Confused About Theme? Your Questions, Answered


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by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting, theme

If you’ve read all the screenwriting books, watched all the videos and still feel confused by what Theme is and how to use it effectively, today I’m going to try to bring some clarity.

But if you’re wondering why we should even bother with theme…

That’s fair. It’s not plot. It’s not character. (Although, more on that in a moment.) So if it’s not those important elements you know you have to have or there’s no screenplay…

Is Theme even necessary?

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 thematic 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.

Unfortunately, many writers get overwhelmed and so they skip thinking about Theme altogether. They might feel intimidated because they think they have to say something unique or profound. Or they’re confused about how Theme works and how it shows up in a screenplay, so instead they focus on the more straightforward aspects like plot and character.

It’s hard to use Theme well if you don’t understand how it works

But if you ignore Theme, you’re missing an opportunity to make your story as meaningful as it can be.

Some of the writing potholes I see writers fall into include:

  • Ignoring Theme altogether, as mentioned above.
  • Leaning into Theme so much that it feels heavy-handed or preachy.
  • Including several themes, which ends up diffusing the power of any one of them and ultimately confusing the reader.

Let’s make sure you avoid these traps by answering your questions.

A simple definition of Theme

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

And I want to underline the “message” part.

You might hear Theme defined in broader terms, things like “revenge” or “love” or “grief.” That’s a good place to start. But I think of those as thematic arenas or areas.

The actual theme of your story is likely something a bit more precise. A “message” is a more complete thought. More instructive. A statement of some sort on the subject or thematic area.

The story’s theme could be your point of view or personal opinion on the thematic area, but it doesn’t have to be. It might just be a take that you find interesting and want to explore.

Here are a few examples to get you thinking:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” (Absolute Power)

“The approval of others isn’t what makes you a ‘winner’, it’s living by your own standards.” (Little Miss Sunshine)

“Great love defies even death.” (Titanic; Romeo & Juliet)

“Life is precious and worth the struggle.” (Jungle Cruise)

“Change is inevitable, so you must keep trying and taking action to get the life you want.” (Bridesmaids)

The way the story ultimately nets out expresses the Theme, that takeaway message, for the audience.

How inextricably tied are Theme and Character?

This is one of the questions I received last week on the topic of Theme and it’s one I hear pretty often from writers. The short answer: very.

By far the most common way for the 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, and how to be better, do better, or otherwise successfully navigate life. Whatever he or she learns is essentially the theme.

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

Are characters essentially just embodiments of theme?

This is another question that was submitted last week, and it’s a good one. Actually, the question in full is:

“Are characters essentially just embodiments of theme? And do all of their actions absolutely need to serve the overall theme 100% of the time, or should the theme represent more of a moral code that merely informs a character’s decisions and actions?”

Rather than looking at characters as embodiments of the theme (although I do think this can be true), it might be more useful to think about supporting characters from the function they perform in the script. Specifically, the function they fulfill in the protagonist’s journey to learn the thematic lesson.

The important supporting characters in a story help push the protagonist along their arc of change. They tend to, in some way, “help” the protagonist learn the thematic lesson.

I say “help” because it doesn’t always feel like they’re helping, but their actions cause, force, or contribute to that learning.

A related question I received was: “How can I make sure my main characters carry Theme throughout the whole script?”

I’d say the same approach applies here. If your protagonist’s transformation hinges on learning the thematic lesson (and it probably should), and the supporting characters’ functions are to push the protagonist toward that lesson, then the cumulative effect will be that the characters all feel like they’re revolving around the theme.

Their presence in the script will relate to the theme, and if you plot out their beats with that function in mind, then they will carry the theme throughout the script. And that helps the script as a whole feel like it’s having “one conversation about one thing.” (That “thing” being the theme.)

What are some ways to subtly imbue theme into character without coming across as pretentious?

A supporting character’s function doesn’t have to feel obvious or on-the-nose. If their function is baked into the story, an integrated piece of the puzzle, I think you’re much less likely to end up with something that feels tacked-on, on-the-nose, or pretentious.

I wrote about CODA as an example here, but to summarize: as long as the characters are living out their distinct individual points of view and experiences, then what they contribute to the story will feel authentic and not contrived.

This is why I think it’s a good idea to think about the four function categories at the beginning of your process, when you’re designing the cast of characters. That way you can create the characters who have a function at their core, but that’s not all they are. You can develop the characters so that backstory and characterization are informed by the function but it all feels organic and under the surface – embedded in who they are.

I get questions about Theme quite often, and it’s honestly one of my favorite things to talk about. I love examining the meaning of a story, whether it’s one I’m consulting on or in a movie I’ve watched. (That’s genuinely one of my favorite podcasts, by the way. Such smart discussions about movies.)

When used well, Theme is 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.


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.