Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links.
The protagonists’ stakes and obstacles give the audience the reasons to care for the story and the hero, while the theme depicts what the story is really about. In screenwriting, the theme adds another dimension to the story.
As a filmmaker/writer, you don’t need to explain your theme to your audience. However, the story’s theme should be reflected in the protagonist’s actions, regardless of their goals and flaws.
Themes work beautifully when they are gently interwoven into the storyline allowing the audience a moment of reflection.
So, if you want your story to be about “something”, choose the right storytelling tools that will allow you to accomplish those goals (just like your characters have to choose) and a theme is one of those tools.
Not all films have a theme, as not all of them need one. Some are just pure good entertainment, and, of course, there is nothing wrong with making films to entertain the audience, helping them forget the outside world for a few hours. However, if you want your story to add another level above the pleasure the entertainment offers, having a theme will be essential.
For the audience benefits, you should try to incorporate your story’s theme into every scene you write. Naturally, I don’t mean spelling the theme out with capital letters but giving gentle nods towards your theme will help your story come to its own.
At times the main character’s theme might be different to the secondary character’s or other protagonists. Or you might have a story on your hands, in which only the secondary character has a theme. If this is how the story is shaping, I would always suggest following the story’s flow.
While working with the theme, some of your scenes will have to question the central theme. Still, it doesn’t mean you have to answer those questions. You can just leave them unanswered and open for interpretation. Nevertheless, you don’t have to go out of your writing way to look for the theme. If it doesn’t fit the story you are writing, no amount of re-writing will help you come up with one. From my personal experience, I can say that forcing a theme onto the story or the characters will feel inauthentic to the audience.
Since I’m one of those writers who doesn’t plot, I usually allow the story to take care of the theme, instead of forcefully trying to accommodate a theme for the sake of it. Often it happens that the theme I thought I was working with isn’t the one that the story chose for itself.
If your script has a theme, it’s great. If it doesn’t, focus on writing the most entertaining script ever, instead.
Films with solid themes worth watching:
- “Inception” – How far can you push your unconscious mind? (the plasticity of the mind is a very hot topic atm.)
- “Forest Gump” – How far do you go when you love someone unconditionally?
- “Brokeback Mountain” – How far do you go when you love someone you shouldn’t because society doesn’t accept that kind of love?
- “Dirty Dancing” – How has the class system shaped our society and perception of different social classes?
- “Crash” – How are race and tolerance perceived by people from different backgrounds, living closely together without understanding what one another stands for and is capable of doing when pushed to the edge?