If we’re talking about how to write an original spec script, we need to talk about Theme. I used to assume that pinning myself down with a theme too early in the writing process would be creatively suffocating. Instead, I would clarify my theme somewhere between the first and second draft. I knew it was helpful as a guidepost when I was cleaning up a messy plotline or clarifying a character’s intention.
Now I’m a convert to working out my story’s theme in the very earliest stages of story planning thanks to William Rabkin’s book, Writing the Pilot. Rabkin explains, “you can’t start writing your TV show until you can answer that simplest of questions: What is my show about?” He writes that theme is the thread holding all the episodes together. It’s a unifying idea that is always “expressed through the series’ central conflict.”
For example, a central theme for Schitt’s Creek is identity. What happens to your identity when you lose all your money and you’re forced to reinvent yourself in a world with different values and expectations? How are you seen by other people when your circumstances change? How do you see yourself? Likewise, a central theme for Working Moms is also identity, but the conflicts and humour play out through an exploration of how a group of female friends mold their individual identities through the forging fire of balancing careers, relationships and motherhood.
Since central conflict is absolutely critical to decisions of plot and character, it follows that you’re going to write a much tighter and more engaging script if you’ve done the leg work of thinking through what your show is really about.
In an interview at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference earlier this year, Showrunner Ayanna Floyd Davis (The Chi, Empire) explained that her rooms focus heavily on theme for their season, episode storylines, and their character arcs. Theme informs what each character wants at the start of the season. Those ‘wants’ needs to be touched on in each episode, with characters making both good and bad decisions based on those deep desires. It colours everything they do. “Then you get ready to blend them together based on the theme of each episode,” as Ayanna Floyd Davis puts it, “to get the stories to talk to each other.”
If you’re going to write an original spec script, it’s worth exploring what’s at the heart of the story you are trying to tell in the earliest stages of your development process.