Theme is the heart of a story, says scriptwriter and consultant Ben Michael. Ben shared his thoughts on the importance of this key concept with Writers Victoria’s Alex Fairhill.
“Theme” can be an elusive concept. Is it important to approach a work with a theme in mind, or can a theme present itself as a work progresses?
There are no hard and fast rules. It can emerge or it can be a guiding light from the outset; what I would argue is that you must find it.
Your background is in scriptwriting. How does theme translate from this format to other narrative frameworks, such as short story, memoir, non-fiction, poetry and novels?
All stories, no matter what the format, will benefit by understanding how a clear theme can guide your decisions in character, setting and plot; non-fiction included.
Your early work included several years as a scriptwriter on 'Neighbours'. What did working on a long-running program with varying storylines teach you about theme?
Any TV show that forgets its theme is doomed to fail. While you may tell many and varied types of stories, you need a clear sense of what the show really is about. When you lose that you lose the heart of the show and the audience flips to another show. I have seen it happen.
Can theme be backgrounded in favour of character or setting, or are they part of the same whole?
I would argue it can’t. Your character is created to illustrate the theme; same with the setting. Of course for some writers it can – there are no hard and fast rules – but I'm here to argue for a new way of looking at story creation that more closely represents the writer’s heart and soul.
You were a child actor in the ABCTV series ‘Home’ in the 1980s. How did this acting experience impact on your future work in drama production?
All acting taught me was that I’m not an actor. I think the truly great actors have a kind of fearless magic about them and it was too confronting for me. That said, I think the best writing is when you are saying things that you would be embarrassed for anyone to read. That’s when you know it's real.
About Ben Michael
Ben Michael has written, script-produced and edited over 2000 hours of television. He has moved into feature films, co-writing and producing ‘Is This The Real World’. Currently doing the festival circuit, it has screened at San Francisco, St Tropez, Manchester, Madrid amongst many others. He is co-writing the follow up film for POV Films. He is also writing an action thriller to be shot in February 2016, and a web series to be shot later this year. He is a script consultant and is in charge of the Masters Of Screenwriting at the VCA.