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Specs & The City: Story Themes and 'Road To Perdition'

Brad Johnson analyzes the importance of story themes by using 'Road to Perdition' as an example.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make with your script, once you get past the standard formatting concerns, is to have everything in your story be exactly as it seems. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m advocating for every script to have a Shyamalanesque (new word alert!) twist ending. What it really means is that your story themes should be about something more. There should be a layer beneath the plot. Something you’re trying to say. If there’s not; If everything in your script only goes skin deep, and if you have nothing to say about your characters, their position in the world, or the conflict you’re putting them through…then why bother to tell the story?


Call me "Kitty Cat".

This also isn’t an argument for a Cineplex full of art-house films. Take a look at a film like Wedding Crashers. It’s raunchy and hilarious, but it’s also about that moment in your life where you realize it’s time to grow up. How a random occurrence can change your priorities. Sure, it’s wrapped up in debauchery and punctuated with a high enough BPM (boob-per-minute ratio) to rival a Marilyn Chambers soft-core porn, but it’s also about that other stuff too.

You need to know what your story is about, in order to steer your script in the right direction.

So how and when do you work a theme into your story? I’ve seen people argue for establishing your theme up front and working it into the story during the outline phase, and I’ve seen others claim to not even think about theme during their first draft. As with most things, I think the best path probably lies somewhere in between the two extremes. Personally, I think you do need to think about theme up front. When I’m deciding what my next script is going to be, I think about the themes that I’d like to touch on while I’m brainstorming, just like I think about great action sequences, blurbs of dialogue, or great quirks that I can give characters to make them unique.

But as I move through the outlining and first draft phases, I tend to put detailed thoughts on theme to the side. I won’t purposefully exclude it, but I spend that first draft getting down the basics of the plot. That “vomit draft” is, in turn, my guide during subsequent rewrites. I go back through to tighten plot, fix continuity issues, and yes, evaluate the script in terms of theme. This is when I work in additional scenes, or tweak existing ones, in order to explore the deeper meanings that I’m looking to address.

Remember though: while I think it’s sound advice not to get too bogged down in thoughts about theme during first drafts, ultimately it’s just one guy’s opinion. Everyone has their own process. In the end, all that really matters is that your process works for you.

Aside from the question of when to work thinking about it into your process, the biggest theme-related issue I’ve come across is actually a conceptual one. For some reason, I’ve seen a number of people get confused about the difference between theme and the concept of subtext. While the best script will employ both, they’re not the same thing. Here’s a quick run-down. Subtext will generally relate to your script in terms of dialogue and is the underlying or implicit meaning behind the words that are being spoken. When someone says “Would you like to come up for a nightcap”, but really means “Would you like to come up and have sex?” – that’s subtext.

Theme, on the other hand, relates more to a scene (or more than likely, several scenes) which tie in to a deeper meaning or larger statement than is being addressed by the plot. It’s the “point”, for lack of a better word, that the writer is trying to make by telling their story.

For a better idea of exactly what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at…

Theme and ‘Road To Perdition’


Best known as that depressing Sam Mendes movie with Tom Hanks, Road to Perdition is one of my favorite films. The plot is relatively straightforward. Michael Sullivan (Hanks) is a hit man who works hard to keep his kids from knowing what he does for a living, but that life is shattered when his son witnesses something he shouldn’t. Most of the film is spent with them on the run, dealing with each other, and the new realities of their strained relationship.

It could have been a simple, “by the books” gangster flick, but the script (based on a graphic novel of the same name) delves deeper. In Mendes’s own words, “[What’s] important, in this story, is what the violence does to the person who pulls the trigger, and what it has done to them over the years. How it has gradually corroded them. It has rotted their insides.” This idea of the consequences of violence is one of the two main themes in Perdition.

The script plays into the exploration of this theme in its choice of how to deal with the violence in that world. While there is a lot of violence on screen, the story focuses less on the victims and instead follows those who either perpetrate or witness the violence.

Perdition also explores the theme of father and son relationships. This theme is explored by having numerous different types of these relationships woven into the film, all of which have different dynamics and play out in different (but equally dramatic) fashion. The story not only contains the actual father/son relationships between Sullivan and his son, as well as mob boss John Rooney and his son Conner, but also explores the surrogate father-son relationship that Rooney has with Sullivan. By establishing multiple relationships that explore the same concept from different angles and sub-plots, the story deftly uses the core plot to explore this theme in great detail.

I think the bottom line is just this: while there’s no set way to develop or utilize theme in your screenplay, it’s something that you do need to think about and work to incorporate into your script. Without it, your script is just a shell, and no matter how beautiful that shell may be, readers (and ultimately, audiences) won’t be able to get past the fact that there’s nothing inside.

So get deep, grow that gangster mustache (even you ladies out there), and keep writing!

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