One of my screenwriting teachers was giving me some filmmaking advice and told me that there are three spokes on the wheel of story: plot, character, and theme.
Plot is the series of events unfolding that move the story forward, character is who the story centers around, and theme is the idea (or ideas) the story reveals about the world or ourselves.
Every writer focuses on one more than the others and tends to ignore one of the three entirely. After hearing about them all in lectures, I came to the realization that I focus mostly on theme and tend to ignore plot.
Not wanting all of my films to be Terrence Malik movies, I’ve since developed my ability to write plot. However, as someone who values theme above all else, I have noticed a trend in commercial films of late; the theme is often forgotten entirely and the film is ultimately about nothing. While these films can make for an entertaining Friday night from time to time, they will have less staying power in culture.
For example, I love the Marvel films in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe)…but I would say most of them lack a compelling theme. Those with the strongest themes (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers, etc.) tend to be the stronger films.
Whether we want to admit it or not, one of the reasons we love stories is because they have theme.
We tell stories and listen to them in order to be instructed on how to better live. This has always been the function of story. The stories that accomplish this effectively, while still managing to be entertaining, are the ones we ultimately treasure the most. Especially the ones that feel the most like truth.
As a self-declared theme expert, here are a few tips to help your script develop a proper theme without beating your audience over the head with it.
What Does Theme Look Like?
If you’ve come this far, you may be confused; asking yourself questions like…what IS theme? Why am I reading this? Did I really just eat an entire bag of chips?
To make it more clear; the plot is the series of events the character goes through that causes them to believe in the theme of the story (or in the case of a tragedy, ultimately reject the theme of the story and suffer the consequences).
Theme gives the plot meaning. It makes sense of why this character needs to go on this journey at this time.
Plot is the “what” of your story, character is the “who,” and theme is the “why.”
Simple right? Not really.
If I’ve learned anything from teaching students screenwriting, it’s that people who are great at plot really struggle to understand what theme looks like logistically in a story.
In order to make it clear, allow me to show you how theme plays out in a specific film… Guardians of the Galaxy.
- Have a Clear Protagonist Going on a Clear Journey
One of the reasons theme is often ignored or is unclear in films is because it isn’t clear who our main character or protagonist is. While this can work in some rare cases (i.e. Love Actually, where various characters are all simultaneously struggling with the same theme), it should be the exception rather than the rule. Cinema’s greatest and most memorable films have a clear protagonist:
- Casablanca – Rick Blaine
- Gone With the Wind – Scarlett O’Hara
- Lawrence of Arabia – T. E. Lawrence
- Vertigo – John “Scottie” Ferguson
- Star Wars – Luke Skywalker
The main character is who we project ourselves onto and accompany on the journey. If it’s not clear who this person is, or even if it is and we are unable to connect with them, then it will be unclear what the theme of the story is, and the impact of the film will be lost.
As you write, pick one character and follow their journey throughout the film. Their journey will become our own, and the theme will be more apparent to us.
In Guardians of the Galaxy our main character is Peter Jason Quill a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt).
- Give Your Story Some Thematic Material
A film may be about one thing on paper, but there is a subtext that unites everything and attempts to make sense of it.
This subtext we’ll call thematic material. It’s the topic that is brought up over and over again and what the character(s) is wrestling with emotionally throughout the film.
Let’s look at Guardians of the Galaxy:
On the surface, the plot of this film is this rag tag group of outlaws coming together to stop Ronan from destroying the galaxy with an Infinity Stone.
The subtext however is family.
Everything in this film points toward it.
Peter Quill is an orphan and a part of a “family” (The Ravagers) that is fueled by self-interest.
Gamora is an orphan and is part of a “family” (Thanos and the gang) that is fueled by self interest.
Rocket is a lab experiment that has never had a family.
Groot has been separated from his people, and Rocket is the only family he has.
Drax lost his wife and daughter to Ronan, and is fueled by revenge.
All of our characters’ are dealing with family in some way. Even the antagonists have familial ties:
Ronan killed Drax’s family.
Nebula is Gamora’s “sister”
Thanos is Gamora and Nebula’s “father.”
and Yondu and the Ravagers raised Peter Quill…so they’re basically his family.
While the Guardians must journey together for plot reasons, the story finds its emotional core and impact as we watch these characters begin to come together and be the family that they have been missing in their lives.
For your own writing, decide what the thematic material of your film will be and incorporate it wherever possible.
- Give Your Protagonist a Clear Emotional Journey Dealing with the Thematic Material
If you don’t have a strong theme in your film, then you also have a character issue. What I mean by that is your character probably doesn’t grow in your story…otherwise, you’d have a theme.
In order for the story to have this element of theme, the character needs to go on an emotional journey directly relating to the thematic material of the film as a whole. Through the character’s choices, you’ll be saying something specific about the thematic material.
Every story is about a character who begins by believing something about the world, themselves, etc. As they progress in the story, they are challenged by an opposing worldview to their own. They are tempted to adopt this worldview and sometimes do. However, in the end, in their darkest moment, they learn something new that is neither what they knew before or what they were tempted to believe throughout the story.
This something new is the thought the filmmaker wants you to take away from their film or the theme.
Let’s, once again, have a look at Guardians of the Galaxy.
Peter Quill begins our tale believing that the only way to survive life is by trusting no one but himself. We see this in his choice to steal a mission from his then “family” the Ravagers, and is further bolstered by his over-inflated ego in giving himself a nickname (Star-Lord). He is about elevating himself above others, and not being a part of the whole.
Peter meets up with his fellow Guardians on a prison planet, and it is here he is confronted with the truth that having a “family” can actually further his self interest in a way that being alone cannot. Most of Act 2 is spent with Peter manipulating people into doing what he wants whether that’s escaping prison or selling the orb to The Collector.
It’s not until the third act that Peter realises that there’s more to life than both independence, and manipulating people to his own, selfish ends. We see a switch in his character when he risks his life to save Gamora, giving himself up to Yondu. Groot, Rocket, and Drax go on their own journey as well, choosing to set aside self interest to save Peter and Gamora.
We see the theme begin to take shape.
For the entire film, the character Groot has only said three words, “I am Groot.”
As the Guardians are trying to save a planet, they end up on a ship that is crashing to the surface. Groot chooses to sacrifice himself to keep his fellow Guardians safe. Rocket tearfully questions why he’s sacrificing himself. Groot’s response?
“We are Groot.”
Finally, the theme. We were not meant to live life apart from one another, but united together within a family. Not just any family though, but one that is willing to put the needs of the unit above their own.
We see this theme at play in the climactic moment of the film, as the only way they are able to contain the energy of the gem and defeat Ronan is together.
There is so much more to be said about theme and theme’s place in film. I hope these thoughts are an inspiration to you in your screenwriting. Continue to dream and be creative as you build your own themes.