One of my favorite films of all time is Steven Zaillian’s Searching for Bobby Fischer:
I think this movie is a small masterpiece and nothing less than a miracle, the latter because it’s virtually without flaw. Zaillian’s direction of his own screenplay, the cast, James Horner’s beautiful score — you just can’t make a family-oriented “sports” film of this kind any better, IMO — and when you consider all the things that could have gone wrong during the movie’s development that somehow didn’t, well, it’s nothing short of amazing.
A few years back, the Arclight theater in Hollywood did a screening of the film that included a Q & A with Zaillian afterwards, and naturally, I jumped at the chance to attend. Zaillian’s an incredible screenwriter (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York, Moneyball [w/ Aaron Sorkin]), and I was anxious to hear him describe both his process in adapting the non-fiction book by Fred Waitzkin upon which his script was based, and his experiences in getting the movie made.
I learned a lot that night, but one thing Zaillian said in particular has always stayed with me. He said the script didn’t really take off for him until he realized that the story within the source material he really wanted to tell was that of a father and son. At its heart, that’s what Searching for Bobby Fischer is all about: a son’s need to win his father’s approval. Everything else — the chess tournament milieu, the Good Coach With a Past, the evil rival — is just window dressing.
That Zaillian had something to say about the father/son dynamic is evident in the final product. His film is as moving as it is — at least, for me — because it seems so genuinely felt. This one clearly came from the heart, and I think that’s the reason Zaillian’s screenplay is such a gem.
Writing “from the heart” is what every author should be trying to do each time he puts pen to paper, regardless of what he’s writing, because that’s where the good stuff is, the stuff that makes a writer’s work uniquely his own. Your one-of-a-kind perspective on the world in which we live — and the passions that color that perspective — are the one-two punch that no other writer on earth can offer a reader. Your voice is an important calling card, but your soul is an even greater one.
Whenever I sit down to think about my next long-form work, I inevitably come to this question: In what ways can my personal belief systems enrich this material? What do I have to say about it that speaks to who I am as an individual, and how I view life?
If I can’t answer that question — if I just can’t seem to find an emotional entry point to the story at hand — then I move on to something else.
For me, then, the ideal premise for a novel is one that not only excites me on a storytelling level, but also offers me the opportunity to explore a theme that, for one reason or another, stirs me emotionally. The object is not catharsis, necessarily, but combustion; just another log to throw on the creative fire.
Over the years, I’ve figured out what most of my “hot button” themes are. The following is just a partial list:
As a father of four children, I’ve learned how strong and fierce the paternal instinct can be. It’s no surprise, then, that stories involving a father going to war to protect/defend/avenge his brood have always moved me. On the face of it, my most recent novel Assume Nothing may appear to be a crime thriller, but what it really is is my idea of a romance novel. What else would you call the story of a man willing to do anything — anything — to ensure the safety of his wife and child?
“Happily ever after” I’m not so sure about, but I’m a firm believer in true love. It’s rare and it can be fleeting, but it’s definitely real, and in my fiction, anyway, it’s always worth fighting for.
This one goes without saying, right? It chaps my ass whenever Evil triumphs over Good, as it so often does in the real world, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to get some payback in my fiction.
As you probably know by now (especially if you read this earlier post of mine), I’m a determined if incredibly nonconformist Catholic, someone who believes in the Higher Power most commonly referred to as “God,” and who finds both peace and spiritual rejuvenation in the occasional twelve o’clock Mass. While I have no interest whatsoever in ever proselytizing, discretely or otherwise (primarily because the things I believe in may very well turn out to be poppycock), the underlying optimism of my faith pretty much colors my view of everything, and that view in turn informs my writing. As to the question of how much, I’ll just answer this way: No one will ever mistake me for C.S. Lewis, but neither will my fiction ever encourage non-believers to keep on keeping on.
Loyalty & Honor
The people I admire most in the world are those who live by an honor code and demonstrate an unshakable loyalty to family and country. No, I’m not just talking about the U.S. Marines. I think people from all walks of life exhibit these traits — by standing by their spouses when infidelity beckons, or having a friend’s back when the cost could be their livelihood — and I love writing about them. Being loyal and honorable takes incredible courage, especially when the chips are down, and characters who meet this challenge, despite the personal sacrifices involved, are always at the center of my best fiction.
Forgive me if this all sounds pretty sappy. But these are the themes that play out again and again in my writing, sometimes because I want them there, but mostly because they insist on butting in. When I’m writing well, I’m emotionally connected to my material, and it is the things I believe in — the things that most draw my ire or fill me with joy — that provide that connection.
Author, know thyself. And write accordingly.
Questions for the Class: Writers, what are your hot topic themes? And readers, what themes do you most like to see explored in the fiction you read?
I pretty much enjoy reading everything on your list, though forgiveness (for other and for oneself) and redemption are big, too.
Thinking about it, one thing that shows up in everything I've written is the idea of family VS friends, and which is more important… if one is.
It sounds weird, put like that, but put another way: you cannot control who you're related to, yet families are supposed to be loyal; ergo, people put up with a lot more from family than they would anyone else. And families often influence how people see the world… and yet, there are always black sheep, or people you're embarrassed to be related to.
People can choose their friends, so they often wind up reflecting the person's own values. Especially long-term friends, where there's no blood ties holding people together, just shared values and goals and ideals. I like exploring how those things interact.
What a wonderful post. I'm getting ready to teach for a few days at the Book Passage Mystery Conference, and one thing I always stress is the need to know your personal themes. I'll tell them about this post.
I encourage my students to go back to films and novels they've seen or read, identify the particular scenes that have moved them deeply — enraged them, inspired them, made them cry — and analyze the themes that stirred them, then to write from that place of emotional or moral connection.
The themes I've found that I constantly return to:
The outcast who redeems himself through a selfless act of courage
The uncertain or divided but ultimately steadfast father
Forgiveness vs, Justice
The courage to be happy
The need to discover one's honest worth
Love as seeing and being seen (aka Love as a way to truth)
Thanks for this. Made the day feel much more … just that: more.
Hi Gar. Themes…I think you've nailed some of mine, too. In fact, replace fatherhood with motherhood and take out religious faith and we're there! Justice is a big one for me — at all levels. I'm afraid I'm one of those people who if I'm waiting in a queue and see someone trying to queue-jump (worse still, getting away with it), it drives me crazy! Only exception to the rule is when you're queuing up for the bathroom with a young child. People have waved us through and I've done the same 🙂
Thanks for making me think about themes. I often get so wound up in telling the story and characters that I don't think about underlying themes enough. And I think I'll take this to my writing class too!
That is SUCH a good movie – I like it best for the mentors, two really wonderfully realized ones who are pulling the boy two different ways.
The theme question is such a good one but my Internet is spotty -will have to report back!
One of the great joys of this movie, too, is Joan Allen's performance as Josh's mother Bonnie. Bonnie is the most kick-ass mother imaginable, and Allen spits fire playing her. Talk about a parent who'll defend her child to the death.