Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
2013. Vol.3, No.1, 9-19
Published Online March 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 9
Thematic and Lexical Repetition in a Contemporary Screenplay
Starling Hunter1, Susan Smith2
1Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, Do ha , Q at ar
2School of Mass Communication, American Univer sity of Sharjah, Sharjah, UAE
Received October 21st, 2012; revised December 5th, 2012; accepted December 12th, 2012
Several works on film theory and screenwriting practice take up the question of repetition within narrative.
However, few if any, have articulated theories about the relationship between the repetition of the words
that comprise the screenplay itself and repetition of the themes that lend coherence to the narrative. In this
study we address this gap in the screenwriting and film literature. Specifically, we analyze repetition of
words and themes in the screenplay of Sunshine Cleaning, a critically-acclaimed independent film. Based
on our survey of the literature, we expect and we find several varieties of repetition among words associ-
ated with the major themes in SunshineCleaning. This repetition includes but is not limited to polyptoton
(words formed by inflections, declensions, and conjugations of a common stem), homonymy, paregmenon
(words sharing a common derivation), and compounding (words formed by combining two or more
words). We further expect and find that the repetition of words linked to themes is extensive and found in
the large majority of the scenes of the screenplay. Finally, we expect and find that words associated with
the themes are repeated far more frequently than in a random sample of screenplays contained within the
Corpus of Contemporary American English. We conclude the paper with a discussion of our study’s im-
plications for the art and craft of screenwriting.
Keywords: Narrative Structure; Narrative Repetition; Narrative; Rhetoric; Morphology; Etymology;
Screenplay; Screenwriting
Academic studies of the role of repetition within narrative
are numerous, encompassing countless cultures and language
groups, written and oral traditions, literary and linguistic genres.
The subjects of these investigations include, but are not limited
to, novels (Suleiman, 1983; Sprague, 1987; Shostak, 1995;
Fahy; 2000), folktales (Yen, 1973, 1974; Seydou, 1983; Nad-
daff, 1991; Pinault, 1992; Luthi, 1992), epic poetry (Culbert,
1963; Lord, 2000; Reich, 2006); the Old and New Testaments
(Capel, 1994; Walsh, 2001; Bullinger, 2003); comic strips (La-
cassin, 1972), short stories (Toolan, 2008), childrens fantasies
(Botvin & Sutton-Smith, 1977), oral personal histories (Blum-
Kulka, 1993; Yemenici, 2000) and the narrative discourses of
indigenous peoples (Somsonge, 1992; Brody, 1986; Axelrod &
Garcia, 2007) and elderly Alzheimer’s patients (Moore & Dav-
is, 2002). Within the cinematic arts, repetition within narrative
has been considered in a wide variety of contexts including
early American cinema (Auerbach, 2000), contemporary action
films (Higgins, 2008), experimental feminist film (Smith, 2008),
adapted screenplays (Turner, 1977), soap operas (Nochimson,
1997), westerns (Browne, 1975), dramas (Sadkin, 1974), docu-
mentaries (Robson, 1983), horror films (Briefel, 2009) and the
boxing genre (Grindon, 1996). The subject has also been taken
up in works on film production (Bellour, 1977) and the art and
craft of screenwriting (e.g. Horton, 2000; Parker, 2002; Nor-
man, 2007; Cunningham, 2008).
Generalizing across these many and varied domains is ex-
ceedingly challenging: investigations can and do differ accord-
ing to which elements of a narrative are repeated, where they
are repeated, and how often. One characteristic common to this
research is the focus on great works and classics. But this pref-
erence also limits generalization because it strongly favors in-
depth analyses of a few texts over less detailed comparisons of
multiple texts. That said, we believe that research in one of the
above fields hold particular relevance for the cinematic arts—
narrative theory, particularly that applied to folklore. A central
concern of that field is the relationship between narrative struc-
ture and theme, i.e. “any unifying idea or image, which is re-
peated and developed throughout a literary work” (The Literary
Encyclopedia, 2012). We recognize in the literature on folkloric
narrative several concepts and methods similar to those de-
scribed in works on film theory and screenwriting practice. Of
special interest are those theories and concepts concerning the
repetition of certain words and its relationship to the repetition
and development of themes central to the narrative.
In this paper we apply several such concepts to the study of
Megan Holley’s Sunshine Cleaning, a critically-acclaimed in-
dependent film directed by Christine Jeffs and starring Amy
Adams (Julie and Julia), Emily Blunt (My Summer of Love),
and Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine). To paraphrase Toolan
(2008), a major goal of this study is to derive a skeletal version
of the story—one comprised of themes and the words that rein-
force them and one that includes the key events and character
arcs. Drawing from research on the narrative structure of folk-
lore and of screenplays, as well as the conceptual vocabulary of
classical rhetoric, we develop herein three propositions con-
cerning the repetition of themes and of words associated with
them. Respectively, these propositions concern 1) how words
associated with themes are repeated 2) where they are repeat ed
and 3) how often they are repeated. We then empirically test
these three propositions on the text of the screenplay of Sun-
shine Cleaning.
How Are Words Associated with Themes
If there is one point of agreement among the many studies of
repetition in narrative, it is that themes, however defined, are
repeated in different ways and places in a story. Words—both
as dialog and description—are invariably included among the
ways that this repetition is manifested. However, it is rare to
find more than anecdotal evidence offered in support of this
point, let alone thoroughgoing theories. For example, in an
essay entitled The Values of Close Analysis, Andrew (1971)
makes a compelling case for the in-depth and systematic study
of narrative structure in transcribed “film scripts”. The principal
benefits he anticipated were the possibility of scrutinizing “the
sequence of events”, the “catalouging of interrelationships be-
tween fragments scattered throughout the film”, and an en-
hanced understanding of patterns in dialog, narrative structure,
and image “clustering” (pp. 49-51). Yet, he did not specify
what form the sequences, fragments, patterns, and clusters
could take, let alone what relationships, if any, they could or
should bear to one another.
A second example comes from Robson’s (1983: p. 45) study
of the narrative structure of Grey Gardens. Repetition is essen-
tial to four “recurrent themes” that he says characterize the lives
of the mother and daughter protagonists, Big Edie and Little
Edie. Although Robson arranges the themes into several “clus-
ters of antinomies”, each of which is “linked with an often
elaborate network of visual and verbal references”, only two
examples are provided. The most relevant one concerns how
the subtheme of modesty and promiscuity is underscored by
“repeated references to clothing” (ibid). But beyond noting
Little Edie’s insistence upon wearing girdles, Robson does not
place references to girdles within the context of other refer-
ences to clothing. Nor does he indicate what relationship those
articles have to one another or to the four recurring themes.
A third example comes from Bordwell & Thompson’s (2008:
p. 49) best-selling textbook, Film Art—An Introduction. The
authors devote an entire chapter to the significance of “film
form”, a term they define as “a unified set of related, interde-
pendent elements” and “the overall system of relations that we
can perceive among the elements in the whole film”. They also
def i ne five principles which “help create relationships a mong the
parts” and which “the spectator perceives in a film’s formal
system”. These are “function, similarity and repetition, differ-
ence and variation, development, and unity/disunity”. Con-
cerning the second of these they state:
Repetition is basic to our understanding any film. For in-
stance, we must be able to recall and identify characters
and settings each time they reappear. More subtly, through-
out any film we can observe repetitions of everything
from lines of dialogue and bits of music to camera posi-
tions, characters’ behavior, and story action (61).
Bordwell and Thompson use the term “motif” to describe
these manifold “formal repetitions” and define it as “any sig-
nif i ca n t re p eated element in a film” including, but not lim it e d t o ,
“an object, a color, a place, a person, a sound, or even a char-
acter trait” (2008: p. 61). Despite offering several examples of
the repetition of motifs, discussion of the relationship of words
to the repetition of motifs is cursory. The closest that the au-
thors come is this sidebar quotation from Robert Towne, the
screenwriter of Chinatown:
You can take a movie, for example, like Angels with Dirty
Faces, where James Cagney is a child and say s to his pal
Pat O’Brien, “What do you hear, what do you say?”—
cocky kid—and then as a young rough on the way up
when things are going great for him he says, “What do
you hear, what do you say?” Then when he is about to be
executed in the electric chair and Pat O’Brien is there to
hear his confession, he says, “What do you hear, what do
you say?” and the simple repetition of the last line of dia-
log in three different places with the same characters
brings home the dramatically changed circumstan ces muc h
more than any extensive diatribe would (ibid).
While more examples could be provided, these three suffice
to confirm our earlier assertion concerning the repetition of
words in support of themes and other elements of film form: the
repetition of words—whether as dialogue or description—is
recognized as very important, but evidence to support this claim
is mostly anecdotal and largely atheoretical.
While work in the field of narrative folklore is similarly an-
ecdotal, one advantage it provides our investigation is its con-
ceptual vocabulary, namely the terms it employs to distinguish
between different types and functions of repetition within nar-
rative. For example, in the book Story-telling Techniques in The
Arabian Nights, Pinault (1992) describes four forms of repe-
tition in narrative—repetitive designation, leitwortstil, thematic
patterning and formal patterning, and dramatic visualization.
They are summarized and described by El-Shamy (1996: p. 187)
as follows:
Repetitive designation: repeated references to some char-
acter or object that appears insignificant when first men-
tioned but which reappears later to intrude suddenly on
the narrative.
Leitwortstil (or leading word): a concept borrowed from
Biblical studies that denote “a word or word root that re-
curs significantly in a text, in a continuum of texts, or in a
configuration of texts; by following these repetitions, one
is able to decipher or grasp a meaning of a text.”
Thematic patterning and formal patterning: “The struc-
ture is disposed so as to draw the audience’s attention to
certain narrative elements over others. Recurrent vocabu-
lary, repeated gestures, accumulation of descriptive p hr as es
around selected objects: such patterns guide the audience
in picking out particular actions as important in the flow
of narrative.”
Dramatic visualization: “The representing of an object or
character with abundance of descriptive detail, or the mi-
metic rendering of gestures and dialogue in such a way as
to make the given scene ‘visual’ or imaginatively present
to an audience.”
Another of Pinault’s definitions of thematic patterning is “the
distribution of recurrent concepts and moralistic motifs among
the various incidents and frames of a story” (1992: p. 22). He
asserts that in “skillfully crafted” tales, this technique empha-
sizes “the unifying argument or salient idea which disparate
events and disparate narrative frames have in common” (ibid).
That description strongly echoes the one given for “theme” by
Yen (1973: p. 163), i.e. “a recurrent description or incident with
varying degrees of verbal correspondence in repeated sections
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
of a narrative”. In his study of Japanese folktales, Yen (1974: p.
2) employs “story-pattern” or “thematic-pattern” analysis, a me-
thod that “abstracts a group of essential and frequently recur-
ring elements from a narrative and formulates them in a mean-
ingful sequence of configuration.” His analysis of one Japanese
folktale, The Listening Hood, describes what he calls a “typical
example of oral narrative” because it demonstrates repetition on
many distinct levels. The first of these is the “formulary lan-
guage level” where he describes what Lord (1960: p. 145)
called “word-for-word correspondence”:
the description of the girl’s recovery—“the daughter’s ill-
ness began to disappear day by day, like the peeling off of
layers of thin paper”—is repeated in the rich man’s re-
covery—“the master’s illness then began to disappear day
by day like the peeling off of layers of thin paper.”
Yen also finds repetition on the “thematic” level where a
“composition unit” about a conversation among crows is paral-
leled shortly thereafter by another conversation among tree
spirits. Finally, Yen also finds repetition on the “thematic-pat-
tern” level where the recurrence of eight themes—poverty,
journey, sleep, otherworld, knowledge, return, sickness, and
reward—comprises the narrative.
One thing is apparent from the above examples: compared to
research in the cinematic arts, research on narrative folklore has
given more detailed attention to defining terms and concepts
describing the repetition of themes and words. From this re-
search we expect that the repetition of words associated with
themes will take several forms. Our first proposition is that
these forms will include: 1) repeated references to characters
and objects 2) recurring words and word roots 3) recurrent vo-
cabulary and descriptions of objects 4) abundant descriptive
detail and 5) the “word-for-word correspondence” and “mi-
metic rendering” of dialogue.
Where Are Words Associated with Themes
Also emphasized in the above definitions is information
about the location of the various forms of repetition. For exam-
ple, another of Pinault’s definitions of thematic patterning is
“the distribution of recurrent concepts and moralistic motifs
among the various incidents and frames of a story” (1992: p.
22). He continues, stating that in “a skillfully crafted tale, the-
matic patterning may be arranged so as to emphasize the unify-
ing argument or salient idea which disparate events and dispa-
rate narrative frames have in common” (ibid, emphasis added).
In Writing Your Screenplay, Dethridge (2003: p. 50) draws a
distinction with similar implications. She distinguishes between
the “central” or primary theme of a screenplay, the one she calls
the “premise”, and subsidiary or secondary themes. The premi se
is “the overall concept that governs the story” and, she tells us:
the most difficult theoretical element to discuss, as it
represents one of the most ethereal aspects of the writing.
The writer must have the patience or the focus to identify
a premise in their own work. The premise is often invisi-
ble to the audience. Rather than being stated baldly or
acted out... (the premise) works at a subliminal or sub-
conscious level to help convey a strong idea that goes be-
yond concrete action into the realm of feeling or mood.
Think of your premise as the central, most important
theme. It’s an idea which will be repeated again and again
in different ways throughout the script (ibid, emphasis
Dethridge also discusses the relationship of subsidiary sec-
ondary themes to the premise. She states that “the strongest
stories” are built “around a well-organized set of themes which
help to cement the premise and to imbue the story and charac-
ters with flavor or attitude”. She illustrates this point using The
Silence of the Lambs, a film in which “metamorphosis” is the
central theme, a premise invisible yet present “in every scene”
(150). Dethridge further underscores this point when she asserts
that any randomly-picked scene in a screenplay “can be read as
a kind of sample or miniature, scaled-down version of the entire
screenplay... because each scene will reflect the larger tone,
mood, premise and themes of the screenplay” (ibid, emphasis
Based on the literature reviewed in this and the preceding
subsection of the paper, our second proposition is that words
associated with key themes should be repeated in the large ma-
jority of scenes in the screenplay, if not all of them.
How Often Are Words Associated with
Themes Repeated?
One point of agreement among screenwriters and film theo-
rists concerns the limited number of themes a screenplay ought
to contain—very few. For Mehring (1990) the number is one:
in Body and Soul it’s “self-respect”, in Beverly Hills Cop it’s
“chutzpah”, and in Rebel without a Cause it’s “responsibility”.
For Field (2005), the number i s small. In The Royal Tenenbaums
he identifies three themes—“family, failure, and forgiveness”.
In Chinatown and Pulp Fiction, the number drops to one. In the
former the theme is “water” and it is, he writes, “an organic
thematic thread, woven through the story”. In the latter, the
theme is “revenge”. Dethridge’s (2003) analysis of The Silence
of the Lambs identifies one premise or central theme—“meta-
morphosis”—and three secondary themes, each having to do
with the idea of gaining or taking on a “new life”.
Notably, the themes in each above example are different. But
of course, this is to be expected—each belongs to a different
genre, e.g. boxing, action, comedy, drama, mystery, film-noir,
etc. The premise behind film genre is that it is possible to cate-
gorize films according to similarities among their narrative
elements (Langford, 2005).
Although the number and names of genres is constantly
evolving, the two dozen or so provided in The Internet Movie
Database are broadly representative of typologies developed by
scholars of this subject. The existence of so many distinct gen-
res has an interesting implication for this study. Since themes
can be one of the narrative elements used to classify films into
genres, then there should be a high similarity of themes and
associated words within a genre and lower similarity across
genres. For example, words like jab, punch, gloves, ring, bell,
trainer, ropes, decision, opponent, and knock-out should be
more common in the boxing genre than in other genres. Simi-
larly, films whose theme is revenge or water or metamorphosis
should contain many more words associated with these themes
than do films with different themes.
Thus, our final proposition is as follows: the observed fre-
quency of words associated with primary and secondary themes
significantly exceed the expected frequency of those same
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 11
words in a representative sample of contemporary screenplays.
As far as we are aware, no prior research on repetition within
the narrative of screenplays has considered such specific
propositions as the three posited here. Before detailing our
methodological approach, we first provide a plot summary and
an overview of the main characters.
Characters & Plot Summary
Sunshine Cleaning is the first screenplay written by Megan
Holley and thus far the only one to be produced (Holley, 2007).
Directed by Christine Jeffs (Rain) and filmed in Albuquerque,
New Mexico, this independent film was nominated for the
Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and for Best
Supporting Actress by the London Critics Circle. According to
The Internet Movie Database the film also won an award for
Outstanding Achievement in Casting-Low Budget Feature from
the Casting Society of America. Nine characters appear in five
or more of the 175 scenes in the “Green Revision” of the
screenplay. In order of appearance they are: Rose Lorkowski
(Amy Adams), the protagonist and founder of the eponymous
Sunshine Cleaning; Joe Lorkowski (Alan Arkin) her father;
Norah Lorkowski (Emily Blunt), her sister; Oscar Lorkowski,
her 7-year-old son; Carl Swanson, the owner of Clean Sweep, a
rival cleaning firm; “MacMacdowell, (Steve Zahn), Rose’s
former high school boyfriend; Randy, Norah’s itinerant boy-
friend; Winston, the owner of a cleaning supply company and
Rose’s mentor; and Lynn Wiseman (Mary Lynn Rajskub), the
daughter of a client and Norah’s girlfriend.
In short, Rose has gone from a high school cheerleading
captain dating the quarterback to single mother cleaning houses,
attending night classes, and having an affair with a married
police officer, Mac. Her sister, Norah, is a disaffected and un-
der-achieving waitress still living at home with their father, Joe.
An obstinate middle-aged salesman still hoping to get rich
quick, Joe doggedly hawks “Fancy Corn” to candy stores and
shell fish to restaurants in between purchases of scratch cards.
When Oscar, Rose’s son, is expelled from public school for
abnormally mischievous behavior, Rose can’t afford private
alternatives. To raise funds, she puts real estate classes on hold,
opting instead for work as a biohazard removal and crime-scene
cleaner. With moral support from Joe, job leads from Mac,
guidance and supplies from her mentor, Winston, and the un-
steady assistance of Norah, Rose launche s Sunshine Cleaning.
As the operation evolves, the sisters face several difficult and
unexpected circumstances. These involve everything from do-
mestic disturbances, burning houses, highway accidents, and
bereaved parents to the disposal of bloody remains and ques-
tions of professional ethics and qualifications. Confronted al-
most daily by the loss of life, Norah and Rose are eventually
forced to deal with the still-lingering after-effects of their own
family tragedy—their mother’s suicide some twenty years ear-
lier. Doing so reconstructs an important family tie and brings a
newfound measure of fulfillment in their personal lives.
As a practical matter, methods for finding themes in stories
vary widely. Methods recommended by film theorists range
from the “close analysis” of key scenes and sequences (An-
drew, 1971; Mehring, 1990), of frequently-used objects (Seger,
2010), and of oft-repeated lines of dialog or description (Bord-
well & Thompson, 2008). In order to find themes in short-sto-
ries, Toolan (2008) compared the “prominent repetition” of
keywords with their base rates in a reference corpus. This tech-
nique is very common in corpus linguistics and in the burgeon-
ing sub-field of corpus stylistics (Hoover, 2002) but as of yet, it
has not been applied to the analysis of screenplays.
We begin our analysis by noting that at least well-known two
figures of speech correspond directly to Pinault’s forms of re-
petition and Yen’s “verbal correspondence”. For example, Pin-
ault’s definition of leitwortstil is very similar to that for poly-
ptoton, a figure of speech defined in the Encyclopedia Britan-
nica as “the rhetorical repetition within the same sentence of a
word in a different case, inflection, or voice or of etymologi-
cally related words in different parts of speech.” Examples
include verbs repeated in different moods and tenses, e.g. have
and had, verbs and their cognate nouns, e.g. compute and com-
puter, and nouns repeated in different numbers e.g. horse and
horses. Another figure of speech similar to leitwortstil is pareg-
menon, defined by Bullinger (2003: p. 304) as “the repetition of
words derived from the same root”.
Grindon’s (1996: p. 66) analysis of the boxing genre makes
an excellent case for the applicability of paregmenon to film
studies. Working from the premise that film “genres trade on
the expectations of the viewer… (and) promise a particular
emotional response” he posits that “the characteristic emo-
tions elicited by the boxing film are nostalgia and pathos.” But
unlike prior studies of the boxing genre, Grindon uses etymol-
ogy to relate these two words to recurring themes. After assert-
ing that “a bittersweet longing for the past finds expression in
the boxing film in multiple ways”, Grindon insightfully ob-
serves that “nostalgia finds its etymological root in the Greek
words for home and pain; pathos has a close relationship, as its
Greek etymology is rooted in the word for suffering. Bearing
witness to suffering is central to spectatorship in the boxing
genre” (ibid). Inspired by Field’s (1998) discussion of title and
theme in The Silence of the Lambs, our thematic analysis starts
with the two words comprising the title—“sunshine” and
“cleaning”. And following Grindon’s (1996) discussion of
etymological roots in the boxing genre, we begin our search for
themes with roots of the three stems of the title words—sun,
shine, and clean.
According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-
European Roots (AHDIER), the word “sun” descends from the
Indo-European (IE) root sawel-which means “the sun” (Wat-
kins, 2000). Its derivatives include helium, solar, sun, and south.
The latter two of those appear in the screenplay. According to
the Online Etymological Dictionary (Harper, 2012), “shine”
descends from the Old English scinan which means “shed li-
ght, be radiant”. The stem is found twice in the screenplay—in
the compound sunshine and as the adjective shiny. The same
source also has clean descending from the Old English claene
which means “clean, pure”. Several variants are found in the
screenplay—cleaner, cleaners, cleaning, and cleans. These ety-
mological roots and derivatives are displayed in Figure 1, be-
low. The title, Sunshine Cleaning, appears in the top box. Be-
neath are three boxes, one for each stem, its root, and deriva-
tives of that root appearing in the screenplay.
Taken as a group, the derivatives of the three stems exhibit
both forms repetition mentioned in the first proposition. Firstly,
polyptoton is present: among these derivatives we find inflec-
tions, declensions, and conjugations of the three stems, e.g.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Figure 1.
Roots and derivatives of the three stems.
shine and shiny, clean and cleans. Secondly, we find several
derivatives of each etymological root present in the screenplay.
Notably, several of these are compound words, e.g. sunshine,
sunroom, and sunlight.
Identifying Themes
In order to identify recurrent themes associated with the three
stems, we first ask what conceptual, grammatical, semantic, or
other relationships, if any, exist among them. One such rela-
tionship is fairly obvious: the word sunshine is a closed com-
pound comprised of the stems sun and shine. An analogous but
much less obvious relationship exists between “shine” and
“clean”. That relationship involves another closed compound—
“purblind”—a combination of the words “pure” and “blind”.
According to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary the word
previously meant “completely blind” but now means “partially
sighted” and “lacking in discernment or understanding”. Nota-
bly, the “pure” in “purblind” means “utterly” not clean but it
descends from the IE root peu- meaning “to purify; cleanse”.
The word “blind” is highly polysemous. Its many definitions
span four parts of speech—verb, noun, adjective, and ad-
verb—and fall into the three broad categories: the lack of sight,
i.e. impaired visual acuity; deficient insight, i.e. impaired dis-
cernment, reason, evidence, forethought, information, percep-
tion, understanding; and concealment or covering, i.e. a hiding
place and/or that which hinders, shuts out, and/or deprives of
light or sight. The word “blind” descends from the Indo-Euro-
pean root bhel-1, “to shine, flash, burn; shining white & various
bright colors.” What we have in “purblind”, then, is a com-
pound whose first half descends from a root meaning “to
cleanse” and whose second half descends from a root meaning
“to shine.” Thus, while the compound “sunshine” links “sun”
and “shine” explicitly while the compound “purblind” links
“shine” and “clean” implicitly.
This subtle dichotomous relationship is pregnant with the-
matic potential, as much as any of the numerous examples pro-
vided earlier. In the two compounds “sunshine” and “purblind”
we have outer light and inner darkness, sight and blindness,
insight and ignorance among many possible antinomies. Indi-
vidually, each could constitute a premise. Taken together they
might comprise the “well-organized set of themes” around
which the story is structured (Dethridge, 2003: p. 150), the
“ne t wo r k ” o f r e pe a t ed “verbal references” (R obson, 1983: p. 45 )
that create “relationships” among the many elements of film
form (Bordwell & Thompson, 2008). In order to determine
whether this is the case, we examine the etymological roots of
seven related words—the three stems (sun, shine, and clean),
the two linking compounds (sunshine, purblind), and two addi-
tional stems (pure, blind).
We begin by recalling that sun descends from the Indo-
European (IE) root sawel- which means “sun” and that shine
descends from the Old English scin an, “shed light, be radiant.”
Somewhat surprisingly, nine IE roots include the word shine in
their definitions: the roots aus-, bha-1, dyeu-, ghel-2, and
kand- each mean “to shine”; the root bhel-1 means “to shine,
flash, burn”; bherg- means “to shine, bright, white; and the
definitions of arg- and bhel-1 both refer to “shining white”, i.e.
silvery, and other bright colors. Several derivatives of seven of
these roots appear in the screenplay including argument, fancy,
black, bleach, glad, glass, incense , strawberry, and white. As it
pertains to the third stem, just one IE root explicitly connotes
“clean.” That root is peu- and it means “to purify; cleanse”. Its
derivatives include pour, purblind, pure, puree, purge, puritan,
and purity. Among these, only the verbs pour and pours appear
in the screenplay. In Table 1, below, the first column contains
the three initial stems. The second column shows the roots with
which each stem is associated. Eleven of these thirteen roots
have derivatives that appear in the screenplay. Those deriva-
tives are listed in the third column.
To identify additional Indo-European roots associated with
the compound sunshine we begin with its synonyms. Interest-
ingly, Rogets 21st Century Thesaurus contains no entry for
“sunshine” itself. The word does, however, appear as a syno-
nym of four others—day, daylight, light, and the drug LSD.
The word “day” descends from the root the IE root agh- which
means “a day considered a span of time”. Other derivatives of
agh- include dawn and the compound words daylight and today.
Another IE root possessing a synonymous meaning is ayer-
(day, morning). The word “light” is linked to two IE roots—
leuk- (light, brightness) and legwh- (light, having little weight).
Table 2, below, contains two columns. In the first are the above
four roots and their definitions. The second column lists deriva-
tives of these roots that are found in the screenplay.
The aforementioned sense of “pure” has nine single-word
synonyms in Rogets 21st Century Thesaurus—blasted, com-
plete, confounded, infernal, mere, sheer, thorough, unmitigated,
and unqualified. Eight Indo-European roots associated with
these synonyms are displayed in the second column of Table 3
below. The third column lists the derivatives of these roots that
appear in the screenplay.
Recall that the first two aspects of “blind” concerned “sight”
and “insight”. Rogets 21st Century Thesaurus lists 16 single-
word synonyms for “sight” as a noun meaning the “ability to
see with the eyes” and another twenty for “insight” as a noun
meaning “intuitiveness, awareness”. Although there is much
overlap in the two lists, twenty-two synonyms descending from
sixteen IE roots were identified. In Table 4, below, the second
column displays these synonyms while the third column lists
the roots from which they descend. Across from each root, in
the fourth column, are listed its derivatives found in the screen-
The third aspect of “blind” concerns both concealment and
covering. The former descends from the IE root kel-1 (t o cove r,
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 13
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Table 1.
Roots and derivatives associated with three stems.
Stem Root (definition) Derivatives in the screenplay
sun sawel (the sun) south, sun, sunshine, sunroom, sunlight
shine scinan (shed l ight, be radiant) shiny, sunsh ine
shine arg (to shine, white; the shining or white metal silver) argument
shine aus (to shine)
shine bha-1 (to shine) fancy, fantastic, fantasy, phase
shine bhel-1 (to shine, flash, burn; shining white & various bright colors) black, blanches, blank, bleach, blinds, bl ond, blue, flames, strawberry,
flashes, flashlight
shine bherg (to shine, bright, white) bright, brightly
shine dyeu (to shine)
shine ghel-2 (to shine; colors, bright materials) glad, glance, glances, glares, glass, glasses, glows, gold, golden, yellow
shine kand (to shine) incense
shine kwe it (white; to shine) white
clean claene (clean, pure) clean, cleaner, cleaners, cleaning, cleans
clean peu (to purify, cleanse) pour, pours
Table 2.
Roots and derivatives associated with synonyms of “sunshine”.
Roots (definition) Derivatives in the screenplay
agh (a day) day, days, today
Ayer (day, morning) early, or
legwh (light, having little weight) carnival, lightly, lighten, relieve d
Leuk (light, brightness) illustrated, lit, l ights, flashlight, headlights, hi g hlighted, sunlight
Table 3.
Roots and derivatives associated with synonyms of “pure”.
Synonyms Root (definition) Derivatives
unmitigated ag (to drive, do) act, action, actually , agent, exactly, examine, examines, examining, reaction, reacts, squatter,
blasted bhle (to bl ow) blast, blow, flavoring
unqualified dhe (to set, put) benefit, defeat, defeated, difficult, face, faced, faces, fact, factor, features, office, officer, perfect
confounded gheu (to pour, pour a libation) confused, confusion, found, foundation, trust funder, infused, profound
infernal ndher (unde r) under, und erstand, understa nding, unde r- whelmed, underbelly, underneath
complete pele-1 (to fill, abundance, multitude) complete , completed, completely, fill, filled, full, supplies, supply
Mere smer-2 (to get a share of somethin g) Merely
thorough tere-2 (to cross over, pass through, overcome) through, trunk
conceal, save). Several of this root’s derivatives appear in the
screenplay including cell, colored, discolored, and holding. The
later descends from the root wer-4 (to cover). Only one of its
derivatives appears in the screenplay—coveralls. Two Indo-
European roots have synonymous definitions: skeu - (to cover,
conceal) and steg- (to cover). Table 5 summarizes the roots and
derivatives associated with “conceal” and “cover”.
Thus far, we have identified 43 roots and 267 derivatives as-
sociated with the two compounds (sunshine and purblind) and
five stems (sun, shine, clean, pure, and blind). This was accom-
plished by first relating stems of the title to one another through
a compound word (sunshine) and then relating them through a
second compound formed from derivatives of associated ety-
mological roots. This process resulted in a large and wide range
of words being associated with the title. The number is cer-
tainly wider than we would have obtained had we confined the
analysis to inflections of the three stems. And while quantity is
not the objective of this analysis, the large number of words
associated with the title and with each other suggests the pres-
ence of something more than mere repetition.
At a minimum, the 267 deri vatives could be t he raw material
from which repetition in narrative is constructed, the kind of
repetition called thematic patterning, leitwortstil, verbal corre-
spondence, repetitive designation in the literature on folkloric
narrative. As such, we will at this juncture identify four themes
derived from the above analysis—daylight, purity, sight/insight,
and conceal/cover. Repetition of these themes is evidenced by
the occurrence in the screenplay of the derivatives found in
Tables 2-5, respectively.
The Distribution of Derivatives across Scenes
In our second proposition we argued that the repetition of
derivatives would be extensive, as measured by their presence
in the large majority of the screenplay’s 174 scenes. As we
expected, this proposition is also strongly supported: 163 of the
174 scenes contain one or more derivatives—nearly 94%. The
average is 5.3 derivatives per scene with twenty-one derivatives
being the most contained in any one of them. Other aspects of
the distribution of the derivatives across the scenes reveal much
about their role in the narrative. Twenty-three scenes contain 11
or more derivatives—over twice the average. These scenes
were easily grouped according to one or more story or thematic
pat- terns, as described by Pinault (1992) and by Yen (1974). In
addition, these patterns are supported by repetition of related
derivatives. For example, in Scene 28 Oscar, Rose’s son, dis-
covers and shows considerable interest in his late grand-
mother’s binoculars. Unfortunately for Oscar they have much
sentimental value for his grandfather, Joe, who takes them
away after Oscar nearly damages them. In Scene 162 Oscar
gets the binoculars as his 8th birthday present. The word bin-
ocular and binoculars appear a total of sixteen times in the
screenplay, fourteen of which are found in these two scenes.
They descend from the roots dwo- (two) and okw- (to see). The
latter was one of several roots associated with the theme
sight/insight. This is a clear example of Pinault’s (1992) “re-
petitive designation”, i.e. “repeated references to some charac-
ter or object), of leitwortstil, i.e. “a word or word root that re-
curs significantly in a text”, of “thematic patterning”, i.e. “re-
current vocabulary”, and an “accumulation of descriptive phra-
ses around selected objects”. Other equally significant instances
are evident among the 23 scenes.
In Scenes 40 and 52 belong depict Joe, Rose’s father, in the
course of his work as an independent salesman. In Scene 40 we
find him at a local bar discussing sales of the latest product he
is hawking—“Fancy Corn”. In Scene 52 we see him on a sales
call, trying to convince a candy store owner to stock “Fancy
Cor n ” an d to p ro mo t e i t a s “ wh o l e so me ” a n d as a “health food”.
When the store owner balks at this suggestion, Joe signals
Oscar to deploy a ruse to convince the store owner that there is
growing demand for the product. Derivatives of two etymo-
logical roots are common to both scenes—sak- (to seek out)
and sta- (to stand). Both of these roots were previously shown
to be associated with the sight/insight theme. One derivative of
the former root is found in both scenes—sake. In both scenes
the word is part of dialog spoken by Joe, dialog that evidences
repetition extending beyond the word itself. Specifically, in
scene 40 Joe uses the word in a discussion with a regular bar
patron about the pace of “Fancy Corn” sales: “It’ll get there.
Takes time to get to know the market. Develop a relationship
with the buyers. But it’ll get there. Who doesn’t like popcorn
for Christ’s sake.” In Scene 52, he uses the word again in the
same context, this time when speaking to the store owner:
Table 4.
Roots and derivatives associated with synonyms of “sight” and “insight”.
Theme Synonym Roots Derivatives Appearing in the Screenplay
SIGHT afterimage aim (copy) image, imaginable, imagine
INSIGHT acumen ak (sharp) acumen, heaven, heavens
SIGHT appearance apparere (to come forth, be vi sible) appear, appears, disappear, disappears
INSIGHT judgment deik (to show, pronounce solem nl y) condition, index, indicates, indicating, teacher, teachers, teach, teaching,
toes, toke
INSIGHT wavelength del-1 (long) long, alon g, belong, lounges
SIGHT apprehension ghend (to seize, take) forgotten, guess, pregnant, reprieve
SIGHT ken gno (to know) acknowledging, acknowledgement, acquainted, can, could, enormous,
ignore, ignores, kne w, know, knowing, known, knows, knowledge,
normally, note, notes, notice, noticed, not ices, recognition
SIGHT apperception, perception kap (to grasp) accept, anticipation, behavior, catch, catches, chases, chasing, concept,
cop, except, heavy, occupies, receive, receiver , recovery
INSIGHT discernment krei (to sieve, discriminate, distinguish)concern, crime, critical, excrement, secretary
SIGHT eye, eyes, eyeshot, eyesightokw (to see) binocular, binoculars, eye, eyeballs, eyebrow, eyelash, eyes, window,
INSIGHT sagacious sag (to seek out) sake
SIGHT seeing sekw-2 (to pe r ceive, see) saw, see, see i n g , seen, sees, sight, si ghts
SIGHT observing spek (to observe) self-respecting, expecting, expect
INSIGHT understanding sta (to stand) assistant, circumstances, distance, distant, real estate, resist, rest,
restaurant, restaurants, res t s , s tand, standing, stands, state, s tation, statue ,
stay, steady, st eering, stool, store, stores
INSIGHT wavelength webh (to weave, to move quickly) wave, waves, weaves
SIGHT view, viewing, vision,
visibility weid (to see) advice, envied, guidelines, guy, guys, histo r y, idea, ideas, provides,
stories, story, supervise, surveys, visit, TV
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 15
Table 5.
Roots and derivatives associated with “conceal and cover”.
Roots Derivatives in Sunshine Cleaning
kel-1 (to cover, conceal, save) asshole, cell, colored, discolored, doghouse, hallway, hold, holding, holds, hole, house, warehouses
skeu- (to cover, conceal) hose, hut, recoils, sky
steg- (to cove r) detective, detective s , p r ot ective, tile
wer-4 (to cover) over, coveralls
JOE: Read that.
The manager leans close.
MANAGER: High fructose--
JOE: No. The first thing listed. The number one ingredient.
JOE: Exactly. Corn. Can you think of anything more
wholesome? It’s all American for Christ’s sake.
The manager’s not buying it. Oscar takes action. He posi-
tions himself next to the girl.
Recall earlier that the root sta- was related to the sight/insight
theme by way of the word “understanding”, one of the syno-
nyms of “insight”. Four derivatives of sta- appear five times in
Scenes 40 and 52: understand, restaurants, stool, and store.
Another eight scenes depict Rose as she manages and oper-
ates her cleaning service. In Scenes 60 and 61 Rose and Norah
make their first visit to Winston’s cleaning supply store where
they get advice and information about competitors along with
their purchase. In Scene 73, she brings Oscar with her and
proudly shows Winston the logo that Oscar made for her new
business cards. Winston also gives Rose advice on how to
market her service to funeral homes and insurance companies.
In Scene 76 Rose buys a van for carrying her equipment and
supplies while Scenes 89 and 91 find her and Norah arriving at
a home where an elderly man has earlier committed suicide.
Rose tenderly comforts the grief-stricken widow as she waits
for a family member to arrive. Scenes 132 and 151 are closely
linked, as well. In the former, while preparing to attend Paula’s
baby-shower, Rose receives a call from a State Farm insurance
agent offering her a rush job. In what turns out to be a major
lapse in her judgment, Rose sends Norah alone to start the job,
promising to arrive after she leaves the shower. In Scene 151,
when Rose does finally arrive, she finds the whole house ablaze,
fire trucks surrounding it, and learns that Norah’s carelessness
was the cause.
As shown in Table 6, below, 62 derivatives of 30 roots are
repeated 107 times in these eight scenes. The relationship of the
roots and derivatives to their parent themes is readily apparent,
the most strongly emphasized theme being, once again, sight/
insight. Specifically, 27 derivatives associated with thirteen
roots are found 37 times in these eight scenes, an amount far
more than with any other theme or stem.
Frequency Distribution of the Derivatives
Recall that our third proposition predicted that the observed
frequency of words associated with themes would exceed the
average or expected frequency. In other to determine these
expected values, we turned to Davies (2009, 2012) Corpus of
Contemporary American English (COCA). According to its
creator, that corpus is “the largest freely-available corpus of
English, and the only large and balanced corpus of American
English” (Davies, 2012). The corpus is “equally divided among
spoken, fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, and academic
texts” and contains over 400 million words, twenty-million
each from 1990-2009 (ibid). The fiction texts in the COCA are
further divided into several sub-categories including Science
Fiction/Fantasy, Juvenile, General-Journalism, General-Books,
and Movies.
The 267 derivatives identified above appear 975 times in the
screenplay of Sunshine Cleaning—nearly 5% or one in every
twenty of the 20,432 words. According to the Movies sub-cate-
gory of the COCA, the expected frequency of these words in a
screenplay of this length is 581 times or just 2.8% of the total.
The latter is over 70% lower and a highly significant difference
statistically. Figure 2 below plots the observed versus expected
frequencies of the derivatives by stem and theme. In every in-
stance the observed frequency is much higher than expected.
The differences range from a low of just 28% for the deriva-
tives associated with “pure” to a 900% difference for deriva-
tives associated with “clean.” Statistically, all of these differ-
ences are highly significant for a screenplay with 20,432 words.
Notably, the highest percentage differences are found among
the first three stems—sun, shine, and clean. It is also notewor-
thy that the derivatives associated with the “sight” and “insight”
appear far more often than those associated with any other
theme. Also, the repetition of words associated with that theme
is very extensive: the 388 appearances of these 123 related
derivatives are found in 123 of the screenplay’s 174 scenes—
just under 71%.
Taken together, these results strongly support the third propo-
sition, i.e. that the observed frequency of words associated with
major themes exceeds that associated with the typical contem-
porary screenplay. Recall that we expected this because of the
relationships of theme and words to genre. That makes the dif-
ference one of kind rather than quality. That is to say, we would
expect any screenplay belonging to an identifiable genre to
differ significantly from a representative sample of screenplays
from many genres. What is noteworthy, however, is that we
have a significantly higher number of words being repeated in
support of the themes—over 400—most of which would not
have been identified by any other methods than those described
Earlier in this paper we offered three propositions concerning
the form, extensiveness, and frequency of the repetition of w or ds
associated with this screenplay’s themes. As expected, we
found strong support for all three. Regarding the first proposition ,
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Table 6.
Recurring them es , roots an d derivatives in eight scenes depicting rose at wor k.
Source Stem or Theme Root Derivatives Occurrences of Derivatives
title sun sawel (the sun) sun, sunshine, sunlight, sunroom 7
title shine bha-1 (to shine) Fancy 1
title shine bhel-1 (to shine, flash, burn) Blue 3
title shine ghel-2 (to shine; colors) glasses, golden, yellow 3
title shine kweit (white; to shine) White 2
title clean claene (clean, pure) clean, clean-up, cleaner , cleaners, cleaning 14
title clean peu (to purify, cleanse) Pours 2
sunshine daylight ayer (day, morning) Earlier 1
sunshine daylight legwh (light, having little weight)Lightly 1
sunshine daylight leuk (light, brightness ) Sunlight 1
purblind pure ag (to drive, d o) actually, exactly 2
purblind pure dhe (to set, put) difficult, doing, does, done 7
purblind pure pele-1 (to fil l , abundance) full, supply, supplies 8
purblind pure tere-2 (to cross over, p ass through )Through 2
purblind insight aim (copy) Image 1
purblind insight ak (sharp) heaven, heavens 2
purblind insight deik (to show) Indicates 2
purblind insight ghend (to seize, take) Forgotten 1
purblind insight gno (to know) note, notice, noticed, notices 4
purblind insight kap (to grasp) Recovery 1
purblind insight krei (to sieve, disc riminate) Crime 1
purblind insight okw (to see) eye, window, windows 4
purblind insight sekw-2 (to pe rceive, see) Sight 1
purblind insight spek (to observe) Expect 1
purblind insight sta (to stand) rests, stand, stands, stay, state farm, steering wheel, store 13
purblind insight webh (to weave) Waves 1
purblind insight weid (to see) TV, guidelines, s urveys 5
purblind cover/conceal kel-1 (to cover, conceal, save) hold, holds, house, 13
purblind cover/conceal skeu (to cover, conceal) hose, pantyhose 2
purblind cover/conceal steg (to cover) Protective 1
we expected and found repetition of words taking several rhe-
torical and grammatical forms, among them polyptoton, i.e.
inflection, declension, and conjugation of a stem; paregmenon,
i.e. repetition of words derived from the same etymological root;
homonymy, i.e. repetition of words with the same sound and/or
spelling but with different meaning; and finally, compounding,
i.e. repetition of a word through combination with one or more
other words.
Our second proposition was that these forms of repetition
would be extensive. Specifically, we argued that the repetition
would present in a large majority of the screenplay’s scenes.
This prediction was strongly supported, as evidenced by the
fact that at least one derivative and as many as twenty-one de-
rivatives were found in every one on the screenplay’s 174 sce-
The final proposition concerned the frequency of the afore-
mentioned repetition of theme-associated words. As in with the
preceding two, this prediction was also very strongly supported.
In particular we found that the observed frequency of deriva-
tives associated with themes was far in excess of the expected
frequency. We this comparison was made according to theme,
we found the observed frequency of derivatives exceeding the
expected frequency by as little as 38% to over 900%. Interest-
ingly, derivatives associated with the theme “insight” appeared
the most frequently—some 388 times in the screenplay—and
were found in the greatest number of scenes—123 of 174. This
suggests that though this move is ostensibly about a crime
scene clean-up business, our results suggest it is really about
insight, about developing the capacity to discern the true and
inner causes of a situation.
To the best of our knowledge, ours is the first study of
screenplays to close text analysis and techniques from corpus
linguistics to the study of a screenplay. We also believe that the
results that arise from these methods of analysis are unique of
among studies of the narrative and structure of screenplays.
More importantly, we think that these results can make impor-
tant and unique contributions to the extant literature on screen-
writing theory and practice. The most important of these may
be for character development and its link to the plot. At the risk
of oversimplifying, we note in the screenwriting literature a
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 17
Figure 2.
Frequency distribution of derivatives by stem and theme.
strong distinction between structure and plot-driven (e.g. Field,
2005) and character-driven (e.g. Viders et al., 2006) approaches.
There are dozens of books promoting each approach, few if any
of which integrate them. And while we can affect no such rec-
onciliation here, we note that the same roots and derivatives
that pervade Sunshine Cleaning, that underlie the thematic pat-
terns and character arcs, are also used to describe the characters
themselves. Our future research will more deeply investigate
the etymological roots of character, as well as the relationship
between the repetition of roots and derivatives, character, and
narrative structure.
As we proceed we intend to remain cognizant of the limita-
tions of this study and this approach. In this study we applied
techniques of computational linguistics to the study of a con-
temporary screenplay. Although we can point to measures like
word counts, our approach involves a mixture of qualitative and
quantitative methods—methods that we think complement each
other well. That is to say, together they produced results that
would not be possible if employed independent. That said, there
is considerable element of choice in our approach which tilts
the balance decidedly in favor of the qualitative or subjective
element. The words and their etymologies are relatively fixed,
but our decision to employ synonyms of key words, as well as
roots with synonymous definitions, means that the results here
are not completely replicable. That having been said, the gen-
eral approach we adopted can surely be used on other screen-
plays. For example, consider how the methods described here
could be applied to The Hurt Locker, the Academy Award
winner for best original screenplay and best motion picture in
2010. Following the analysis of Sunshine Cleaning, we would
find the etymological roots of “hurt” and “locker” as well as
those of their close synonyms. From there we would examine
the screenplay for the presence of other derivatives of those
roots. At some point along the way dominant themes would
emerge and the grouping of the repeated words by theme would
occur. Relationships among the title words (or their stems)
would then be examined for evidence of thematic-patterning.
Such an analysis might again direct our gaze upon the unstated
premise, the primary theme of the story. Obviously, the title
would not be the place to begin if applying this method to
movies with unusual titles like Thelma and Louise, Alfie, Rambo,
or Forest Gump. However, in the former example the word
“outlaw” might serve the same purpose. Regardless of the
starting point, it is clear that our method rises and falls on the
analysis of etymological roots or word histories. Given that that
“history” and “story” descend from the same root, weid-, which
means “to see”, perhaps we should not be surprised at what this
approach reveals about this largely invisible as p e c t of nar r a ti v e .
The authors would like to thank E. Anna Claydon, Jesse
Stommel, Donald McCorkindale, Debra Call, Liahna Arm-
strong, and other participants of the 2010 Rocky Mountain
Modern Language Association conference for their many in-
sightful and supportive comments on an earlier draft of this
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