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How to Find Character Arc and Theme in a Screenplay

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What’s the point of telling a story if it doesn’t elicit a reaction?

Every story ever told has some kind of desired response attached to it. We want to entertain, or caution, or inspire, or otherwise make the audience feel something.

Plot and structure help to achieve that reaction, of course, but we don’t want to overlook the two main elements that really create the meaning of the story: character arc and theme.

What makes a story meaningful?

Meaning comes from a specific type of cause and effect. We understand what a story means from seeing the effect the plot has on the main character (primarily), and understanding how the experience has transformed them.

Interpreting that transformation gives us character arc and theme, which go hand in hand. When we’re analyzing a story, we can look at them together to understand how that story conveys its meaning to the audience.

So that’s what we’re aiming to identify in this week’s exercise, and we’ll do so by answering 3 questions:

1. How does the character change?

What is character arc? Here’s a definition from Wikipedia:

A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person and gradually transforms into a different sort of person in response to changing developments in the story.

Often, at the beginning of a story, the character has some kind of flawed worldview. You might think of it as a lie they’re telling themselves. Or a character flaw or deficit. That’s their starting point.

Then they go on the journey of the story, and the experience causes them to change in some way. It forces them to address that starting-point flaw and develop a new, healthier worldview. To become a “better” person.

For example, in Bridesmaids protagonist Annie is living in denial and is really sort of stuck in a life rut when we meet her. And by the end of the movie she’s accepted responsibility for herself and her actions and she’s moving forward in her life again.

Here’s your challenge this week: choose a script to read, and try to identify how the main character changes from the beginning of the story to the end.

2. How do the events of the story cause that change?

Just plugging in any old character change isn’t going to create meaning, though. We need to see how and why that transformation occurred. We need to see how the events of this particular plot forced the character to change their “flawed” way of being into something healthier.

The specific experience the character goes through in this story is what causes the transformation. Remember, that clear cause-and-effect is important for conveying meaning. If we can’t see or understand how this set of experiences is the reason for the change the character undergoes, the story won’t land with the impact you intend.

In Bridesmaids, Annie’s best friend is moving into the next phase of life while Annie is still stuck. In order to hold onto her friend, Annie has to try to “keep up” as she fulfills Maid of Honor duties. These events force her to re-evaluate her own life.

So after you’ve identified the character’s change, then ask whether and how the events in this plot cause that change.

3. What is the resulting takeaway message?

I like to think of theme as the takeaway message of the screenplay. Theme is whatever lesson or philosophical idea the story as a whole imparts to the audience.

Theme pervades every corner of a good screenplay. But by far the most common way for that takeaway message to be delivered is through the main character, which is why character arc and theme go hand-in-hand.

We watch the main character experience the events of the story. Through this experience, the character learns something about himself or the world. That lesson or realization prompts a change in the character’s behavior.

Whatever he or she learns – that lesson or realization which changes their behavior – is essentially the theme.

Another way to look at it is:

We see a character change in order to better navigate the events of the plot, and that change demonstrates the lesson that is the theme of the story. It’s better to be this type of person if we want to succeed.

To look at our Bridesmaids example again: Annie starts the movie living in denial. She fights change in her life, clinging desperately to the way things are, even though they’re not making her truly happy. By the end of the movie she has learned that you can’t avoid change so you might as well go for the life you want – which gives us a nice working theme for the movie.

So the main character’s arc is the primary way the theme shows up in a screenplay. Specifically, the lesson or realization that causes them to finally turn that corner and do things differently than they were in the beginning of the story.

After looking at the character’s arc, can you identify the lesson or realization at the heart of their change?

Will this challenge transform your point of view?

Meaningful stories are most often about some kind of change. That transformation and what we understand as the reason for it gives us the theme of the story. So in this way, character arc and theme go hand in hand.

In order to really land that meaning, though, we need to be able to interpret the change through a clear (though not necessarily extreme) contrast between how the character starts the story and how they are in the end. And we also need to be able to see how the character’s experiences in this story caused that change.

Since this series is about reading screenplays to see what we can learn about screenwriting, choose a screenplay to read this week with a specific focus on character arc and theme.

Think about:

  • How does the character change?
  • How is that change caused by what the character experiences in this script?
  • What is the takeaway message?

And as always, it’s important to think about how we see each of these things in the script. What’s the evidence on the page that points to your answers?

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe