Talking Theme

July 8th, 2013  Posted at   podcasts, screenwriting, script consulting, story editing, theme
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Back in the day when I had a desk job in development I routinely took home 20-25 scripts to read on the weekend. This was in addition to my weekly read. Part of the reason I did this was because we had a ton of submissions to get through and also because I’d just moved to LA and didn’t have much of  a life yet so didn’t mind spending my entire weekend reading. But the main reason for this was because I knew I’d probably only read one, maybe two all the way through.

Many of the scripts I read were well written, had engaging ideas, great characters, good dialogue and were well structured but by the end of the first act (often earlier) I could tell the script wasn’t “about” anything – there was no theme. Theme is one of the most important story elements and one I’m deeply passionate about. Without a clear theme it doesn’t matter how well written your script is as it’s unlikely that it will resonate with the reader or ultimately audiences. Theme is what we emotionally engage with and is a vital part of a successful screenplay.

So what is theme, exactly? Theme is the underlying meaning behind the story events. In The King’s Speech this is Albert’s need to gain self-confidence. In Up the theme is about Carl’s need to reconcile the loss of his wife. In The Descendants Matt’s need to forgive his wife’s transgression establishes the theme. In The Piano the story is about Ada’s need to learn to be vulnerable and love someone as much as her music. In Wedding Crashers the theme is maturity as we watch John grow up and be a man. In The Kids are Alright Jules learns to value her family which establishes the theme.

In a nutshell plot is the story events – the action that moves the story forward – while theme is what gives these events meaning.

On a recent podcast with Pilar Alessandra’s On the Page we talked about how to plot theme without being too heavy handed or eschewing theme all together.  As part of this we discussed the all-important protagonist’s epiphany. This is the moment towards the end of the second act and sometimes in the third act where the protagonist learns what they need to learn or heals what they need to heal. This beat establishes the theme.

In order to make sure this key moment works successfully the protagonist’s flaw, unconscious need or longing has to be established in the first act. This is where we see what they need to learn or heal (think Carl’s bitterness in Up or Albert’s lack of confidence in The King’s Speech). From here the protagonist needs to have a slow gradual awakening to this flaw as the protagonist moves from a lack of awareness to awareness and the unconscious becomes conscious. The midpoint is a good place to really highlight this progression. This is nicely done in The King’s Speech through Albert’s sessions with Logue during the second act.

All of this comes together in the protagonist’s epiphany. In The King’s Speech this is where Albert stands up to the Archbishop prior to his coronation. This beat tells us Albert’s learned what he needed to learn and establishes the theme of the piece as the importance of self-confidence and believing in yourself.

These three key turning points (flaw, midpoint & epiphany) can be a very effective way to plot theme. A screenplay with a clear theme will ensure your script stands out and makes it through the weekend read from start to finish.

Want to hear more? You can listen to the podcast here.

2 Responses to “Talking Theme”

  1. Yes – that’s exactly it! You’re looking to establish their underlying need/flaw in the first act which they then heal over the course of the story.

    The protagonist’s pursuit of their external goal (plot) forms the main action that drives the story forward. Their internal goal or need drives the theme and tells us what the story is really about. Stories are ultimately all about transformation and seeing how a character changes and grows keeps us hooked and is why we go to see movies. Sounds like you’re well on your way to doing this!

    Happy writing!

  2. June Carryl says:

    I have been searching high and low for answers to this question and the question of the character’s need. THANK YOU!!! I just want to make sure I understand: Act I introduces us to the protagonist AND a deep-seated emotional need which is separate from, but represented by the external goal he sets out to achieve following the inciting incident and the call to adventure, yes? Thanks very much again.

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