Theme is a much lauded term in screenwriting which has rarely been clearly defined. In its simplest form theme really is the underlying topic screenwriters are exploring in their story. It also expresses various points of view of this topic.
It is also the meaning and logic that resonates with your audiences. It is the moral fiber of your story. In other words, it is the meaning behind the events happening on the screen. It is NOT the plot points which illustrate your theme.
What about the PREMISE of your Screenplay?
Theme is also used interchangeably with PREMISE in screenwriting. Although there is some overlap, they are slightly different. Premise relates to the central question of your story. It is more associated with plot rather than theme.
In order to honor the power of your screenplay, theme has to relate to some aspect of the human condition. It has to connect emotionally with your audiences to understand the motivations behind your main character’s actions.
This approach adds dimension to your theme because it’s presented as a debate, if you will. Consider the theme love conquers all and how this can be explored. It can either result in a crude dichotomy in the affirmative or negative or it can explore the shades in between.
Consider a story in which the main character embarks on a journey to shut down all dating sites after a bad online dating experience. Love only leads to heartache and we’re all going to die alone anyway so why bother? What events in your main character’s backstory might cause them to believe this journey is worthwhile? Is it really that black and white?
Imagine how theme evolves as the main character shuts down every fake profile? Then the theme pivots when she meets Mr. Could Be Mister Right.
In its broader sense theme relates to prevailing morality. It poses questions about our society. Is it acceptable to kill someone? What if they did something to put the tribe at risk? Is it acceptable to sacrifice one life for the greater good? The beauty of morality is that all arguments have a validity.
Theme also relates to your audience perception and understanding of your topic. What do they need to become aware of? What do they need to learn? What is the message they need to walk away with? Even if their prevailing view point isn’t changed, your audience is elevated because they experienced different points of view.
More importantly, theme also refers to the character arc. Do your characters gain enough knowledge to undergo change? Often this begins at some critical incident in which they face a dilemma. They are forced to make a decision. It can be uncomfortable because no option is particularly attractive. Or the main character simply does not know what they need to do or what the outcome might be.
Characters must undergo some level of transformation. Otherwise there isn’t a strong story to sustain it. This can be emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth. In a deeper sense, theme explores your main character’s inner demons and what internal issues they need resolved. Their ultimate change is a form of healing; finding peace and closure in a situation. Perhaps even a deeper understanding so they can proceed with a new set of values.
It explores what a main character wants (or thinks they want) versus what they ultimately need.
The issue of theme is particularly important at the second turning point in traditional three act structured stories. This is where your main character is at their lowest point, full of doubt, pain, vulnerability and confusion. Is it worth proceeding? Should they just walk away?
How should your theme be expressed? Sometimes it can be blatantly verbalized or it can be inferred. If you choose the former, only do it once in your story. However, many audiences like to be given the ingredients to work it out for themselves. It gives them a sense of reasoning and power.
This is the joy of story and how is shapes who we are as humans. Using our previous examples of our main character wanting to shut down every dating website after a bad online dating experience, audience can empathize with the character. They can agree or disagree with her actions. How would they have handled the situation?
Drip feed the theme into your screenplay. Since your main character is undergoing some learning process, so should the audience. We rarely learn in quantum leaps. Even when a character has an epiphany such as one bad online dating experience shouldn’t allow me to avoid future relationships. Although it appears an epiphany is spontaneous, the subconscious mind continually chips away until a breakthrough is made into the conscious mind.
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