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Unleashing the Power of Theme: A Guide to Crafting an Effective Screenplay

When it comes to screenwriting, theme serves as the heart and soul of a screenplay.

So, let's get to the heart of it.

Theme is the universal concept or underlying message explored within a story. It represents the deeper meaning and purpose behind the plot, characters, and events. It is the delicate thread that connects all the elements of your screenplay, weaving them together into a cohesive narrative.

It's the central idea that resonates with the audience. A well-developed theme will elevate a screenplay from being merely entertaining to becoming a thought-provoking and memorable cinematic experience. A brilliant story with no aligned theme runs the risk of leaving the audiences feeling a little flat.

Theme is the secret ingredient to any brilliant script.

Sometimes theme is easier to explain using existing examples:

Billy Elliot, for example, isn't JUST a film about a boy who likes ballet. Sure, the story and plot involve those things but the THEME is so much deeper than that. It's about persevering despite prejudice. It's about following your passion. The theme is what makes us care about the story and ultimately makes it so rewarding. The theme of Billy Elliot is what makes people love it, even if they don't like ballet, or boxing... or mining. Because we understand Billy, we want him to succeed and achieve his dreams. This theme resonates with us because we've all wanted to achieve our goals and we've all been misunderstood at some point in our lives.

Finding Nemo's theme, isn't actually about, well, finding Nemo. That is the story and the plot of Finding Nemo. But the theme that underpins the story is 'to never give up'. Which is cleverly made into a jingle that we all love to sing along to as the movie progresses. Sing it with us now: Just keep swimming! This universal theme keeps us hooked. Note how this theme doesn't come from Marlin, who is on the dangerous journey to find his son. Whilst determined, there are plenty of times where he wants to give up. The theme of your script doesn't have to come from the protagonist themselves. It can come from the world around them.

WALL.E is undoubatly a film about the environment. A lonely robot is left to tidy up the ruined and abandoned dead planet of earth but he ends up going on a wild adventure because he follows his desire for connection and love. The theme however goes even deeper than that. WALL.E's theme is about community and the responsibility we have to nurture our world, together. WALL.E's desire for connection allows this message of responsibility to reach the humans which brings everyone together and start again. WALL.E's been living in isolation but so have the humans, living in their chairs and only communicating digitally with serious lack of true connection. WALL.E doesn't even realise the impact he has just by being himself; looking for love. Again, the theme doesn't come directly from WALL.E's but it lies beneath everything happening in the film.

Not all theme strands are made equal. Theme can be nuanced which is sometimes why it can be harder to recognise than story and plot. Theme is a complimentary ingredient to any great story, hidden within the story. But whilst theme, character, story, plot and genre should all inform each other, they should also act as their own elements, because they are.

So how can you make sure you don't neglect your script's theme?

A great way to lace your theme into your story is to summarise it as a statement, or a question that your story then answers by the end of the script.


WALL.E'S QUESTION: Can we truly be happy living in isolation? ANSWER: No.

or Do we need community in order to thrive? ANSWER: Yes.

To create your theme, make sure it's universal. Your statement/question shouldn't include your characters or story. It needs to stand on its own, separate from your script.


Once you settle upon your theme, write it out as either a statement or a question. Stick it on the wall above your laptop as you're writing. Make sure you are supplying evidence for the theme's statement or question throughout your script - EXCEPT DIALOGUE! Don't tell us what your theme is through dialogue. Or at least, leave it as a last resort to avoid expositional, cheesy scripts.

Before you embark on writing your screenplay, it's really worth spending time to identify the theme you want to explore. Ask yourself what resonates with you on a personal level. What message or idea do you want to convey through your story? Consider universal themes that have stood the test of time and connect with audiences across cultures. Finding a theme that ignites your passion and aligns with your story's purpose will provide a solid foundation for your screenplay.

If you've already written your script without considering theme (or are currently mid draft) don't panic. Whilst having your theme at the start can save you a lot of time, there are many ways to develop your script and a lot of writer's themes emerge from actually writing. Trust the process and continue. Getting clear on your theme will help you refine your script when it comes to re-writes.

Here are some extra tips to help you integrate your theme into your story:

Subtext and Metaphors: Use subtext and metaphors to explore your theme indirectly. By using symbolism and layered dialogue, you can add depth to your characters and their relationships, allowing the audience to interpret the theme on their own terms. Once you know what your theme is, it will provide so much content for your material. It will help to inform how you tell your story. From where you set your scenes, to what the character might be doing. It almost acts like a cheat code for inspiration.

Character Arcs: Connect your theme to the personal growth and transformation of your main characters. Show how they navigate the challenges presented by the story, leading to a change in their beliefs, values, or attitudes. This journey reinforces the theme and provides a satisfying emotional payoff for the audience. Growing with the characters is such a satisfying journey to go on as the audience. Especially when it's fun, OR at the detriment of a character (or society) we're supposed to dislike. Please note: No body likes random. We like set ups and pay offs. We like foreshadowing. We like layers. Let the theme inform the growth.

Conflict and Obstacles: Use conflict to explore the complexities and nuances of your theme. Create obstacles that challenge your characters' beliefs or force them to confront the central theme directly. Conflict can serve as a catalyst for change and provide opportunities for exploration and development. Nobody wants to see a happy character with everything figured out and no issues from beginning to end. We watch Film and TV to escape from our problems and relate to the world. To take comfort that no-one else has it easy. We want to go on a ride. A ride has ups and downs, sharp turns and thrills. We don't want to go to a theme-park rollercoaster that takes us in a straight line... that's not a ride... that's a commute.

Visual and Aesthetic Choices: Utilise the visual and aesthetic elements of filmmaking to reinforce your theme. Cinematography, production design, colour palette, and overall visual style can all contribute to enhancing the emotional impact and resonance of your theme. Use all of these elements to your advantage to communicate your message. But writer beware, unless you're also directing the script, we are NOT telling you to write in camera angles et al. Using direction and camera angles in scripts is a rookie mistake. But you can create the action to reinforce your world (and you should). Let's use Barbie here as an example - We're not 'Tracking down with Barbie from the roof' but instead the action would read something like 'Gently stepping off her dream house, Barbie effortlessly floats down to her pink car. Ready to continue her perfect day.' See the difference? Barbie's actions are mirroring the theme's set up.

Consistency and Cohesion: Ensure that all aspects of your screenplay are aligned with your chosen theme. From dialogue to plot structure, character choices to narrative arcs, maintain consistency to avoid diluting the impact of your theme. Whilst consistency is key, this doesn't mean it needs to be shoved in your face. It doesn't have to be full of exposition and really you should be avoiding that as much as possible. The theme should be the thread that ties is all together, it's not a blanket that you're chucking over the whole script. Use theme to 'inform'. Less is more, as long as it's consistent and clear. Remember, you can always add and take away with subsequent drafts.

Theme isn't more important than the story itself, instead it's a complimentary element that makes the story shine brighter. Crafting a screenplay with a well-developed theme is a powerful way to engage and captivate your audience. It adds depth, resonance, and emotional impact to your story, making it memorable and thought-provoking. So, embrace the power of theme and let it guide your creative journey as you embark on writing your next screenplay.



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