At film school, the necessity of a good, clear theme was drummed into us time and time again. Our stories, we were told, had to have an overpowering ‘controlling idea’ or else they would completely fall apart. And if we thought our stories were so thematically all-encompassing that they were about everything, then they were almost certainly about nothing.
It’s funny, looking back, how much I struggled with this. I’ve always been a highly organic writer, somebody who likes to let the story tell itself and be taken along for the ride. At its best, writing feels effortless, like the story is telling itself and coming together in logical ways because it’s not really coming from you at all. But of course, that thought is fanciful. There isn’t some special magical dimension where stories come from; they all reside in your brain and as a writer, your job is to discover and excavate them to the best of your ability, to work away until it’s all on paper, as good as you can make it.
But at the time the concept of a ‘controlling idea’, even in name, was beyond offensive. What if I wanted my story to say a lot of things? How could I find anything organic in what I was writing if I had to pin it all to one single message?
This especially uncool form of rebellion played out for more or less the whole year and a half I was at VCA. I told anybody who would listen how terrible it was and insisted it was all for dummies, that I was somehow above controlling ideas. It wasn’t until one of my tutors told me to look over my work thus far and see if there were common themes threading through it all that I started to realise that I might have been wrong.
There have always been certain themes that I gravitate towards, in both the stories I write and the ones I love the most. I’m obsessed with prodigal son stories, with characters running away from their problems only to eventually have to come back and face them, in the process growing as a person. My favourite book, The Book of Joe, is one of those through and through. The Prince of Egypt, possibly the first film that really made me fall in love with cinema, is as well. And so, so many of my own stories have at least an element of it; from Boone Shepard, to Windmills to The Commune and Chris Hawkins.
Why do I love prodigal son stories so much? Maybe it’s rooted in a childhood spent moving around to many different places, from Canberra to the Central Coast to Mansfield then Melbourne. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a different home over my shoulder. But then, I don’t even know if that’s true. I think, in the end, there is just something inherently fascinating about a homecoming, about the conflicts both internal and external that stem from having to face your past. This, for the record, could be the reason I loved The Last Jedi so much; a film about a broken man confronting his legacy and failures was never not going to enrapture me.
Ambition, another pet theme, is self-explanatory. Stories like Whiplash, about characters giving up everything they have for something they want more than anything else, hit a personal note for me, as anyone who’s seen/listened to Springsteen or Heroes can attest. Coming of age and learning who you are is another big one; it took me a long time to really understand and accept the person I am and stories about characters grappling with their own natures will never not move me.
It’s funny; we really do tend to believe that as artists we’re eternally and exponentially creative, but the truth is that we’ll always come back to the things that fixate and drive us in the stories we try to tell. I can categorise everything I’ve ever written into one of about four boxes based on the ideas I was trying to explore rather than genre, target audience or even medium.
Once I understood this, my writing improved in a big way. Identifying your themes is actually the opposite of restricting; it’s liberating. If you know what you’re trying to say, you can say it with far more nuance, strength and confidence, and that will have a profound effect on your storytelling. Every new idea I come up with, I try and identify early what the theme is. But if I don’t know, I just write the story anyway, and the theme always comes to me. Because if you’re writing, it usually means there’s something you need to get off your chest, and knowing what that something is will never be a bad thing.
In the end, it all comes back to a matter of knowing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. I’ve said before; write the first draft as though you’re in love, write the second as though you’re in charge. There’s nothing wrong with writing a story for the fun of it with no clear idea of where it is going or what the point is, but knowing those things will almost always help.
Look at the films, books and TV shows you love. Look at the things that move, fascinate and fixate you. Ask why. And then examine whether they turn up in your own writing. For a normal person, identifying your obsessions is therapeutic. For a writer, it’s just part of the job.
Writing words about writing words.