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Writing a script that matters: The importance of theme in movies

When it comes to writing a screenplay, there are a lot of elements to consider. From character development to dialogue, it can be easy to get bogged down in the nitty-gritty details. But there’s one element that often gets overlooked, and it’s a crucial one: theme.

Theme is the underlying message or meaning of your story. It’s what makes your script more than just a collection of characters and events, but a meaningful and impactful narrative. A strong theme can make your script stand out, and can even be the difference between getting a “pass” or a “consider” from a producer or agent.

Now, just to be clear, you don’t have to write with theme in mind but sometimes it can help.

So, how do you use theme in your screenplay? The first step is to figure out what your theme is. This may sound easy, but it can take some digging. Some writers have a clear theme in mind from the start, while others may discover it as they write. Either way, it’s important to take the time to explore what your story is really about.

One way to do this is to ask yourself questions about your characters and their journey. Why do they want what they want? What are they fighting for? What do they learn by the end of the story? These questions can help you get to the heart of your theme.

Once you’ve figured out your theme, it’s time to weave it into your script. This is where the fun begins! There are a few ways to do this, but here are a few tips to get you started:

Use symbols and motifs to reinforce your theme.

Symbolism can be used to reinforce the theme, making sure that the characters’ actions are connected to the symbols and motifs used in the story. These can be anything from a recurring image or object, to a specific color or phrase. For example, in the classic film “The Wizard of Oz,” the yellow brick road symbolizes the characters’ journey towards self-discovery.

Make sure your characters’ actions and decisions reflect your theme.

This means that their choices and actions should be driven by their understanding of the theme, rather than just being arbitrary. Characters should change and develop as the story progresses, their actions and decisions should reflect that growth and how they understand the theme.

The relationships between characters should also reflect the theme, meaning that the characters’ actions should be driven by their understanding of the theme in relation to the other characters.

Use subtext to add depth to your theme.

Subtext is the unspoken meaning behind a character’s words or actions. For example, in the film “The Godfather,” the theme of power and family is reinforced through the characters’ actions and decisions, but also through the subtle glances and silences between them.

Use your theme to inform the structure of your story.

This means that your theme should be present from the beginning to the end of your script, and should inform the way your story is structured.

Using theme in your screenplay can take some extra effort, but it’s worth it. Not only does it make your script more meaningful, but it also makes it more memorable. So, take the time to explore your theme, and have fun weaving it into your script.

When you submit your script to agents or producers, they will be able to see the effort you put into your work, and they will appreciate it. And, who knows, your script could be the next blockbuster hit!

How is a theme used in movies?

In the movie “The Social Network” the subject or topic may have been about how Facebook was created, but the theme could have been similar to how the road to success will test your friendships. Even the tagline for the movie is “You don’t get to five hundred million friends without making a few enemies.”

Whenever somebody asks you specifically what the theme is, they’re really asking you what the moral of the story was. They’re not asking you what actually happened. And don’t get it confused. It doesn’t literally have to be a moral such as “cheaters never win”, “greed isn’t good” or “whatever comes around goes around”.

However, those type of morals can double as a theme for any story. In other words, the theme is the meat and the pulse of the story. It’s the one thing that you kind of take away from any good movie or story that you just read or saw on the big screen.

Not only does it have to appeal to the reader or the viewer, but it has to appeal to you. If you don’t like it or you don’t get any type of feeling from it, then nobody else will either. Because at the end of the day, what you really want to do is evoke emotion.

You want people to feel something after they’ve read your script or after they’ve seen your movie. Having a strong theme is a good way to do that. Without a theme or some type of purpose of your story, you really just end up with a list of events. A bunch of stuff happens and life goes on. The reader forgets the point within the hour and the movie goers are checking their text social media accounts before the credits even roll.

You can also just start with a broad topic for your theme and then dial it in to be about something more specific. Let’s take the topic of “betrayal” as a broad view to start with.

Now, just that word alone, you can probably think of 20 different movies where the main character was stabbed in his back by either his wife, girlfriend, lover, or best friend. A good example of betrayal might be The Passion of Christ. Let’s be honest, Judas has to be the poster boy for betrayal.

A second example is The Matrix — the character Cypher. If you remember, he basically sold Neo out the same way Judas sold out Jesus Christ in Passion of the Christ, except instead betraying him for 30 pieces of silver, he did it for a steak and whatever else he thought he was going to get.

Cypher paid the price for his betrayal, but not before costing the lives of people close to Neo, most importantly, Morpheus and Trinity. The overall theme for the Matrix I wouldn’t say was betrayal — but moreso about believing in yourself. In order for Neo to save the world he had to believe in himself.

It was not until he fully embraced his role as “The One” before he could face the main antagonist of the story — Mr. Smith. So it’s safe to say Cypher’s character had it’s own theme which was based on betrayal while the overall movie’s theme was based on the main protagonist’s lesson.

Another example would be Reservoir Dogs. The whole reason they’re in that warehouse arguing is because there is a rat. We see flashbacks of how they ended up in the warehouse with one of the men dying from a bullet wound, but the majority of the story is focused on who the rat in the crew was.

Finally, Godfather Part II. I won’t spoil it for you, but there’s a famous phrase Michael says to the person who betrays him in this story.

Some more theme examples might be things like courage, discovery, death, power, loneliness, justice, spirituality, prejudice, the list goes on. Keep in mind when you hear some of these broad topics about theme that you want to be a little specific and almost have a little niche to your story.

For instance, take love for example. You don’t want to just make movie about love as the theme because that could be anything. Think more in terms of a question, maybe something like can a person who’s been hurt too many times learn to truly love again?

In some kind of way, you want to hone in on that broad topic and how it relates to your story. What you don’t want to do is come off too preachy though when focusing on your theme. You just need to have these type of things in mind when you’re writing.

With that being said, you don’t have to have theme in mind when you start writing either as I mentioned above. Sometimes it’s good to come back after your second or third draft once you have a better handle on the story, then you can tweak things and insinuate on a certain type of topic.

Or you can write your story and completely ignore theme. If your story is good, then people who watch your movie or read your script are going to have strong feelings about it one way or another anyway. Hopefully those feelings are positive.

Keep in mind — if your story or your script isn’t interesting and well written then none of the above matters anyway, so don’t get obsessed with theme, but do be aware of what it is and how it can help your story.

You still have to know how to tell a great story with a creative concept and a strong story premise. Like I always say, there’s really no rules, however, it’s always better to know the rules so you can break them well.

Learn to write better characters in your next screenplay

  • Improve Your Characters, Plots & Themes
  • Write Stronger Character Arcs
  • Create More Engaging Conflict
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Jay Carver

Jay Carver is a screenwriter, director and producer. Through his production company J-Style Films, he has done work for companies such as Turner Broadcasting. In the past, he has worked with Hollywood actor Omari Hardwick and won several film festivals including "Best Director".

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