatown: Main character says early on "Only a rich man can get away with murder" (p. 28). What does Duncan mean here? I'm not sure I understand the distinction made here between the metaphysical question and the hypothesis. A hypothesis can be easily be turned into a question. Violence begets violence. Will more violence continue. ???

According to Duncan a writer can also establish a theme by using the "moral imperative" approach. The protag and associated characters must accomplish a task because it is the right thing to do, for the greater good, etc.

Duncan says the theme should be established within the first 10 pages of a typical film script by "using a thematic device" (p. 53).

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