What Is Theme?
What is theme? Quite simply, theme is what the story is really about. However, most times you ask a person what their favorite movie, book, or screenplay is about, they’ll start rambling off character traits and plot details. This isn’t a theme. In most cases, it’s just all the details that make up the overall story or the story premise.
So let’s talk more about what theme is.
A story’s theme is a message about a particular subject that the writer wants you to understand. 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.
So let me give you some examples of what strong themes are. And as I say this, you’ll probably think of some movies off the top of your head.
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. You don’t want to just make movie about love as the theme because that could be anything. Think more in terms of the hypocrisy of love or blindness of love, maybe the pain of love or even the power of love. 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. 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.
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