I realized I was becoming a big(ger) writing geek when someone asked me “what’s your screenplay about”, and without thinking I replied “Do you mean what’s the story, or what’s it about?”
Of course he meant what is the story, but it made me realize how much I can get my head wrapped around this particular axle.
The story is the what happens and who is doing it of the writing. It’s where I start, either with an idea or a character, and build things out. Some of this is just mechanics, but it is still a place I’m learning and trying to improve. Stories without good characters, plot, and development have a fairly small readership. Usually among insomniacs.
As it develops, though, something odd happens. The story becomes “about something”. A theme develops. Or maybe just a perspective. A deeper meaning.
What’s It About
This is where I usually get into trouble. I see a pattern or an idea in my story, and instead of continuing to develop my story I start to worry about the idea. I wrote a piece once that started to incorporate some religious ideas. Suddenly I realized I had a pile of things that could be metaphors – like a group that had 12 members, or someone showing up after being thought dead. I got paranoid. Was I making it too heavy handed? Too obvious? Were there better metaphors to use?
I upended the story to try and hammer in cues and clues that I felt better supported my developing theme. It was no great shock that I ended up with a mess.
It’s About The Story
I put the story away for a while, and came back to focus on the story. I ignored the little yammering voices that were guessing, second-guessing, and third-guessing my subconscious motives and just focused on the story. As a result, I made more progress with that “inner meaning” than when I was obsessing over it.
I did some minor tweaking in the end to support the theme that developed, but I treated it as a fairly minor cleanup item at the end. It was something I did alongside cleaning up plot consistency and character dialog.
In the end, focusing on the story worked out much better for me, and is what most people really are interested in anyway.