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3 Places to Look for Theme in a Screenplay (Or Movie)

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by Naomi in screenwriting, theme
screenwriting article about theme in screenplays and movies

When audiences watch a movie, they don’t consciously analyze the theme. (Unless they’re screenwriters, and then all bets are off.) Usually the audience simply enjoys the movie’s entertainment value – the reason they went to see the movie in the first place.

But if that’s true… then why should screenwriters even bother?

Because even if they’re not consciously aware of it, viewers are absorbing the theme. Their subconscious minds are paying attention, observing the choices you’ve made in constructing the story, and processing what it all means.

What they find and take away is, essentially, theme. That’s the final understanding we get from interpreting how all the pieces of the story work together.

A compelling theme helps your story connect with and move an audience. Your movie or screenplay becomes more than entertainment; it becomes a meaningful experience.

What is theme?

Everyone comes at theme in their own way and has their own understanding of what it is and how it works.

You may have heard others describe theme in broader terms, things like “revenge” or “love” or “grief.” These might be better described as “thematic arenas.” The theme of your story is probably something a little more precise because it reflects a specific angle or take on the thematic arena.

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

And again, it’s a whisper not a proclamation. More often than not theme comes to our subconscious as a cumulative effect of hints and echoes throughout the script. But there are three places you can look where the theme tends to show up in a more prominent way.

Where to look for a screenplay’s theme

Even if theme is a cumulative effect, there are bound to be certain moments or aspects in which the point of the story shines through more brightly. Three of them are:

    1. The major decision your protagonist has to make
    2. The main philosophical difference between two important characters
    3. The protagonist’s character arc

1. The major decision your protagonist has to make

If stories are guides for life and the theme is the takeaway lesson about how to navigate it, then it makes sense that we’d see the theme demonstrated in a defining choice. We watch as the protagonist experiences the events of the story and then decides how to live his life from here forward (as represented by that defining choice).

For example, In Hell or High Water there comes a point toward the end of Act 2 where Toby is faced with a choice: he can fight for what he wants and potentially hurt others, or he himself can die. The movie’s specific point of view is found in that choice. The story tells us that life is a struggle and survival is a zero sum game; for one to live, another must die.

2. The main philosophical difference between two important characters

In Michael Arndt’s great talk on endings, he discusses “philosophical stakes” or the idea that there are two opposing sets of values in stories. Seeing which set wins out in the end is what gives us our takeaway message.

These opposing values tend to be represented in major characters, which makes sense because in screenplays ideas have to be dramatized. Sometimes the opposing values are represented in protagonist vs. antagonist. Sometimes they’re represented in two “mentor” type characters, with the protagonist struggling to reconcile them.

Michael Arndt gives his example from Little Miss Sunshine:

“…I always thought the philosophical stakes were, ‘Do you live your life trying to be an ideal, do you live your life trying to be like Barbie trying to win a beauty contest, or do you try to be yourself.’

Richard is the philosophical antagonist of LMS…  He sees the whole world in terms of winners vs. losers… You’re trying to be a winner and avoid being a loser at all costs.

The philosophical mentor of LMS is Grandpa. He says, ‘We’re gonna have fun tomorrow. We can tell ‘em all to go to hell.’ For Grandpa, life is not about winning the approval of others. It’s about letting yourself be defined by yourself and not being defined by others.”

3. The protagonist’s character arc

The overall change the protagonist goes through is another likely place to notice the theme. We see a character change in order to better navigate the events of the story, and that change demonstrates the lesson of the theme. It’s better to be this type of person if we want to succeed. (And sometimes that “success” is a cautionary tale for the audience.) The overall character arc goes hand-in-hand with the major decision mentioned above.

A good example is Bridesmaids. 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.

Ideally all of three of these things work together. Remember, it’s a cumulative effect across all the parts of your screenplay. But it can be helpful to make special note of these three areas, whether you’re analyzing existing movies to better understand how they work, or in the process of breaking your own story.

Is your theme reflected in any or all of these places? Could it be? Would the story be stronger for it?

ADVANCE YOUR STORY

Starting a screenplay? Pitching a project? Write a logline that launches your screenplay with this free 15+ page guide - including 8 logline templates. Enter your email address below and get it delivered straight to your inbox.

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