subject matter (creative writing) The subject matter of a film includes its story, the events of the plot, and also the thematic concerns of the film, the broader issues that the film’s story conveys, which might be the political and social relevance of the story, how it connects to the times and the society in which the film is viewed. The audience will make their own judgement regarding what is important and what is most relevant in terms of subject matter: what they think are the main concerns of a film: narrative, thematic, personal, social. For an audience this choice will vary, for the creator of the work the subject matter has to be something that motivates them to create the story and then sustains them to develop and complete the work, which is a considerable commitment of time, energy and skill, so identifying how subject matter supports or undermines creativity and then the working process of story development, successfully using the initial subject matter is also important. To look at six areas which are taken to be sources for stories: personal stories, stories based on the production resources available, the social and historical setting for stories, genre and storyworld for stories, stories for a specific audience, and thematic or issue based stories.
A personal story: There is the adage, everyone has a story to tell, which is not accurate as an open statement: everyone has knowledge of events, some trivial and some having vital importance to their lives, history, identity and their understanding of the world, but this is not having a story in the sense of being a writer or a filmmaker. A personal story, your own or someone else's, is not a narrative in the sense of a plotted, dramatically structured narrative and what is thought of as a story in everyday life may in fact not have any action in terms of dramatic action, it is a circumstance or a situation, which is not a story.
A life story does not implicitly present or produce a dramatic a plot. A life will have many significant events, but the sense of meaningful connection may be limited: this happened, then that happened. The personal significance of story may be great to the individual, my parents were killed, I was in a car crash, but these events create circumstances, they are changes in life, but they are not story narrated through character and plot. Life changing events can be narrated, stated as personal experience in an autobiography, and this can have an emotional impact to those learning about these personal events, but this description of things happening will have no form as a dramatic narrative: a personal story is usually understood to have the form of an anecdote, a story with a point, and a point however significant is not a dramatic structure.
The personal biography or autobiography is a popular form of written fiction and in film and these are shaped into a narrative in different ways. There is a biography of someone who has had a significant experience or had a significant achievement or failure in their life and these events may be part of a wider social event, a war, a social history and so have a wider significance because of this. This would seem to be the basis for a film drama, but it will not have a plot, and actual events are not reducible to a sense of character motivation or dramatic situation. Significant events in an important social setting are not enough for narrative film.
In many cases written biographies are responding to the interests of the reader, and like gossip these books supply odd bits and pieces, trivia, incidents, and this is interesting to others because the person has a fame, celebrity, a success that has attracted an interest in them, but this form of potted biography is not a developed narrative. If the person weren’t famous no one would have any interest in these events and they have no connection and impetus as a plot. There is no unity of action. Biographies of stars have an appeal as stories to tell because there is an audience for them, but creating a storyline that is suitable for film narrative usually requires finding, creating some sort of thematic core or connected storyline which is not how life is experience or life story is related as fact.
For a writer or filmmaker the idea of a personal story as the basis for a film can appeal, but it’s necessary to ask if there is a dramatic story, or if these events can be crafted into a coherent narrative. Often on closer scrutiny there is no story structure. There are major incidents, something that matters, but no plot. Here an issue emerges in terms of ethics and creativity: how much do you want to craft and develop real events in order to create a dramatic narrative? It is common with film biographies to begin with an on screen title announcing: This story is based on true events, some persons and events have been changed and combined for dramatic purposes. What has happened here is that real life has been used as the material to craft a dramatic narrative, it’s no longer true to actual events, and this crafting, selecting, changing, combining, inventing, is something that will feel like a falsehood to the actual person: it is no longer their personal story, it’s not true. This accepted or unacceptable change can often happen between a written biography and a film based on the biography: a book will have a narrative that will take between ten and thirty hours to read, with a structure than can meander and jump to different topics, and a narrative film, a single drama will be about two hours long. The process of taking a long narrative and compressing it into a short narrative is a severe change. Having a written story with twenty, thirty people involved in the events, which then becomes five or six main characters, so that they can be recognised by the audience watching a film on screen is a major change, and also these actual people will need to be on-screen characters who are clearly delineated as distinct and differentiated from each other: characters in narrative are not realistic in relation to the actions of actual people: in drama characters are clearly defined, they work within a structure of motivations that keep the story world coherent.
A personal story can appeal to a writer or a filmmaker, but it can lack events for a story, offer no dramatic structure, or else need to have significant changes to make it an effective dramatic story. Certainly events that are important in life will not sustain the development of a complete narrative, and this is why when starting with a personal story it will often start with enthusiasm, a desire to tell this story, but then the writing fizzles out: there aren’t enough events, there is no story impetus, no action, the events happen to the person, they did not act. The writer or the filmmaker who plans to write a personal story for a film, often does not really have a story, and so they remain at the point of initial enthusiasm, knowing, presuming that at some point this personal story will develop and become full and complete plot, but it does not.
To test to see if there is likely to be a full story based on personal events this can start with a list. If there are twenty to thirty events to put on the list, this might be enough for a plot, but then what are the most significant events. Can the main events can be highlighted: do they lead to a crisis or do they just taper out? Also, events can be grouped, what events can be linked so that they might form a plot? Is there a major plot, one plot, two plots? Do they involve the same people? Do they have a clear time period? If there’s incidents with lots of people if there are changes over a period of years, if people come and go, then it will be hard to craft a dramatic narrative from this material.
If the list of biographical events starts to take shape based on studying and considering it carefully then there might be a story. To see if there is a full story groups of events can be set out as a longer narrative: is there as sense of structure like the acts or parts of a drama? Does a throughline develop? Are there central characters. At this stage what is likely to emerge and the point that has been reached is when people in real life need to be merged into a character, events need to be more clearly linked, some events are detailed, it took several steps for something to happen, but not all of them were dramatic, so a selection has to be made, and then if there is the shape to the story, it’s becoming a drama, is there a climactic ending? Also, the timeline and story structure needs to be considered. Are there long gaps between important events that will feel like pauses and failures in a developing dramatic story? Also, actual people are being turned into characters whose motivation and actions need to be clear. So, character notes, descriptions become relevant. All of this is really a process of creation, so the writer needs to be able to work creatively and to understand how to narrate in dramatic form.
After this work is done, developing a story with a structure from actual events then there can be a story outline, a treatment, telling the story for a film narrative, as a dramatic work. Clarifying what characters’ want, what they do, what challenges and conflicts they face, how do they act. And how this can be clearly narrated in a film narrative. If all this work is successful, and you have a story in dramatic form, there is still the challenge of the storyworld, making sure that this environment is clear: just stating that a story is set at a particular time does not create that story world, it needs to be dramatised.
A last and major challenge, that may be a significant hurdle is the writing of scenes, the screenplay: having these persons talk as characters: dialogue appears realistic within a narrative but it is not realistic in relation to actuality, so from an initial stage of having person in the world, acting as a person does, they now need to be figures in a drama, and for the writer, giving up this sense of actuality, to write the screenplay can be difficult.
Given all of the steps needed for a personal story to be developed into a dramatic story it is clear why someone is unlikely to write a drama about their own life, because they will find it hard to make all these choices: in a fiction novel writers often have an alter-ego, which can seem to represent them but this is a fictionalisation of themselves, a construction for drama. When a person is actually writing about themselves, writing dialogue that they never said, in scenes that did not happen in this way in real life then this is difficult to believe in and accept. It’s hard to do. It is not that a personal story, personal subject matter is more or less interesting, or if the story is of greater social significance, that will decide if there is a story, its if these events can offer and then be developed into a dramatic story which is the main issue.
Story based on the resources available: Moving from being inspired to tell a story based on personal events to a pragmatic impetus for choosing subject matter the question becomes what sort of film can I make based on the production resources I have? In this respect the choices are a contemporary setting with a limited cast, small scale events, or events that can be staged without complex sets, costumes and props. What happens as the next stage after this appraisal of resources is not a creative search for a story, but for the type of film that has a narrative in this type of setting, and to make it a dramatic choice there is the family-based intimate sotry, the horror film, the ghost story, the murder story, the whodunnit, or a comic approach to an everyday problem: the job interview, police interview, having parents visit, going on a car journey, people in a situation or people meeting and being together. The other constraining factor for developing a story based on the available production resources will be that the plan is likely to be for a short film, so that what is wanted is a story to match that format. All of these self-imposed constraints are self-destructive to storytelling.
What should be the basis for a story, is having, developing a story you want to tell and then if you have limited resources either deciding that the story can’t be narrated as a film or finding a way to narrate it within a limited set of resources. So, it’s not until issues of narration and format needs to be addressed that story ideas should be constrained: defining ideas by resources is placing a limit on imagination and this is not good.
Many problems emerge from the resource based approach to narrative film, with many micro-budget films showing that they are contrived from other films, but also, these small scale films do not have the production time or the production resources of the films they are copying from, and a low budget version of another story is not offering a unique story. Perhaps worst of all for storytelling, the ability to write a successful story, the screenplay, is lost to the question, will the story fit the time and resources available? A skilled writer needs to be able to write for different formats, long form, short form, single episode story, serial, but they don’t define themselves as a writer limited by resources.
In novels and for stage there’s no need to constrain story to match resources, a novelist can write about anything they wish, and an empty stage can be declared as any setting the playwright wishes. One of the reasons why books and stage plays are adapted to films, is not just that these stories have been successful in their first original medium, but because, unfortunately original screenplays self-limit and are essentially narrower and less dramatic than narratives from other sources. The low budget screenplay will have long drawn out scenes, chat, action that is stated rather than shown and the narration will remain fixed on a small set of characters, even when they are doing things that are not relevant to the main action of the story: they will be shown getting up in the morning, getting dressed, catching the bus or the tube. There are very successful film narratives in constrained settings, but then the story needs to work successfully as a drama in that setting. Here character-based drama will come to the fore, so that writing that stems from character is the most important thing, but this is not the impetus for the chosen story if the initial criteria for the subject matter was just to have a story that matched the limitations of the resources.
Basing, creating a story to match resources is a mistake. The better option is to write a range of different stories and then see which can be narrated with limited resources, or how a story can be narrated with limited resources. It’s possible to narrate one particular story in many different ways, so the writer can use this to tell the story. Writers will often work across formats, plays, films, books: having the skills to narrate for different formats is good, and it is the story that is fundamental, not the format: the fabula, the story first and then the narration.
Social and historical setting: Having a significant social or historical setting offers a basis for a story, but it is not a story, and for a writer having an interest in a particular area of history is only a starting point, a topic for a story. As with real-life personal stories, historical dramas need to have dramatic characters crafted from real events. Having the storyworld for a drama is good, having issues that attract you as a writer are good, but by definition social and historical setting is generalised it’s not a well plotted character based narrative. What the writer needs to be wary of in this situation is assuming that the importance of the setting makes the story dramatically effective, or that the audience will be aware of or simply apply the setting so that the story is clear.
Also, what is the setting? Either it should be made precise through research and then a story developed from this or the setting should be researched and then redeveloped for fiction. To be creative, to develop ideas and to do research for stories, having places to visit, books to read, having situations, conflicts, history, is all good, but only if the work of story making is added to the process.
What can happen to story development in a setting, and what should not happen is that the setting becomes unimportant. The situation where the story in one historical setting can be simply be transposed to another time and place and still have effectively the same plot and characters is a dramatic weakness. If a story is set in 1920’s England then this needs to have clear significance in the story. If it could be England in the 1950’s as easily as the 1920’s then the history has no effect on the story. Audience’s sometimes accept this sort of approach, an attractive setting for a story without much specific history, but audiences will also reject a film that is superficial and they will sense when a story is anachronistic and false. The appeal of the setting should be clarified by the writer: what are the morals of the era, what are the economics, what are the social practices, habits. This historical specificity should not be copied from other films, but directly researched or again, with no research the historical setting soon becomes false. Writers can benefit from stepping away from the complexities of present day life to work is a setting that is more clearly defined historically, socially, but this is not to be confused with being superficial. It’s important for the filmmaker to invest and believe in the setting they are creating.
Genre and storyworld: Writing for genre, in a genre, can seem to solve a lot of problems, and help a writer with their subject matter. If a genre appeals this can feel like a solution: it is an important step in creativity, but only one step. As with other subject matter, the choice or the appeal is not a solution and it does not provide a story. The issue for genre writing is that there are established setting and plots, so there are established forms, but also over-familiar plots and overused character types, and a story that just copies the familiar tropes of a genre is obviously liable to be seen by audiences as stale, cliched, and unoriginal.
The appeal of genre writing should not be its stereotypical elements, but what it allows the writer to express, a genre offers a range of themes and topics for the writer. Here studying the genre through academic texts can be very successful or studying the genre through carefully considered criticism can help. This close study works to reveal the themes and issues that a genre raises. Why the genre exists, when it developed, why it developed, how it can be used, what it represents. The writer can then locate what it is about the genre that appeals to them directly, and they will have a deeper understanding of the genre, something that supports the writing much more than just liking a genre. The genre is a form and the writer can use that form for their own story.
Genre films anticipate an audience, the filmmaker’s presume that there are people who like these kinds of films, so, having a clear sense of what appeals to an audience helps a writer, but only if they have something to offer through this writing, their own concerns and a story that personally resonates. One has to be careful that genre writing isn’t about gimmicks: simply playing with the genre to show knowledge of the genre. Yes, there is fun to be had with re-working the tropes of the genre, but there still needs to be a well told story. Copying plot devices will produce over-familiar and derivative stories. As with social setting, there needs to be depth in the understanding of the genre for the storytelling to develop successfully and for the writing to have originality.
There’s a presumption that there will be an audience for a story set in a genre, there are fans of the genre, so this will help a film, but this audience can be the most critical and least accepting. The genre audience has a set of expectations and demands for this storyworld, but at the same time they will reject a story that seems formulaic and over-predictable. This can be a difficult demand for a writer to meet.
Using a genre or a more narrowly defined story world, such as the world of Athurian legend is where the writer confines themselves to specific conventions, and this is a challenge, because any change or development can seem questionable. Deciding on subject matter and choosing a genre or a story world is a very definite choice: why that choice is being made and what the aims are for telling a story in this world needs some examination by the writer: just hommaging a genre or a story world is creative in only a very limited sense.
With the creation of a new and original story world for a story this presents a range of challenges for the writing. More time has to be spent developing this setting and it will need to be clarified on screen. A shot of contemporary New York will inform the audience about the setting, but if the story is set in a place that does not exist, then this needs to establish social relations, economic relations, the political situation, there are also issues with technology. Just stating at the start of a film, 3010 New World, means very little, and as before the story has to need use the historical setting successfully, it must be essential to the story: grafting a plot that might be in the 1900 to a story that is supposedly set in 3010, serves no clear purpose: it’s a mismatch and the audience will sense that the setting is only a background for action that might happen at a different time.
Genre and storyworld offer a foundation from which to build, a sense of orientation for the writer, but there have to be specific story elements brought by the writer to the story: the themes, the characters, and this is not going to be present in the films and other works in the genre. So, there will be research into the genre, a development of specific concerns for the story and then these will be developed with a personal and original approach.
A story for a specific audience: The concept of an audience can suggest the subject matter for a film: sports fans, art lovers. This obviously has no story material and creates only a very general sense of what sort of story might be approached. Even if the anticipated audience is a specific social group this does not create the story. The age of the intended audience is important to consider for writing as there are socially delineated categories, but this does not direct the writing. If one looks at patterns of consumption for films, what sorts of film people are watching then starting a film project on that basis, what people like to seen will be running late if this choice of subject matter is simply following a trend. Writing another SciFi horror film because it might be popular is likely to be a derivative and unsatisfactory approach.
One of the stated aims for considering the audience for a film is for the narrative to be more commercial, but this becomes directly relevant to a film project only when there is a proven audience for a film, and this approach results in the prequels, sequels, reboots, and remakes that occur, films that are often considered poor imitations of the first film in the series. Also, the returning to famous books or historical incidents for film narratives is used as a basis for gathering a known audience. These choices, franchises, known stories, popular stories, might be understood to be attractors for the audience, but defining or using this to guide a story is a strange limitation. There’s a sense that horror films are popular, so this might guide a film choice, but without some other purpose for a topic there’s going to be little originality. This can be recognised as an essential problem for film production: producers trying to make films fit commercial criteria when each film is actually a unique product and this is individuality an important selling point for a film. The writer needs to focus on the unique aspects of the story.
There is a sense that audiences want to be pleased, they want films where good people succeed and this can direct writing, but still there is no specific subject matter offered by this and formulas, repeated stories are well known to the audience and this can lead to lack of interest rather than enthusiasm if one more film follows this narrative guide: a gangster film that has the rise and then the fall of a gangster, this is an overfamiliar structure and using this but with different characters and settings can seem like simply repeating the same story but in a different place.
Overall it is fine to consider how a film will be read by an audience, but shifting from this issue of clarity, how the audience will understand the story, to one of subservience to an imagined audience judging the story is very limiting. It is not easy to gain funding for a film, and it is not easy to gain an audience for a film, but these problems aren’t addressed by pandering to an audience. The films that are for will immediately appeal to mass audience have developed their attraction over time, or the story is part of a package, one element of the film that appeals, along with the cast and the type of story. All of these production factors are imponderables in relation to commercial success and have nothing to do with the specific skills of storytelling or the precise subject matter of the story. The idea of producing a film to match the audience’s expectations explains, in fact, why so many poorly written stories are filmed: the aim has been to create a commercial product and so repetition, timidity, conformity have been used in relation to story development. Having a character in a story do or not do something based on the audience liking or not liking it can only undermine the creative process and the realism of the drama. If a writer or a filmmaker takes this limitation on board then they are going to restrict their topics, feel constrained, take no chances, and in effect be telling a story for a disapproving audience who don’t actually exist. This timidity can be a form of self-censorship: the writer obeying an imaginary audience. Writing for someone who will enjoy the story is good, but there’s no reason to allow this imaginary audience to be a critic or a censor of the story.
One can look at films, film narratives that have been successful and from this consider how well or badly they tell a story, their qualities as narratives and this is helpful for a writer, but this is the study of storytelling, it doesn’t direct the topic or indicate the subject matter for a well told story. Popularity can identify films that have attracted audiences, but this is more varied and certain in their reason for this than first appears. Critics refer to Horror fans, or other types of film audience, but there is no such unified grouping and fans are more likely to be in dispute over the quality and success of a film than any other audience.
Themes and issues for stories: The starting point for a story can be an incident, an image of a character, a situation, or a theme or an issue. Having this impetus is good, but the story has to develop, and a theme, if its explicit and declared can limit a story, it can also be too vague to be useful. If the theme is, in the end people want to do good, then this predicts the actions of characters and turns a story into a message. Stories are rhetorical, they put forward opposing characters, conflicted characters, the actions of characters can be related to the actions of people in life, facing decisions, making mistakes, facing opposition but then the narrative is not defined by a single theme. What involves an audience is not a clear message, being told what they expect to hear, but a conflict in which they can become involved: a story invites the audience to share and be transported into events. The emotional, involving aspect of rhetoric is as important as the argument that is being made: separating out theme can often undermine a story.
Themes might be used to underpin a film, but then each character needs a theme, what they want their world to be like, and this is their throughline in terms of the screenwriter writing for that character, so that there are clearly defined characters. If a story is underpinned by a single theme that is restrictive then the action of the film can only follow this route. What the audience can abstract from a film is a concept, or a range of concepts, but these themes are not the actions of a story, but an observation on the story. A writer may have a range of personal concerns that they want to raise, and sometimes a simplistic propagandistic message film can work, when the sides and position on an issue are clearly set, when opinions on are topic are decided, but this is still a limitation on storytelling: the propaganda film has merit at certain times. A film can be polemical, and if that is the aim for the story that is a clear decision, but it’s directing the story and so determining characters and plot.
To conclude, each approach to subject matter can be a problem for storytelling rather than a solution. The initial step, what attracts, what inspires, what motivates the story seems like it must support the story, but this is not the case. Personal stories can lack material, can lack dramatic structure and there needs to be a commitment to develop a dramatic story from actual events. Making sure that the resources are available to produce and finish the film is very important, but to use this from the start to control the story is to undermine creativity. Genres are popular, but this can result in copying and unoriginal writing. Genre writers need to use the genre creatively. Story worlds are needed for a story, but they are the setting and don’t create the story action. Identifying an audience can seem to direct the writing, but is the aim simply to please an imaginary group, a target audience: this can lead to oversimplification and basic storytelling, and stories with a message that seems to be what people want, but then they reject them as over familiar. Themes and issues motivate people, but this is not an impetus to tell a story, it’s an impetus to pass an opinion.
Subject matter offers a basis for a story, it can identify the start of the story, and even clarify a story, help the process, but it can also be a cul de sac where ideas don’t develop and where the process of writing is simplified and downgraded. A writer needs to research, to be able to gather material, to understand the genre they are writing in and use this genre rather than repeating stories or relying on past experience. A story needs enough plot, enough action based on character for a full story and the story has to pull in the audience, so that the story has to be about something crucial for the central characters. Character motivates the story and immerses the audience: the subject matter is important, but a full story well written will involve the audience in something that they might otherwise have no interest in. It’s a mistake to think that a type of film appeals to an audience, that they like a particular subject matter: the audience want a well told story in a well made film.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019