Until you know what you are trying to say, your work isn’t complete.
The writing process is a search for meaning, a theme, what the story is really about, what gives it meaning and a purpose for being, besides making millions of dollars for stars and movie studios.
Theme is a unifying idea or motif, repeated or developed throughout a work.
Once you have something you want to write about (Idea), defined the Premise and Concept, and know what your genre is, you need to know what the intention, objective or controlling idea – theme – of your story is.
- Story is what happens
- Plot is how the what happens
- Character is who the what happens to
- Setting is where the what happens
- Theme is why the what happens
You have to have a clear understanding of what story it is you are trying to tell.
A good analogy is trying to sweeten a glass of ice tea. Mix regular sugar and it will sink to the bottom, making it bitter except for the bottom, which will be too sweet. Try it with Equal, and the tea will be sweet throughout. Sweetness is your message, and it must be completely diluted to disappear into the beverage of entertainment.
Karl Iglesias, The 101 Habits Of Successful Screenwriters
All great writing is about something
Professional screenwriters do not commit several years on a screenplay unless they have something to say.
Because writers are great observers and often sensitive souls, successful screenwriters are able to recognise and offer insights into the human condition.
Great stories have powerful themes, but they are told in an entertaining way.
The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
Genre: Set in present day San Francisco, the film is a reality-based cautionary tale, a science fiction/science fact blend. The film uses the science fiction genre to explore bigger worlds and ideas
Tagline: Evolution becomes revolution
Premise: What will happen if man’s experiments with genetic engineering lead to the development of intelligence in apes and the onset of a war for supremacy?
Concept: When a scientist working within a large pharmaceutical corporation is committed to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s to save his father, his generic research develops a super intelligent ape that establishes a new social order amongst apes and leads them in a revolution against the human race.
Theme: Humanity’s pride and arrogance. Our superiority in thinking that we can twist, push, cheat, or circumvent the laws of nature, without consequences.
So what exactly is theme?
- Theme is the glue that holds your story together and resonates throughout the telling of your story.
- It makes writing meaningful: It opens up the story’s inner value system (Internal Content), so that writers can make a conscious connection with what the story really wants to communicate to them and through them.
- It is the underlying Universal Human Question your story deals with.
- It gives as a reason why we should care; it reflects the characters’ desire, conflicts, and actions that give us a reason why we care about how the story turns out and reveals itself at the end.
- It underlies the story: if you want to express that ‘Greed is Bad’, write a story in which greed destroys people’s lives.
- It connects characters: all the main characters in your story reflect the theme in some way. If the theme is ‘Redemption’, some characters start out fallen and are redeemed; some are fallen and are never redeemed; and some are already redeemed.
- It leaves the reader and audience with an understanding of why the problem and the actions of the characters are relevant.
- It is the abstract issue and feelings that grow out of the dramatic action.
- It gives meaning to the activity of the plot and purpose to the movement of the characters.
It is important to consider whether your theme will resonate with your intended audience.
Effectively, the key questions are: what is at stake for the audience, either emotionally or intellectually, in this story, as suggested by the themes?
Examples of themes from ground breaking films:
In Jaws a young woman is killed by a shark while skinny-dipping near the New England tourist town of Amity Island. The police chief Martin Brody wants to close the beaches, but mayor Larry Vaughn overrules him, fearing that the loss of tourist revenue will cripple the town. Ichthyologist Matt Hooper and grizzled ship captain Quint offer to help Brody capture the killer beast, and the trio engage in an epic battle of man vs. nature.
Theme: Nature is still bigger than you
In The Sixth Sense Young Cole Sear is haunted by a dark secret: he is visited by ghosts. Cole is frightened by visitations from those with unresolved problems who appear from the shadows. He is too afraid to tell anyone about his anguish, except child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe. As Dr. Crowe tries to uncover the truth about Cole’s supernatural abilities, the consequences for client and therapist are a jolt that awakens them both to something unexplainable.
Theme: Guilt versus redemption
In Chinatown Los Angeles private eye J.J. “Jake” Gittes is hired by Evelyn Mulwray to investigate her husband’s activities, he believes it’s a routine infidelity case. Jake’s investigation soon becomes anything but routine when he meets the real Mrs. Mulwray and realizes he was hired by an imposter. Mr. Mulwray’s sudden death sets Gittes on a tangled trail of corruption, deceit and sinister family secrets as Evelyn’s father becomes a suspect in the case.
Theme: Decency is not enough to defeat corruption
Braveheart tells the story of the legendary thirteenth century Scottish hero named William Wallace who rallies the Scottish against the English monarch and Edward I after he suffers a personal tragedy by English soldiers. Wallace gathers a group of amateur warriors that is stronger than any English army.
Theme: Freedom is worth dying for
Widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, the mob drama The Godfather, based on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name, focuses on the powerful Italian-American crime family of Don Vito Corleone. When the don’s youngest son, Michael, reluctantly joins the Mafia, he becomes involved in the inevitable cycle of violence and betrayal. Although Michael tries to maintain a normal relationship with his wife, Kay, he is drawn deeper into the family business.
Theme: Family is the most important thing
Star Wars is an American epic space opera franchise, centered on a film series created by George Lucas. It depicts the adventures of various characters “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”
Theme: Faith can defeat empires
Theme focuses your material
Your sense of theme will give focus to your story material.
A substantial comprehension of what’s coming across thematically in your developing script will inform:
- The style in which you write the story
- The plot you devise
- How you define and develop your characters
- How you create and resolve your protagonist’s dilemma
- How you resolve your story
The Functions Of Theme
A clear statement of theme provides a focal point, a unifying thread around which to weave the dramatic action.
Theme permeates your story
Theme works from the inside out, saturating the plot and the characters with certain energy.
The writer is often not aware at first of the thematic depth in the plot, because the total focus is usually on telling the best story possible.
Once the theme is identified, it:
- Lends a sense of vision to the piece
- Gathers the material into one main action
- Infuses it with resonance and a sense of meaning
Many writers can only clutch abstractly at what they think is the theme of their script.
This inability to come to terms with the story’s underlying idea can weaken the material.
The writer misses the clarifying and strengthening effect that having a grasp of theme brings to the process.
If you will say that the theme of your story is teen suicide, you might find that it’s just one of the elements in the story, but not the theme.
If you would focus on how the character resolves the dilemma in the story that would become the theme of the story.
You would be looking into the mind of a self-destructive character.
Perhaps the suicide is a wakeup call.
This, then, becomes the governing idea, what the story is about thematically.
The theme informs the entire plot and
- Ties it together
- Sustains the story
- Shapes the story
- Anticipates the story
- Drives the story
- Sets the tone of the story
In the story on teen suicide, the focus will be on the mechanics of the character ruining his or her life, exploring the transformation that culminates in death.
In Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler aging wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson is long past his prime but still ready and rarin’ to go on the pro-wrestling circuit. After a particularly brutal beating, however, Randy hangs up his tights, pursues a serious relationship with a long-in-the-tooth stripper, and tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter. But he can’t resist the lure of the ring and readies himself for a comeback.
The Wrestler is not merely the story of a retired wrestling legend, but thematically deals with the downward spiral of a man who desperately wants to live a life he has never known, a life outside fame, an ordinary life outside his extraordinary existence.
The audience come to care about the character and the action he takes shocks them profoundly. The theme resonates on a deep level because the audience will see the inescapably truth about their own failures and flaws. That is the power of great tragedy.
Copyright © 1999 – 2017 The Writing Studio