Writers On The Web: Theme, and Asking the Central Question – What the Heck is My Web Series About? (Part 1)

By Rebecca Norris

Every screenwriter knows (or should know) about Blake Snyder’s amazing book on screenwriting, Save The Cat.  In Chapter 4, he talks about stating the theme of the movie.

Blake writes, “Somewhere in the first five minutes of a well-structured screenplay, someone (usually not the main character) will pose a question, or make a statement (usually to the main character) that is the theme of the movie.  “Be careful what you wish for,” this person will say, or “Pride goeth before a fall” or “Family is more important than money.”  It won’t be this obvious, it will be conversational, an off-hand remark that the main character doesn’t quite get at the moment – but will have far-reaching and meaningful impact later.

This is the movie’s thematic premise.”

THEME

Okay, so that pertains to movies.  What does theme have to do with TV or web series?

Everything.

The longest-lasting and most compelling series are those that have a strong theme.

It’s imperative before you start writing to ask yourself, what themes am I exploring? Love? Hate? Bigotry? Paranoia? Sexuality? Greed? Justice? Freedom? Overcoming illness? Willpower? Self-sabotage? The existence of the paranormal? Falling from grace? Family dynamics? Relationship struggles?

What is my series about?

(This is also highlighted in my favorite TV writing book of all time, which I mentioned in an earlier article: Writing the Pilot by William Rabkin.)

ASKING THE CENTRAL QUESTION

If you can’t answer the question “What is my series about?” at least somewhat succinctly, then you’re probably in trouble.

The pilot in a series generally poses a “central question” to the viewer.  The series itself attempts to answer it.  The series that generally last the longest don’t answer this question until the end, or near the end.

Examples (these are my thoughts on what the central question and answer could be):

Ally McBeal:

Q: Will Ally ever find lasting love?

A: She will in the end, but it will be from a daughter she didn’t know she had.

The X-Files:

Q: Will Mulder ever find his sister, prove to the world the existence of aliens, and get together with Scully?

A: No, but he comes to peace with it; sort of; and yes, eventually, in the end.

Friends:

'Friends'

‘Friends’

Q:  When the hell are Ross and Rachel finally going to get together for good?

A:  In the very end, after 10 years of waiting.

Downton Abbey:

Q: Are the problems of the rich much different than the problems of the poor?

A: No, but many of problems of the rich in the show can be solved by throwing money at them, exerting power, influence, or calling in a favor.  Also, the rich people in the show don’t need to worry about being cast out on the street… ever.  But they are certainly not immune from heartache; money doesn’t buy everything.

Parenthood:

(This one’s a bit harder to pin down.  But considering everyone except for Sarah (Lauren Graham) is pretty much happily married so far… and don’t we love to be matchmakers…)

Q:  Will Sarah find love?

A:  Still waiting to see, since new flame Hank moved to Minnesota and she turned down ex-fiance Mark. Will she change her mind about Mark, or find a someone new?  Will she get back together with deadbeat ex Seth, who’s doing his best to change his ways?

Psych:

Q:  Will Shawn ever grow up?  And when will the Santa Barbara Police Department figure out he’s a fraud?

A:  Still waiting to see when Shawn might grow up and fully get over his commitment issues and childish ways.  And we aren’t sure when the SBPD will figure out he’s not a psychic.  Shawn just about admitted it to Chief Vick before Juliet stopped him.  Maybe the new chief next season will put two and two together?

Sherlock (BBC):

Q: When will Sherlock stop being such an arrogant jerk so he can find love and have a life outside of crimesolving?

A: We don’t know, possibly never, but he’s slowly starting to realize how offensive he can be to people…and we’re willing to tune in to see if he’ll grow and change.

Think of yourself when you are an audience member.  Why do you tune in to the next episode of your favorite series?  On the most basic level, is it because you want an answer to a question?  Even if that question is simply: what happens next?

Even Aesop’s Fables, Biblical stories, and classic fairytales all have a theme.  Think about it—what’s the theme of the Tortoise and the Hare?  “Slow and steady wins the race.”  Or The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?  “Appearances can be deceiving.” What about Little Red Riding Hood?  “Be careful who you trust,” and, probably, “Don’t go into creepy forests by yourself.”  All good life lessons. There’s a reason why these stories live on—they have themes that all generations and all cultures can relate to.

My favorite stating of theme I’ve seen recently was in the first moment of the pilot of the ABC drama Revenge (yes, I know, I talked about this show in a previous article, but hey, it’s got a great premise!)

In the first moment of the pilot, the screen is black, except for this quote:

“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

-Confucius (504 B.C.)

What better stating of theme is there than that?  The central question of Revenge is evident:  Will Emily’s revenge be worth it in the end?  When she is through, will she find peace?  Or will she destroy her own life, along with everyone else’s?

This central theme is the driving force behind each episode…and each time Emily exacts revenge on someone, and each time she later finds herself miserable and alone, we as the audience have to ask ourselves, is it worth it?  When is enough enough?  Will Emily ever be satisfied?

It takes a lot of time, money, effort, and sweat equity to produce a web series.  You need strong and compelling themes to explore, because this is a sample of your work.  It needs to be the best that it can be.  You want to show that you have a voice, a point of view, and something to say.

So, have a good answer when someone asks you, “What’s your web series about?”

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