In a recent podcast, Invisible Ink author and screenwriter Brian McDonald said that “stories don’t have a theme; stories are a theme.”
In other words, a story’s theme shouldn’t be a tacked-on afterthought. Instead, the whole purpose of the story is to convey a theme (a viewpoint about life), and the writer should design every story element to serve the theme.
A movie that adheres to this story-as-theme principle is the recent great, but somewhat overlooked, Christmas film Collateral Beauty. Below, without any spoilers, I’ll discuss all of the smart but simple things the movie does to dramatize its theme.
Theme Informs Every Scene
Collateral Beauty focuses on its theme in every single scene, including the first one. In that scene, Will Smith’s character, Howard, clearly states what the movie is about: how love, time, and death connect everyone.
Theme Determines the Character Issues
The screenwriter, Allan Loeb, gives each of the main supporting characters, Claire, Whit, and Simon, a problem or emotional issue that relates to the theme.
Claire is dealing with an issue that relates to time.
Whit is dealing with an issue that relates to love.
Simon is dealing with an issue that relates to death.
Thus, the writer explores each of these related ideas through those characters.
The writer also explores the theme, of course, through Howard and another supporting character he encounters.
Dramatizing the Theme
The screenwriter also finds a way to dramatize the theme. A lesser writer who wanted to write about time, love, and death might have these characters simply walk around and have philosophical conversations.
Loeb, on the other hand, figures out a way to explore his theme through a plot that involves a goal (wrest control of the advertising agency from Howard), stakes (the supporting characters will suffer financial losses if they can’t take control of the agency and sell it), and urgency (the offer from another company to buy the ad agency will only last for a few days).
Another challenge with screenwriting is to externalize internal ideas or emotions. In the case of this story, the challenge was to externalize the abstractions love, time, and death. If you watch the movie, you’ll see how the writer very effectively externalizes these abstractions so that Howard—and the supporting characters—can directly wrestle with these ideas.
Story Building Blocks
Collateral Beauty is also worth studying for understanding scenes. Nearly all of the scenes in the movie are simple two-person dialogue scenes, each of which serves to convey generally one piece of story context or to handle one dramatic confrontation.
Good scenes typically have this kind of focus.
The function of a scene is to convey a piece of story information in a way that is efficient, clear, natural, and engaging.
For example, the opening scene of the movie establishes the single story idea that Howard is a charismatic and dynamic advertising executive. The camera then spins to show Howard in the same office spot several years later as a shadow of the man he once was.
Stories Often Involve Characters Making the Wrong Choice Until the End
Stories that involve a character or characters growing in some way by the end, which is the case with most stories, often follow this pattern:
The characters keep making the wrong choice regarding their issue or problem and then in the end make the right choice.
You see this pattern with Howard, Whit, Simon, and Claire.
In Claire’s case, the right choice involves a shift in how she perceives her life, rather than a particular external action.
I would say more, but I promised no spoilers, so you’ll have to watch the movie if the above is too vague.
If you’re interested in listening to the podcast with Brian McDonald that I mentioned at the outset, you can check it out below (it’s worth listening to for understanding why starting with a theme makes everything easier):