I took a story structure class from a local genius named Brian McDonald. He taught me how to identify theme in a screenplay by keeping my ears open to lines of dialogue that reveal the author’s belief about what’s true about the world.
For example, here’s the opening scene to one of my favorite movies, Election, featuring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. In the story, Broderick plays a high school teacher who so dreads the idea of working on student government with the overachiever played by Witherspoon that he sabotages her candidacy for student body president. His plan, of course, backfires.
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So here’s what the author ostensibly believes is true about the world: “You can’t interfere with destiny. That’s why it’s destiny. And if you try to interfere, the same thing is just going to happen anyway, and you’ll just suffer.”
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This is the story of countless high school kids in classes all across the country. They’re destined to be chefs or entrepreneurs or software engineers or hosts of a bed & breakfast. But teachers—who are following directives from their principals, who are following directives from their superintendant, who are following directives from the state superintendant, who are bound by limits put in place by the state legislature—are forced to tell kids to do things that don’t make any sense to them. They’re forced to tell the kid who wants to be a comedian to stop reading that book about Richard Pryor and finish answering the “Questions for Discussion” at the end of Chapter 7.
We put up obstacles that make it hard for kids to achieve their destiny. As a result we, and they, suffer.
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