Theme is quite often misunderstood by beginner and intermediate writers, and if you don’t know how to put your finger on it and clearly articulate your script’s theme, then you won’t be able to align yourself with its power and substance. Theme is the underlying idea that comes across to the audience through the complete action of the script. In the comedy Tootsie, director Sydney Pollack worked hard to identify what the story is really about—that becoming a woman made a man out of Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman). Theme is the gravitational center that holds your story’s solar system together—but only if you know how to work with it. Writers will sometimes start out with a theme in mind, but they usually begin with a great story idea and build from there. As the story develops, the experienced writer will feel out the theme that’s emerging and work to align the plot more closely to it, because theme lends a sense of vision to the piece, gathering the material into one main action and infusing it with resonance and a sense of meaning. But you have to know how to articulate your theme so you can work with its strengths.
How to Put Your Finger on Your Story’s Theme
Many writers can only clutch abstractly at what they think is the theme of their script. The inability to come to terms with a story’s theme can weaken the material because the writer misses its clarifying focus and strengthening effect. It’s important to note that the word “theme” is misused extensively, with people often saying the theme of a movie is, say, teen suicide, when that’s really just a story element or the subject of the script.
The best way to put your finger on your story’s theme is to look at the way in which the protagonist resolves the dilemma. What the protagonist does to resolve it is one thing—but the way in which he or she does it is what the movie is really about. It’s that which is being said by the movie, organically and clearly, and it resonates with the audience at a gut level when the movie is over. A clear statement of theme provides a focal point that steers the action, a unifying thread around which to weave the dramatic action.
Old-School Playwriting Provides Some Insights
Playwriting teacher William Thompson Price wrote in The Analysis of Play Construction and Dramatic Principle, 1908: All great or good plays are based upon Theme. You have only to refer to Shakespeare and Molière to determine the truth for yourself. The ordinary commercial play is one of situations for the sake of situations and not for the sake of Theme. Until we regard Theme of first importance, we shall have few good plays. With a Theme your play will be about something… Theme gives the clue to the actual shaping of the play… the tone depends on it. It is the largest unit of the play.
Not What the Resolution Is, But How the Protagonist Resolves It
Say you’re writing a tragedy (a rare type of film these days) and your protagonist does something destructive and stupid to resolve his dilemma, mistakenly thinking he’s being brilliant, and it gets him killed. If we look at the way in which he resolves his dilemma, then we’re looking into the mechanics of failure. Note that we’re not looking at what he does, which might be to betray a friend at a critical moment, but the way in which he does it. The way in which he betrays his friend is through this messed-up thought process, perhaps convincing himself, and we in the audience too, that he can outsmart the situation—that he’s sharper, faster, and more deserving. We’re looking into the mind and behavioral patterns of a self-destructive character with flawed thinking who’s highly skilled at self-deception.
This insight can give us in the audience a powerful look at ourselves—perhaps a brutally unflattering look—and this can be a serious wake-up call. So thematically this story is about the warped but convincing thought process that can lure us to destruction. This insight informs the entire plot and helps tie it together, shaping the story and setting the tone. If we in the audience believe that our protagonist is brilliant, and we fail to recognize his flaws as being fatal until the trap springs shut—then we are taught a searing lesson along with our failed hero. The power of a great tragedy is that it’s deeply shocking, revealing hard truths about our own blind spots and dysfunction.
The Deeper You Go, the More Universal You Get
Think about how your own destructive behavior might sometimes compel you to do or say something catastrophic, and how no one could talk you out of it. A profound comprehension of this will inform your plotting, your character’s motivation, rationalizations, decision and action in the face of crisis, and so much more. All this will inhabit the soul of this script and help give it substance, depth and resonance. A theme doesn’t necessarily have to be profound, but some level of thematic depth will always add power and magnitude to a story, no matter what the genre. Even a comedy should have thematic depth. Think of movies like Liar, Liar or Tootsie. They really have something to say but aren’t heavy-handed or preachy.
Sydney Pollack On What Tootsie Is Really About
In Tootsie, Michael Dorsey resolves his dilemma when he finally earns Julie’s trust and wins her heart. The way in which he does it is to become whole, to be honest and solid. Sydney Pollack, the director, said the theme of Tootsie is that: “Becoming a woman made a man out of Michael.” This indicates a clear understanding of the soul of the story. Pollack discusses Tootsie’s theme in Jon Stevens’ book, Actors Turned Directors (Silman-James Press, Los Angeles, 1997): “I concentrate very hard on understanding and articulating for myself and everyone else involved what I think the picture’s about. By “what it’s about” I do not mean story. What a film is about, in my opinion, has nothing to do with story. Quite the opposite. It’s everything except the story. It’s trying to arrive at a sort of spine, if you will, of the picture—a way of viewing it that directorially instructs you on a way to view each scene. Tootsie was about a man who became a better man for having been a woman. If you start to look at every scene and say, “In what way does this scene illustrate the idea of a man becoming a better man for having been a woman?” you see that, in the beginning, Tootsie works very hard to show you that part of him which needs redeeming, because if he’s going to be better at something, he has to be worse at it first. The minute I define that as an idea, I can begin to measure every scene against it in some way. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be a good movie. It just means that I know what it’s about, and can communicate that to the actors.”
Align Your Story with its Theme as you Build Your Script
So you should feel out the theme that’s emerging organically through your story as you develop it. This may be quite different than what you originally intended, or what you think it is, or even what you insist it must be. It’s the distinction between seeing what you want to see and seeing what’s really there. Telling your son that he’s going to be a doctor when he clearly has the soul of a musician means that you’re missing the boat. If you can see the reality early on in his growth then you can get him piano and voice lessons and amplify his natural tendencies. In your script, look at the way in which the protagonist resolves the dilemma and align yourself with the strengths and clarifying focus of the theme that’s really there.
The Theme Often Selects the Dramatist
Many times your theme will end up more profound, more powerful than what you initially set out to do, dragging you into something deeper, insisting on a new track as it takes on a life of its own. It is said that the theme often selects the dramatist. The fact that stories morph as you build them is part of the beauty of the writing process. And of course maybe you’ll say, “No, I see where it has ended up, but I really do want it to be in line with my original intention.” In that case, adjust the way in which the protagonist resolves the dilemma and steer it back to the theme you wanted it to be. This give and take is at the core of the writing process—you either let it take you or you steer it. It’s usually a combination of the two, either hitting it hard with a hammer or feathering it gently—part directing things and part being responsive to what comes along.
A Good Theme is an Interpretation of Life, Not a Lecture on It
Your theme shouldn’t come across as a platitude, as Sunday School preaching or a bumper sticker. Bernard Grebanier, in his book Playwriting (Thomas Y. Crowell Co, New York, 1961), says: Starting one’s thinking with a theme is intelligent enough but can be somewhat precarious too. It too easily may lead the writer into contriving heavily moralistic or propagandistic demonstrations of an idea, into merely manufacturing situation and character for purposes of illustrating the theme, in which case neither situation nor characters will be dramatically convincing—so that the play ends by being a kind of sermon, which a good play should never be… a good theme should be an interpretation of life, not a lecture upon it… When you have read a story or seen a play, you may not be conscious of the theme, but you may “feel” it… the theme should, rather, be deeply embedded in the action and in the nature of the leading characters.
Starting Out with a Sense of Theme
When you start to come to grips with your script’s theme, you might only have a sense of it and not be able to articulate it clearly, but that’s okay. When audience members leave the theater after seeing a film, they probably can’t verbalize its theme, but they’ve got it at a gut level. As the dramatist, don’t be afraid to start at a gut level. Many of us panic when we only have a partial understanding of something—we try to explain it before we truly understand it. Allow yourself to relax in your partially-formed understanding and explore your sense of theme. Dig deeply and develop it, feeling your way along.
Don’t Worry if You Can’t Verbalize Your Theme Right Away
Look at the example of the tragedy we discussed above. The protagonist’s warped thinking and self-destructive behavior destroyed him in the end. You have to spend time contemplating the theme of your story, wrapping your brain around it before you find the words to articulate it clearly. Don’t feel forced to conceptualize it too early. You know what it is, so free yourself from the compulsion to put words to it prematurely. Science has proven that our brain can feel something emotionally without needing the logic or words for it. The brain also stores the words for something in a different place than other knowledge about it.
This is a crucial distinction because you can absolutely know what it is but not know yet what to call it. So just unhinge yourself from feeling stumped by your temporary inability to reduce it to words, and keep that laser focus on knowing what you know. Trust what you feel—and let the rest of it come to you. Gradually your understanding will gel as you mull it over subconsciously. You’ll grow antennae for your material and pick up things in the world around you that shed light on your puzzle, all of which goes into your subconscious computer. Then, at a certain point your understanding will crystallize and now you’ve got it—clearly, cleanly, and completely.
Beware of the Simple One-Liner
While it’s important to be able to state your theme clearly and simply, I urge my students to beware of that cute one-line explanation at first, because it can oversimplify the situation. A clever little aphorism or adage that seems to sum up the theme can halt the exploring process. Experts in creativity say there are often ten right answers to a problem, but because many people think there’s only one, they stop looking when they find one of them. If you’re satisfied with a surface understanding of your theme, then you won’t keep exploring, tunneling down to a deeper and more substantial comprehension.
Cooking Theme Down to its Essence
Once you’ve gotten to the bottom of it and are able to articulate your theme in all its complexity, fully comprehending its various aspects, layers and dimensions, it may seem perfectly obvious and you can state it simply and clearly—but it can take a great deal of work to achieve to that clarity. In The Philosophy of Dramatic Principle and Method, 1912, Price wrote: We keep narrowing down from the most general Theme to a specific one; and when it becomes specific it determines the nature of the play. What was unclear at first coalesces into one entity with a recognizable “personality,” a coherent whole rather than a mere collection of ideas and elements. This clarity informs the tone, flavor, shape, color and texture of the story. Theme works from the inside out, permeating the plot and the characters with a certain energy. It’s the living core of your story.
Trust Your Theme to Emerge from the Complete Story
In his book, On Directing Film, David Mamet writes that a script properly written communicates the theme clearly and powerfully once at the end. He counsels writers to trust in this, saying that many dramatists are insecure about their ability to create a plot that communicates its theme, clearly and powerfully, once at the script’s end. Writers can panic and resort to reiterating their theme constantly, he says, concerned that the audience won’t get it. They restate it in every other scene and insert it into every tenth line of dialog—to the detriment of the drama. Mamet advises that a scene is just a scene that helps make the plot work, not an opportunity to recapitulate the theme.
A Theme Doesn’t Necessarily Have to be Profound
It’s a common misperception that the theme of story represents a deep answer to one of life’s mysteries, or is a pearl of wisdom. This may well be, but the theme also might just be exploring an idea or asking a powerful question. As playwright Eugene Ionesco said, “Why do people always expect authors to answer questions? I am an author because I want to ask questions. If I had answers I’d be a politician.” A theme doesn’t necessarily have to be profound, but some thematic gravity can help any script. Look for instance at the goofy comedy Liar, Liar, which has a resonant theme about integrity.
Now let’s explore theme for five more classic films.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the movie, then skip over it. I don’t want to ruin it for you.
The Use of Theme in Training Day
In Training Day, the way in which Jake (Ethan Hawke) resolves his dilemma is to stick to his principles, refusing to be dragged into Alonzo’s (Denzel Washington) corrupt world. Jake’s moral compass will not follow Alonzo’s lead and he fights to keep his integrity and his life. The way in which he resolves his dilemma is to know what’s right and to fight for that with every ounce of his strength. Thematically, this is what the movie is about: Doing the right thing. That’s the energy Jake is blazing with at the end, and we, the audience, are infused with it too. It’s about power, energy, and knowing what’s right and fighting for it. Both the screenwriter and the director, David Ayer and Antoine Fuqua said that Training Day is about “What if one man says no?” You can see how this is built right into the theme.
The Use of Theme in What Women Want
In What Women Want, the way in which Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson) resolves his dilemma is to lay bare his soul to Darcy (Helen Hunt), to open all the way up to love. He tells her the whole truth, the unvarnished truth, allowing her to see into him with the same totality with which he saw into her when reading her mind. This is a movie about Nick opening up to love, opening up to life and to the people around him, especially Darcy. He starts out shallow and closed off, the conventional male, complete with the full Las Vegas treatment of women as second-hand citizens and sex objects. But by seeing what makes Darcy really tick, he transcends his own limitations, opening up to a full, deep, and complete relationship.
The Use of Theme in Minority Report
In Minority Report, the way in which John Anderton (Tom Cruise) resolves his dilemma is to cut through the deception, through the smoke and mirrors that holds Precrime together. This is a film about liberation. He frees himself from being hunted, from drug addiction, guilt, and a loveless life. He frees the people wrongly condemned under Precrime, and liberates the three Precogs from their jobs as police psychics. He does all this by finding the truth within a paralyzing web of complex, powerful, paralyzing lies, and by fighting for that truth with all his might. He cuts through the sacrosanct illusions and superstitions that lock everything down. The film is about liberation from deception, from illusion, and from the haze of an enforced status quo.
The Use of Theme in The Godfather
In The Godfather, the way in which Michael (Al Pacino) resolves his dilemma is to become totally hardened, killing all his enemies and then cutting himself off from his wife (Diane Keaton) and from what he might have been. The movie is about the cost of power and about the loss of soul. Michael does achieve total power, but it costs him his innocence, his family, his freedom, and his happiness. This brings up a question for us: “How much power do we really need and what is it worth?” It resonates with normal people in their everyday lives because it’s easy to overreach, perhaps taking on two jobs to get our family extra things, but in the process we can lose contact with the very family for which we’re sacrificing. The famous quote from the bible says it all, “What profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?”
The Use of Theme in Blade Runner
In Blade Runner, the way in which Deckard (Harrison Ford) resolves his dilemma is to wake up, come alive, and take control of his own life. He grabs Rachael (Sean Young) and runs, dropping out of the system he’s trapped in, not only changing the rules, but transcending the entire game. This is a film about human liberation, about freedom, and about living your life to the fullest. A person on their deathbed will tell you: “Live now with everything you’ve got. Don’t be getting ready to live. Do it now!” Deckard learns that from Roy (Rutger Hauer) and his intense desire to live, and it electrifies Deckard into action and into life.
Jeff Kitchen teaches script writing and is the author of Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Successful Screenwriting. He has taught development executives from all the Hollywood studios and they consistently say he teaches the most advanced development tools in the industry. One of his students was nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars for Hidden Figures, the film about the NASA mathematicians. Jeff is about to a announce a 3-month online live class, providing practical know-how through intensive training, explaining the tools and demonstrating them in action by building a real script from scratch. Visit his website now for a free class on Reverse Cause and Effect at BuildYourScript.com