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How Theme Works in a Screenplay

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by Naomi in screenwriting, theme
screenwriting article

If there’s one area that screenwriters seem to struggle with grasping, it’s theme. Part of the confusion may just be that everyone comes at theme in their own way and has their own understanding of what it is and how it works.

With that in mind, I’m going to throw my two cents in as well – but remember, this is just my own understanding of theme. If it helps you form your understanding, great! If not, then you should absolutely disregard and continue to explore and analyze and process until you find what works for you.

Why should we even bother with theme?

The stories that resonate the most, that stick with audiences after the movie itself has ended, that become all-time favorites, that people return to again and again, are the stories that make people feel something and feel it deeply. And one way a movie can do that is through a strong and compelling theme.

Even if the person viewing the movie or reading the screenplay isn’t consciously aware of the message they’re receiving, they are absorbing that message. It’s what we do, after all. Human animals look for meaning. We seek out patterns to interpret. We do this to understand our surroundings and how to survive in them.

So a strong and compelling theme helps your story connect with and move an audience. A strong theme makes it more than entertainment; it becomes a meaningful experience.

What is theme?

Simply put, theme is the takeaway message of your screenplay.

Others describe theme in broader terms, things like “revenge” or “love” or “grief.” But I think of those as thematic arenas, and the actual theme of your story as something a little more precise.

The story’s theme is the point of view on the thematic arena. It could be (and probably is) your personal opinion on the subject, but it doesn’t have to be.

How does theme show up in a screenplay?

By far the most common way for that takeaway message to be delivered is through the main character.

We watch the main character experience the events of the story. Through this experience, the character learns something about himself or the world. Whatever he or she learns is essentially the theme (or very closely related to it, if you want to get ultra precise).

So the main character’s journey (and often his or her character arc) is the primary way the theme shows up in a screenplay.

When used well, theme is also the organizing principle for the story as a whole. Every element of the story can be used to reflect an aspect of the theme you are exploring. Supporting characters, relationships between characters, dialogue, settings, the way subplots play out – all of it.

Common theme types

Themes tend to fall into one of two categories:

1. Survival messages, or Rules for Living, and
2. Hope messages, or There’s Beauty in the Struggle.

No matter which thematic arena you’re playing in, the precise theme will likely fall into one of these two types. Whatever you’re saying about “love” or “revenge” will probably be a Rule for Living in relation to love or revenge, or a hope message in relation to love or revenge. Make sense?

Examples of Theme in screenplays

My current favorite example is Hell or High Water. I interpret the theme of this movie to be, “Survival is a zero sum game; for one to live another must die.”

We see this in the arc of the main character. Toby (Chris Pine) goes from prioritizing the safety and wellbeing of the innocent bystanders of his crimes, to a person who is willing to fight to the death to ensure his sons’ secure future.

The movie’s plot events cause this change in the main character’s outlook. Over the course of the movie he’s forced to recommit to an increasingly dangerous endeavor. As he faces the possibility of his own death, as well as the outcome that failure will bring, he accepts the only way to succeed is to let go of his old, passive world view.

You may not agree with the sentiment, but this theme is a survival message, a Rule for Living. It tells how how to survive in the world.

Another example is The Silence of the Lambs. I interpret the theme of this movie to be, “We can’t change the past, but we can determine who we are now.”

This theme is reflected in the main character’s arc. We see Clarice (Jodie Foster) go from an ambitious but insecure FBI trainee, to an agent who can match wits with the notorious Hannibal Lecter, as well as prove her ability to solve a challenging case and save a woman from a serial killer.

The theme is also reflected in antagonist Buffalo Bill, a man who kills women in order to wear their skins – effectively changing who he is. That’s the dark version of the theme. It serves as a counterpoint and helps give the movie cohesiveness to have every component exploring aspects of one idea.

The experience of being “mentored” by Hannibal Lecter and of catching Buffalo Bill changes Clarice’s world view. Without the events of this story, she might never have felt capable and secure in her abilities. She might continue trying to make up for her past shortcomings forever.

This theme is a message of hope, or a reassurance that There is Beauty in the Struggle. Even if we experience pain or trauma, it doesn’t have to define who we are. We can learn and grow, and choose who we are going forward.

How can you apply this?

In one of my recent workshops the question came up of whether it was necessary to know the theme before writing a screenplay.

And the short answer is ‘no’ – Every writer’s process is different, and might even be different from one screenplay to the next.

You might not know the theme of the screenplay you’re working on right now. You might have an idea of the thematic arena you’re playing in, but not have the precise takeaway figured out. Or you might just have a story you want to tell because you had an idea for an interesting concept or character, and you have no idea of what the story will say in the thematic sense.

And that’s okay. It’s not uncommon to write a first draft as your own personal exploration of what you’re trying to say. Sometimes you have to get the story out as a complete thing, before you can get enough perspective on it to see what the takeaway is.

As you begin to flesh out the story, where can you look to find clues to the theme? The protagonist’s character arc is a likely place. Whether you’re in the outlining phase or the rewriting phase or anywhere in between, you can look at what the main character learns and/or how they change because of the events of the story. That lesson or realization will be closely related to the theme.

Whether you know the theme up front or you need to write the story first to figure it out, your story has a message. And whenever you have a grasp on what that is you can begin to use it to organize the components of your story so that takeaway is clear to the audience too. Once you know what it is you’re trying to say it makes it much easier to decide what goes and what stays, what choices to make, and how to present things. Because everything serves that takeaway.

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.

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