Character, Theme, and Feeling: A Bride Without a Head!

24 Mar

Moonstruck (1987) Poster

The other night, I watched Moonstruck (1987; Cher, Nicolas Cage, and those folks), a treasure trove of richly depicted characters, and I found myself jotting notes about things to look for in my current work-in-progress.

“Moonstruck’s” screenwriter is John Patrick Shanley, who won an Oscar for this work (up against Woody Allen, Louis Malle, and James L Brooks that year), and in this movie he wends his way between farce, fierce anger, angst, and passion into some beautiful characters and lovely monologues that are worth revisiting every few years or so.

Pull up “Moonstruck” (I think it’s still on Netflix as of this writing) and watch how these narrative elements/strategies work. See if it helps how you think about your own themes, characters, and narrative flow.

Here’s a rough map of how you can watch “Moonstruck” if you want to come away with good meat for your own projects.


Theme is a big vague term that can give a lot of young writers trouble and get them fretting. “Do you need a theme? Do you need to know your theme before you start writing? What if you just want to tell a fun, plot-driven tale and not deal with anything fancy like a theme?”

Theme isn’t fancy in anyway. For the duration of this example, think of “theme” as what emotion your story is about (not all stories are “about” emotion, I know, but roll with me here). Think of your theme as what the majority of your characters feel and what you have to say about that emotion. Strong emotion can be the theme of your story, and when it is, every scene becomes your opportunity to show your beliefs and observations on these emotions.

The “feeling” that you’re writing about, whether it’s fear in a war story or fury in a revenge tale, are matters that affect all human beings and make us what we are. That’s what theme is.

“Moonstruck” is very simple when it comes to theme. It’s about Love and Pain: Falling in love; maintaining or losing love in a life-long marriage; broken hearts; recovering from the pain of lost love. We know this is the theme because the characters are all talking about these themes! It’s a very meta story, actually. Furthermore, each main character in “Moonstruck” is driven by love or pain, and by selecting these two emotions, screenwriter Shanley’s characters and their emotions drive the story like roaring engines (as good themes will).

With “Moonstruck’s” approach to Love and Pain, it’s easy to see how this works. Think of this movie as a giant football game. On one team you have the lovers.


Loretta (Cher), Johnny (Danny Aiello), Cosmo, Uncle Raymond & Aunt Rita

On the other team, you have the walking wounded.


Ronnie (Nicholas Cage), Rose (Olympia Dukakis), Perry (John Mahoney),

Pull any scene from the movie and Love & Pain are going at it mano a mano. A clash of arguments about what love even IS. Sometimes the clash is between young characters, like in the great bakery scene when lovers-to-be, Loretta and Ronnie, first meet, or in scenes with the old married couples discussing love and pain, like the heart-breaking exchange between Cosmo and Rose at the end of the movie (COSMO: A man understands one day that his life is built on nothing and that’s a bad, crazy day. ROSE: You’re life is not built on nothing. Ti amo!). Or the two emotions do battle within a single character: Cosmo’s guilt; Perry’s string of dead-end affairs with young students from his classes; Loretta’s internal resistance to falling for Ronnie, the brother of Johnny whom she said she would marry. The whole movie builds to a great explosion between Team Pain and Team Love, ending right there in Loretta’s kitchen, with all the above characters weighing in on the clash.

Characters and theme often interact best through the story’s most powerful emotions, teased out in dramatic or highly comic scenes. Knowing ahead of time what those feelings are isn’t necessary (some writers prefer to discover such things in the course of writing) but it might help sharpen characters and make creating great scenes easier if you do.

Tear it Out of ‘Em

One of my biggest pet peaves is hearing characters say, “I just want to tell you…” or “I just want to let you know…” This is the height of lazy dialog and characterization. Stories are not about light conversation or people who honor good clear communication. Important at your job and in your relationship, sure, but such things are death to a story.

A good rule of thumb: Characters usually need to have their dialog ripped out of them. Everyone has at least one secret or a terrible wound that they’re guarding and the thought of it being exposed, discussed, mocked, analyzed is horrifying to them. People may want to “just let you know” about the paper jam in the office printer, but the heartache of being abandoned as a child? A parent abusing them? No one willingly reveals such information.

Accordingly,  everyone is on edge in “Moonstruck,” and their dialog is always getting torn out of them. Think about Ronnie Cammerari (Nicholas Cage) in the bakery scene (link above). He’s been working in that bakery for five years, ever since he lost his hand in the bread slicer. He takes off a black glove to reveal he has a fake, wooden hand to Loretta and tells his story:

                         "I was engaged to be married. Johnny 
                         came in here, he ordered bread from 
                         me. I put it in the slicer and I 
                         talked with him and my hand got caught 
                         cause I wasn't paying attention. The 
                         slicer chewed off my hand. It's funny 
                         'cause - when my fiancé saw that I 
                         was maimed, she left me for another 

While Ronnie seems to be doing exactly what I just said never to do — willingly offer crucial, vulnerable information about himself — the fact is, Loretta’s presence has set him off like a Roman candle. This rant would never have happened if his brother, Johnny, had not asked Loretta to marry him and asked her to help make peace with Ronnie. Ronnie the baker is a tinder keg of fiery anger, resentment, and hatred toward his brother, and the pain and loss he feels is always right there, just under the surface. So when the greatest irony of all, his brother’s bride-to-be walks into his bakery and wants to talk, Johnny doesn’t “just have something to say.” He blows his stack.

As a side note, take Chrissy who works at the bakery. She says this in the awkward quiet after Johnny explodes in fury at Loretta.

“This is the most tormented man I have ever known. I am in love with this man. He doesn’t know that. I never told him cause he can never love anybody since he lost his hand and his girl.”

This is one of my very favorite little walk-on characters ever. Chrissy is almost in a trance of sadness as she says this in her baby voice and Bronx accent. Seeing the man she loves, his wounds exposed, has compelled her to reveal hers as well. It’s sad, painful, more than a little pathetic, and works as a comic beat after Ronnie’s emotional blow-up. We never see Chrissy again after this short but memorable walk-on.

In a story where the main characters are wrestling with such big painful and glorious themes, Shanley gives smaller characters like Chrissy the opportunity to do the same thing — cf. the old woman who talks about the plane to Sicily to Loretta. These walk-ons follow the double theme of Love & Pain. too, of course — they’re just smaller brush strokes on the larger mural.

Scenes with Spark

Whether writing quiet conversation or sex scenes, fight scenes or mysterious revelations, your goal for creating good scenes is always the same: Make sparks fly. To do that, you have to draw contrasts among your characters by putting them in situations where they challenge each other, argue, flirt, fight, or rub each other the wrong way (even when falling in love).

In the scene that follows the big bakery blow-up above, Ronnie and Loretta are in Ronnie’s apartment. On the face of the scene, Loretta is still trying to make peace between Ronnie and her fiance Johnny (Ronny’s brother). Beneath that, of course, Loretta and Ronnie are falling in love. What begins as a quiet, midday lunch in a kitchenette ends with the two characters turning the screenwriter’s themes of Love and Pain over and over in comic repartee, getting lost in the symbols they’re creating, until they finally realize that they’re at loggerheads, and they either have to stay in the pain (where they’ve been till now) or give into their glowing passion.

                         I was raised that a girl gets married 
                         young. I didn't get married until I 
                         was twenty-eight. I met a man. I 
                         loved him. I married him. He wanted 
                         to have a baby right away. I said 
                         no. Then he got hit by a bus. No 
                         man. No baby. No nothing! I did not 
                         know that man was a gift I could not 
                         keep. I didn't know... You tell me a 
                         story and you think you know what it 
                         means, but I see what the true story 
                         is, and you can't.
                              (she pours them both 
                              another drink)
                         She didn't leave you! You can't see 
                         what you are. I can see everything. 
                         You are a wolf!

                         I'm a wolf?

                         The big part of you has no words and 
                         it's-a wolf. This woman was a trap 
                         for you. She caught you and you could 
                         not get away.
                              (She grabs his wooden 
                         So you chewed off your foot! That 
                         was the price you had to pay to be 
                              (throws his hand down)
                         Johnny had nothing to do with it. 
                         You did what you had to do, between 
                         you and you, and I know I'm right, I 
                         don't care what you say. And now 
                         you're afraid because you found out 
                         the big part of you is a wolf that 
                         has the courage to bite off its own 
                         hand to save itself from the trap of 
                         the wrong love. That's why there has 
                         been no woman since that wrong woman. 
                         You are scared to death what the 
                         wolf will do if you make that mistake 

                         What are you doing!

                         I'm telling you your life!

                         Stop it!


                         Why are you marrying Johnny? He's a 

                         Because I have no Luck!

                              (pounding on the table)
                         He made me look the wrong way and I 
                         cut off my hand. He could make you 
                         look the wrong way and you could cut 
                         off your whole head!

                         I am looking where I should to become 
                         a bride!

                         A bride without a head!

                         A wolf without a foot!

This scene operates on the movie’s character and theme. There’s no big set piece, no car chase, or gun fight. It’s not a revelation in a murder mystery plot. Shanley is such a sure-footed playwright and screenwriter that he let’s the characters go ahead and talk about the themes of the movie, What It’s All About, while having them fall in love as they do. He does this by creating tension not only between two dissimilar characters, but by keeping the dialog humorous and peppy around subject matter that deserves more seriousness than it gets (loss, angst, amputation, etc). And this is “Moonstruck’s” appeal. Dealing with dark subjects lightly and providing audiences with some human understanding about tragic hurt. We all feel that our own pain is the worst, of course, but when another feels tragedy (namely Nicholas Cage), it can be bittersweet or even comic — and that’s cathartic. A rinsing of the soul that can feel like relief and release.

The point is, Shanley proposes some big, seemingly easy/universal themes, but tightrope walks between them in a way that makes things more complicated and rich than they appear. The easy love story is not easy. Darkness is funny. Lightness is awful.

And falling in love is a bride without a head.

4 Responses to “Character, Theme, and Feeling: A Bride Without a Head!”

  1. Eric Klingenberg March 24, 2015 at 9:19 pm #

    Thanks that was really helpful.

    • barthanderson March 24, 2015 at 10:00 pm #

      Good! Thanks for reading, Eric. : )

  2. Tam McDowell March 25, 2015 at 4:48 pm #

    Great discussion of theme. I find theme doesn’t always reveal itself to me on my first or even second draft. Only when I’m deep into editing do I notice it and find ways to really embed it and refine it.

    • barthanderson March 25, 2015 at 5:29 pm #

      Totally makes sense, Tam, and I do that too, usually. It’s hard to imagine “Moonstruck” was ever anything but a story about love, from the very first germs of Shanley’s story. But theme is developed with the perspective of later drafts for a lot of writers, I’d bet.

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