Per Top Development on YouTube, when editing your script, there is one tool more helpful than any other ‘quick fix’ you could employ. If they’re right, that would put us out of business, but let’s hear them out.

Let’s say your screenplay is labouring under the most overlooked, and yet potentially most common plague in screenwriting: a lack of focus. Top Development recommends baring the following question in mind before excising or altering a thing: What is my film’s thesis statement?

In this way, Top Development encourages you to view your story as if it were an essay, and therefore as if it were in need of a concrete statement, an argument which must be challenged and reasserted in the body. Of course, rather than putting forward a point unchallenged, its the push and pull in the name of your argument that is necessary to produce conflict (which as we all know is the lifeblood of an engaging screenplay).

Your argument is, typically, built through your characters, their clashes epitomising assertions and their counterpoints. Take, for instance, Little Miss Sunshine, the ‘thesis statement’ of which, per Top Development, goes as follows: “Your life is not defined by other people’s competition or rules; your life is your own”. If all the characters, as colourful as they are, had believed this argument from the word go, then each of them would be left without an arc to complete over the course of the film.

Young Olive fully believes her worth is tied to the beauty pageant the family is traveling cross country to have her compete in. Olive’s father, Richard, pushes pseudo-inspirational gobbledygook with a disdain for “losers”, which clearly makes an impression on his daughter. Her grandfather, on the other hand, has seen the light, and though he’s a curmudgeon, he is the wise kook we know to be in the right. Each of the supporting characters prove to mirror each other more directly as they interweave with the central conflict involving Olive’s pageant.

During the course of the film, each’s unhealthy source of external validation will fail them, and so they learn to abide by the tenants of the film’s argument (as espoused by grandpa). Richard fails to meet his own standards and exemplifies being a loser according to his own definition by missing out on a book deal. Olive’s single-minded goal of joining the air force is thwarted when he discovers his colourblindness. Olive isn’t conventional enough for the pageant (though, believing grandpa, she unselfconsciously makes it her own). And so on. All the same, the family stick together; lesson learned. In so doing, the film’s thesis statement is proven.

Satisfying changes in a set of characters can only come about if you give them room to challenge your message, and to grow. It’s not always as simple as the light side and the dark, ala the introspection of characters in The Empire Strikes Back. Films aren’t essays, they’re too impressionistic to be reduced in such a way, but this exercise can help keep you and your work from spinning wildly out of control. At the end of the day, people do like a point.

Your Film Should be an Essay