I recently viewed a movie with a refreshingly brilliant script. Sadly I can’t recommend the movie by title because Hollywood felt compelled to add explicit scenes, but let me see if I can describe why the movie impressed me.
The writer began with the theme in mind:
“Communication is more about understanding each others’ hearts than each others’ words.”
(Notice how this is a fancy way of saying “show, don’t tell”? That principle is true in writing because it is true in life.)
The writer then crafted every aspect of the story to illustrate the theme.
The California setting showcases the difficulties of cultural miscommunication. Flor, the main character, is an immigrant who takes a job as housekeeper for the affluent Clasky family though she does not speak a word of English. There is a good deal of humor as the characters struggle to understand one another, but each scene makes the theme increasingly clear. Flor can see the truth of the family situation because it’s not covered up by the jumble of words people often use to paint over realities.
- Mrs. Clasky is a fitness fanatic, proud of her efforts to “stay attractive for her husband,” but Mr. Clasky is a professional chef. She doesn’t share his love of food and doesn’t seem sure of what he does to support the family. Though they speak the same language, they have little to say to one another.
- Mrs. Clasky doesn’t understand her children, either. In one scene, the daughter proudly offers a treat she baked with her father, but Mrs. Clasky eats it only reluctantly and suggests that her stocky daughter “could do without that.” In another scene, the mother buys her daughter a rare gift–clothes that are a size too small “to encourage her”–and cannot understand why the daughter is hurt and why her husband tells her the gift was cruel.
- Flor, who watched silently, takes the girl’s new clothes home and works through the night to let out the seams and move the buttons so that they fit the next morning.
Can you see how each scene is crafted to illustrate the theme? Dialogue, too, works to support the theme.
- Mrs. Clasky talks non-stop, in her efforts to truly express herself, but she rarely takes time to listen to her family members.
- Mr. Clasky rarely speaks, as if he has given up because no one listens. As the story unfolds, he begins to pour his heart out to Flor, even though she cannot understand his words, simply because she shows sympathy and does not interrupt.
- The movie makes heavy use of subscript, translating Flor’s Spanish thoughts, frustrations, and insights.
Each character’s outer goals and inner motivations clash in a conflict that clearly shows their failure to communicate. As the plot unfolds, the rift between Mr. and Mrs. Clasky grows deeper while Flor, with few words, wins the love of the entire family…including Mr. Clasky. In a climactic dark moment, each character must make a choice…and I mean EACH character, not just the hero and heroine. That’s what impressed me most. Each character had to grapple with the central theme: How do I communicate what is most important to me to the people who matter in my life? The takeaway bonus was the deep lesson Flor communicated to her daughter by her sacrificial answer.
- Analyze the theme and takeaway message in your story.
- Whether you are conceptualizing a new story or editing one you’ve written, brainstorm ways to illustrate your theme and message through setting, characters, scene development, dialogue, G-M-S, and plot.
- See if you can hone each element to show your theme so strongly that you will not have to resort to “preaching” your message to make it memorable.
One final thought: The theme and message of this movie were worthwhile and deeply moving, but I cannot recommend the title (which also fit exceptionally well with the theme) because of ONE scene that would offend many. As “writers of faith,” our challenge is to tell stories of great depth and quality, and to show those messages beautifully.