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  • Thematically Speaking

    December 19th, 2011

    I don’t write about theme too much and that’s because I normally don’t care much about it. It’s not what I look for in a script. Yes, it’s important. Yes, it can help drive a story and keep a story on track. Yes, it can add shape and deeper meaning to your character’s arc. But I rather have a script be driven by strong character, dialogue and story than a message or theme a writer is trying to teach the audience.

    This is a complete generalization, but I find that instilling strong themes are for the more spiritual writer, and less so for the practical writer. I’m not saying either one is better – I’m just saying those two types of writers approach their scripts differently.

    Themes are those things that I think consultants talk about when they don’t know what else to say, and I’ve had quite a few people say that to me – which is why I am also not a huge fan of some of the authors out there who talk about how theme is the key to screenwriting.

    I think if a THEME is what is driving your story, then your story is probably pretty preachy, boring and cliché. Why? Because having a universal theme is great for selling your project internationally, but your theme is not entertaining. There’s nothing visual about “true love is everlasting,” or “family is the most important thing,” or “the grass is always greener.” Yes, we can RELATE to that – we can understand it and it helps us connect with the characters, but there are no NEW themes. The newest themes I’ve found in stories relate to technology and how it is ruining or helping our lives or how it should be revered or feared instead of abused. But again – that’s not important to me unless your story brings OUT that theme in visual, compelling, engaging, original ways.

    The seven deadly sins are often used as themes. Religious beliefs or sayings are often used as themes.  Basically, themes are overarching lessons or beliefs or sayings that you probably learned in Kindergarten.

    Yes, if you have a small town story, then making sure that it employs a universal and relatable theme can help broaden its appeal. And yes, if you know your theme, this will help you plot out your character’s arcs so that you know that THEY are connecting with your theme by the end. And yes, having a solid theme may help you see, especially during your rewriting process, what scenes are helping to progress and bring out that theme and which ones are perhaps unnecessary.

    But I’ve never, ever heard anyone walk out of a theater going – the story sucked, I hated the characters, the dialogue was cheesy – but man did I love that theme.

    That being said, you should make sure that your theme has been brought out in your scenes and characters’ actions and reactions, and that your midpoint does a nice job in showing how you are attacking that theme in your story. But also make sure that we are not being nailed over the head with your theme and that your script is not becoming PREACHY or a message movie to get your theme across.

    Your theme should be a silent understanding between you, your story and the audience. It’s almost subliminal.  Your theme should be set up through dialogue or action, usually in the first 15 pages or so, but the execution and tracking of your theme should not be as obviously stated. You shouldn’t have a character every 15 pages come out and say “But true love conquers all.” That’s not how you express your theme – you do it through your characters actions and consequences that PROVE that theme.

    Theme is what the audience takes away or feels or learns THEMSELVES from watching your movie and taking in your story, with just a little bit of set up and prodding from you.  If it isn’t almost subliminal, then it’s a MESSAGE – and that is very different from a theme. Yes, there are exceptions. “There’s no place like home” is one of the strongest themes of Wizard of Oz and cinema in general, and it’s said out loud and driven home pretty hard – but that was also 70 years ago.

    A message is your personal belief, feeling, mantra or thing that you want to tell the audience. And you don’t want them to take away something for themselves – you want them to believe what YOU believe. A message is anything but subliminal. It’s usually stated by a character over and over again, even if it’s in the background. A message movie is harder to sell, depending on the message. Ripped from the headline or controversial messages are usually not a good idea. Messages about the environment are popular right now, and that’s fine, but there’s a difference between a message of “we should respect our environment” and “right wing lobbyists are the ones who should die for ruining the environment.” See – there’s a difference there.

    ‘The power of true love’ is not a message – it’s a theme. ‘You will only find true love if you date within your own race’ – that’s a message. ‘Faith can be a powerful thing’ is not necessarily a message. ‘Have faith in your Lord and savior Jesus Christ’ – is a message. See the difference? 

    A message is YOUR personal take and belief about a THEME. And as I’ve said before, I don’t give a shit what your personal beliefs are.

    So, theme is yet another thing you should be tracking throughout your script, but I always advise my clients to let the story drive the theme, and not the other way around. At least not in the first draft. But you should know what theme you want to bring out and track before you start writing, and certainly by your midpoint you should be able to tell if that is working in your story.

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