As a script consultant, determining the theme of a script is one of the areas I often focus on with writers. Figuring out what your story is really about is essential to the success of your piece. Without a clear central idea, the script can easily lose its way and the audience is unlikely to connect to the film.
Focusing the theme of your script can be surprisingly difficult and there are many theories on what your theme should be. I’m a little more flexible on that front and look to the main character and their journey to define what the story is really about.
One way to approach fine-tuning your theme is to look at your protagonist’s arc. Generally what your story is about is articulated by what the protagonist learns over the course of the piece.
With this in mind…
The first act defines the main character’s primary goal. Ideally they should have a conscious goal (external) and a subconscious goal (internal). For example in Up Carl’s conscious goal is to fulfill his and Ellie’s lifelong dream of getting to South America. Subconsciously he’s looking to reconcile his grief and the loss of his wife.
The end of the first act is a twist that complicates their goal and raises the question: will our protagonist achieve what they want?
As the story progresses through the second act the main character encounters escalating complications on the way to achieving their goal. The end of the second act is the protagonist’s lowest point, an all-is-lost moment where it seems they are not going to achieve their goals.
Still with me? Because this is where the theme is most clearly articulated…
The second act turning point forces the protagonist to look at why they haven’t achieved what they wanted and leads to an epiphany that tells us what the story is really about.
In Up the second act turning point is when Carl is forced to choose between saving his house, which Muntz has set on fire, and helping Russell rescue Kevin who has been taken by Muntz. Carl, unable to let go of his connection to Ellie, chooses his house and in doing so upsets Russell.
Carl retreats to the house and sadly looks through his scrapbook where he finds a note from Ellie thanking him for the adventure of their life together and encouraging him to go on a new one. This causes Carl to look at his situation from a new perspective. It’s Carl’s epiphany and the moment that tells us that, while the story is a fun adventure, it’s really about reconciling loss. Carl has actually achieved his subconscious goal.
This beat reinvigorates Carl and he goes off to look for Russell only to find he’s taken a handful of balloons and set off to rescue Kevin himself. Carl, having learned what he needed to learn, chooses to go after Russell. The climax is a do-or-die battle that tests Carl’s commitment to Russell.
The resolution of the piece shows Carl stepping up for Russell at the Boy Scout meeting and confirms that Carl has indeed reconciled the loss of Ellie and is willing to move on to the next adventure. Because Carl’s epiphany is so clear, and extremely moving, the piece resonates and it’s easy to see what the theme of the movie really is.
Looking at your protagonist’s arc, specifically their epiphany and emotional transformation, can be one way to see if your theme is being articulated clearly enough for it to have the emotional impact it should.