You can have great characters, engaging plot, phenomenal dialogue but without a strong theme your screenplay may feel like something is missing. The theme is the underlying subject of your script and without one, you’ll fail to make an emotional connection with your audience, which is the reason we write stories in the first place. So if you're struggling with adding a theme to your script, here are some tips to help you out.
1. Look Early:
Some writers begin with theme. They have something to say or a dramatic question that needs answers. Knowing the theme early on in the process can help your script with direction and help your audience emotionally resonate with your story. So after creating your concept and logline, try to understand your theme before going into character descriptions and heavy outlining. Know what the story is really about.
2. Go Broad:
The best way to find your theme is to look at your story concept or logline and see what universal topics emerge. Despite what some may tell you, Love, Revenge and Grief are not themes but topics that you chose in order to develop a specific argument. Look at your logline or concept and see what characters, images, and moments pop into your head. Then when you nail down those topics, take this next step to develop a specific statement or question you want to declare or pose in your story.
3. Get Specific:
After discovering your topics, it's time to nail down what you’re trying to say in your story. You can go the question or statement route. For example, you can ask: Can money buy happiness? Or form a statement like Self love is the best love. After specifying the theme of your story, characters, moments and plot will arise in a clearer and more emotional way based on the message of your story rather than waiting until the rewrite stage and figuring out the theme then. After figuring out your theme, it's time to add the three main characters to articulate your thematic statement or question.
4. The Big Three:
When looking to express your theme, the most important way to do it is through your protagonist, antagonist and stakes character.
The protagonist represents the unknown side of the theme - they have yet to make a decision. The antagonist represents the bad side of the theme. Leaving the stakes character (often the love interest) to represents the good side of the theme.
After you create your big three, the best way to incorporate your theme is to tie it to your protagonist’s arc. Here is a basic outline of what is should look like:
Act 1: Your protagonist is unaware of the theme and unconsciously goes about life resisting the theme.
Act 2: The protagonist is introduced to challenges that lessen their resistance to the theme.
Act 3: The protagonist either agrees with the theme and changes for the better or resists the theme and ends up worse.
Throughout the story, the protagonist stands on a tightrope, swaying right to left, until they finally fall onto the good or bad side of the thematic argument.
A perfect example comes from the movie Fargo:
The thematic question of the story is “Do you need money to be happy?”
Our antagonists, Carl and Gaer, stand on the bad side, believing that money does make you happy. Our stakes character Marge, the policewoman, stands on the good side, believing money doesn’t make you happy. While Jerry, our protagonist, who starts off desperate for money, leans over to the bad side by the end of act one, allowing his wife to be kidnaped by Carl and Gaer in order to get ransom money from his father-in-law.
Throughout the film, Jerry’s decision to join the bad side leaves a path of unnecessary bloodshed reinforcing Marge’s argument of “You do not need money to be happy.” In the end of the film, Jerry's wife and Carl are killed while Jerry and Geal are arrested. With Jerry’s demise, we get a tragic and emotional ending with a firm answer to our thematic question.
When searching for your theme, think about it as a tug-of-war between opposite perspectives of a statement or question. Then at the the climax, the protagonist choses one side making a statement leaving them for better or worse in the end, giving your audience an emotional ride and showing them that your answer is the right answer.
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