Monday, February 22, 2010

Which comes first, theme or plot?

Dave is a fanatic fan of Fraggle Rock as you can see from his recent email to me: (quoted with his permission)

Hi Sugith,

Hope 2010 is treating you well thus far. I checked out your blog today and looked for a link to send questions (outside of comments); finding none, I decided to try here.

I watched one of your Fraggle Rock episodes today, "The Great Radish Caper", and got to thinking about where theme meets plot. One of the things I always admired about the show was how the writers would take abstract or highly specific concepts and build concrete stories from them, and I wondered if you might shed some light on this process on the blog?

It's the reason I watched so much FR while writing the last draft of my animated feature script; I was trying to craft the plot to reflect theme but found it difficult. My best friend, also an aspiring screenwriter, thought I was doing it backwards, and should let the theme grow naturally out of the story.

What are your thoughts on this 'chicken or the egg' question? Hope to hear back from you, and hope this provides fertile material for your blog. Take care.


Great question, though difficult to answer 20 years after the fact! (As an aside, I recently showed this episode to my screenwriting students who seemed to respect me for the first time once they realized I'd written a show they'd seen as kids.)

Okay Dave, here's my response --

After the first season of writing Fraggle Rock, Jim Henson requested that all of us write what I came to call a "story grid" on the first page of every script we wrote. This way, anyone working on the show would quickly understand what it was about regardless of whether they read it. The converse meant that writers had to make sure that what they wrote dealt with what Jim wanted to know.

Here is what he wanted to know:

1. Whose story is it? (This usually meant which character did this episode focus on, and it had to be one of the regulars, of course.)

2. What's their goal? (This was a concrete objective in the story. In the case of The Great Radish Caper, Dave, Mokey wanted to retrieve the greatest radish in the world from the Gorg's Garden.)

3. What's the obstacle? (Again, this was to be concrete. For that Fraggle episode, Junior Gorg's love for Geraldine, that special radish was the obstacle.)

4. What is at stake? (Whatever this was, it better be huge. Life and death was the best and if not life or death, then the equivalent.) So in this case, what was at stake was Mokey's life because Gorg's are dangerous, but also love, in that by stealing the radish, Mokey would remove love from Junior's life.) Huge stakes.

5. What do we learn? (What's the point of the story? Jim felt the audience should get something out of an episode beyond mere entertainment. Shakespeare agrees. What's good enough for Jim Henson was good enough for me. So in the case of this show, we learn that friendship is more important than self-satisfaction. Mokey helps Junior find a friend so he won't miss Geraldine, only to understand Junior better and begin to be a friend to him. So she and we learn that friendship is not based on what you think should be a friend, but where you find it.)

Now this story grid got rewritten as the script evolved. What I've written is the final version, as best as I can remember it. But I'm sure it didn't start out that way, just as none of the scripts shot were ever first drafts.

Getting to the chicken and egg issue about whether to start with theme or plot -- which is what I think your question boils down to -- I don't think it matters. They BOTH matter and as you develop your plot, you need to ask yourself what you're trying to say. And as you discover you have something to say, you need to figure out how to say it. The creative process is going to be different for every writer. It doesn't matter which is the chicken or the egg--and it may be different every time you write a script -- but if you know they both matter, then you can check each against the other as you write.

But Jim's tool is a great one to keep you on track from the start. You probably have to come up with something--an idea, a pitch, whatever--before you can write the story grid, but write it early in the process and then keep revising it as you discover the script that you're writing.

That's my answer, Dave. Hope it helps.

1 comment:

Dave Ebersole said...

Thanks, Sugith! That WAS helpful.