Screenwriting Basics: The Importance of Theme

A reader asked me to write something about theme, as it is possibly the most nebulous component of good writing and yet arguably the most important. Theme, to me, is the soul of the piece. It’s a part of the unspoken meaning to each of the scenes that is continually omnipresent.

Most scripts I read at the competition level have not given any thought to theme. Most scripts in general don’t have a strong working theme, although this is a great way to separate your script from the pack.

Theme can generally be boiled down to a handful or words and, in some cases, an adage: love conquers all, all you need is love, love can move mountains, good triumphs over evil, all’s fair in love and war, love is blind, be careful what you wish for, etc. Theme also includes concepts: redemption, rebirth, death, life, salvation, etc. Theme must be universal at its core – something fundamental within the human experience.

I read a very lovely script today that was one of the semifinalists in the CineStory Screenwriting Awards competition. Unbeknownst to the writer, who had contacted me for coverage, I am a reader for that competition. Although I did not read that particular script, I had recognized his name and project title from the preliminary round scoresheet.

Ironically, of all of the elements that were well executed within the script – and they were all very well executed – what set this project apart in my opinion was its very sophisticated use of theme. The theme of the project was redemption – a disenfranchised son returns home to his culture – and every element within the project served to underscore and reinforce this specific theme. There were quite a number of secondary characters, and each one had a fully complete B story with their own clearly defined character arc, and in every instance their own character arc hit the theme of redemption and also helped take the protagonist’s redemption to another level (either as a helper or an obstacle to his redemption).

To me, the subject matter wasn’t the best or most exciting in the world, however, a small character drama was masterfully and very thoughtfully crafted. Each component was a carefully considered part of the whole, and this level of masterful execution set this project above the rest.

This is where it is easy to see how writing a screenplay is really like assembling a puzzle. Each piece has its own identity, personality, even image, and yet it fits beautifully into the whole to make something larger and more important than itself in both scope and meaning.

That is where theme comes into the writing. It is a part of that process of making the words mean something more than solely what is on the page. Theme creates the possibility of really digging into a greater collective consciousness, a universality that wouldn’t be possible without it.

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One Response to Screenwriting Basics: The Importance of Theme

  1. Larry N Stouffer July 17, 2009 at 4:33 pm #

    Well done. Theme is simple to define, but outrageously difficult to execute. It is a tough concept to internalize. We sometimes tend to think it’s an abstract conceit that really isn’t that important to the story. As you’ve pointed out, if it’s thoughtfully applied it can be the difference between a good screenplay and a great screenplay. You’ve helped.