Written by Ali Laventhol
What can Apple’s series, LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY, teach us about working with theme?
Simply put, theme is the underlying meaning of your story. It lends significance to your plot and helps an audience connect to your characters. Most writers know theme is important and yet it is sometimes absent in scripts or comes across with a heavy hand. If you want your material to stand out, it’s worth exploring techniques to convey your theme(s) with subtlety and sophistication.
Script Anatomy is a great way to do that as our classes and workshops go deep into the subject, taking a more detailed look at what theme is, why it’s important and deconstructing the many artful ways writers can weave it organically into story.
In this blog, we’ll highlight three of those ways—dialogue, contrast characters and metaphor—using Apple’s new series, LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY as an example.
Written by Lee Eisenberg and based on the novel by Bonnie Garmus, LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY centers on Elizabeth Zott, an overly logical, strong-willed, independent single woman in the late 1950s who holds a master’s degree in chemistry.
Although she’s an exceptionally bright scientist, the research institute she works for would rather force her to compete in their company beauty pageant than acknowledge the groundbreaking experiments she’s conducting off the clock every night after she puts in her full-time hours as a lowly lab tech. Even her romantic interest, Calvin, who eventually sees her true brilliance, first assumes she’s a secretary. The 1950s were not a friendly decade to women with ambitions outside of marriage and motherhood, and yet the themes in this story around discrimination and restrictive gender roles feel sadly relevant to life today.
So how do they do it?
technique 1: dialogue
If you’re going voice your theme in dialogue, make sure the words sound organic to who the characters are. It’s also important to ensure that the scene does more than just communicate theme. It should also move your story forward, contain conflict and be entertaining. Even better if you can charge it with relationship dynamics and character attributes to help theme blend in even more seamlessly. There aren’t many places in the LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY pilot where theme is explicit in dialogue, but when it is – as in this example – there are plenty of other layers at play in the scene work:
ELIZABETH: I’d be much further along in my research if I wasn’t making excellent coffee for mediocre chemists.
CALVIN: You’re on the verge of a major scientific breakthrough. You need to talk to Donatti.
ELIZABETH: I did. He said no.
CALVIN: That doesn’t make any sense. Why?
ELIZABETH: Sex discrimination.
ELIZABETH: Well, also politics and favoritism in general, but yes, mostly sex discrimination.
CALVIN: I don’t understand. Why would anyone discriminate based on something as intellectually nondeterminative as gender?
ELIZABETH: Calvin. How many female scientists can you name?
CALVIN: …Madam Curie? (Calvin can’t think of more.)
ELIZABETH: Exactly. Do you think that’s just by happenstance?
CALVIN: I don’t know. I hadn’t considered it until now.
ELIZABETH: Of course, you haven’t had to. Because people fully appreciate your potential.
technique 2: contrast character
Elizabeth Zott’s character wants a career as a chemist and frankly deserves one more than most of her male chemist colleagues, but instead she’s dismissed, ignored, abused and eventually fired for being unwed and pregnant. She wholeheartedly believes in the importance of her research and goes to the mat with her bosses, attempting to convince them of her worth as a scientist and grant candidate.
The writers of the book and series use a contrast character to show another aspect of the sexism theme—Fran Frask. Fran is a secretary working in personnel who voices the more common attitudes of the era. It’s not that Fran would deny sexism exists, it’s that she sees no point in fighting against it. As the official organizer of the company beauty pageant, Fran hounds Elizabeth into participating. Fran’s focus is on beauty, sex appeal and playing by the rules –the things she believes will help women get ahead.
Later, when Elizabeth is asked by Calvin to partner with him on an experiment and they try to arrange it through personnel, Fran argues to Elizabeth that Calvin’s intentions can’t possibly be professional: “Oh, honey, there’s no such thing as a professional relationship between a man and a woman. I didn’t think you’d be as foolish as that. There’s a reason he’s dead set on you and I don’t think it’s your CV.”
So, if you infuse your theme into the attitudes and actions of your main character, make sure to depict different aspects of your theme through the other characters they interact with.
technique 3: metaphor
Finding metaphors for your theme(s) will help you stick to the “show don’t tell” golden rule of screenwriting. Since TV and film are visual mediums, look for objects, actions or settings to symbolically represent what you’re trying to convey thematically.
For example, in LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY, after Elizabeth is fired from her job, she’s determined to continue the research she was forbidden to do at work. Only problem is, she doesn’t have a place to do it or any equipment. So, Elizabeth completely demolishes the kitchen in her home in order to build herself an industrial chemistry lab. The scene in which she dons a sledgehammer and angrily smashes the tile countertops is of course a metaphor for the sexist boundaries she’s trying to destroy and works beautifully as a thematic moment sans dialogue.
There are many other ways to explore and express themes in your story. To find out more, be sure to check out our classes and workshops!
Ali Laventhol has been Tawnya‘s writing partner for over a decade, most recently as the Co-Executive Producer for My Life With The Walter Boys (Netflix), and Bel-Air (Peacock), as well as several Lifetime movies. She is a long time Script Anatomy instructor.