By: Laurie Ashbourne
Whether I’m starting a project of my own or am brought onto one for notes or a rewrite, one of the first things I do is ask, “What do you want the audience to walk away with?” When we get an idea for a story there is usually an underlying “thing” we want the audience to recognize and somehow be moved by. That “thing” is theme and it can really break your story (in a good way). The moment a writer breaks the back of their story is the moment the scenes flow effortlessly, each characters’ goal becomes clear, the plot paces out like the best day of your life, and you cannot wait to get it all down.
It’s easy to mistake some premises for theme, such as; a child is kidnapped, and the mother will stop at nothing to get him or her back. But that is cursory stab at a plot line and tells us nothing about how that mother’s journey to retrieve her child will change everything about who she thought she was. It also does not help us envision the story world so it’s ineffective even as a logline (but that’s another post).
Theme transcends cultural barriers. It is usually universal to all humans. When a theme is universal, it touches on the human experience, regardless of race or language. It is what the story means. Theme is not only your point of view as a writer, it is also in opposition to the flaw of your main character, it is what they need to realize to complete the story. And that’s why when you get it right, it can break your story and make everything work in synergy. Often, a piece of writing will have more than one theme but the main theme is what your main character needs to work out.
Theme is also what draws talent to a script. Jodi Foster puts as “why something moves you” Tom Hanks asks, “Why are we here?” When an actor can’t answer these questions about their role the acting comes off as inauthentic and uninspired.
So how do you pinpoint and develop themes in your story? When a story is developed at a deeper level (depth of character, depth of plot) it tends to live on for a long time. And this is where the main character’s flaw can help with theme. The most compelling protagonists and antagonists have a flaw they need to transcend in order to get past the story obstacle.
Nobody is perfect; we know that. It is the imperfections that make us relatable. These character “flaws” don’t have to be negative or debilitating. If you look at the character, Joy, in Pixar’s INSIDE OUT, her flaw is that she doesn’t believe there should be sadness in life and it’s not until she accepts (the character), Sadness, that she can grow emotionally and allow Riley to embrace sadness and thus get her life back in emotional balance. The theme of INSIDE OUT is that it’s okay to be sad once in awhile.
Realizing this is an “aha” moment for the writer, and thus the breaking of your story.
The term ‘breaking story’ refers to the moment when you finally get the breakthrough that makes your story and writing sail toward the coveted, fade out. For most, the time leading up to the breaking point is an arduous process, and I will dare to say that it is because the process is spent hammering away at the plot rather than what your story is about at its core. Why are you telling this story? What lasting tidbit do you want the audience to walk away with? These questions are answered with your main theme and sadly, a lot of writers don’t think about theme until after the first draft. By breaking your theme early, you will always be able to address notes while staying true to your story and that’s where the true collaboration of a film comes in.
The sooner we figure that out in our creative process, the easier other elements fall into place (from props to dialogue to opening and closing images, to colors to casting). But more importantly, for writers, the sooner we figure it out the less defensive we get about notes because we look at it more constructively and are able to stay true to the core of what the story is about while addressing outside impressions.
Does every story need a sophisticated depth that theme can be attributed to? No, of course not. Most sitcom episodes don’t hinge on this, because they serve a different purpose in entertainment, they are essentially meant to be simple, easy to digest and a way to not have to think after a long day when you want to just numb your senses in front of “the boob tube”. That said, the arc of the sticom series, as a whole will most certainly have a theme. IE: FRIENDS, HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, SEINFELD, etc. And thankfully, theme is embedded in the vast offering of dramatic series we are all enjoying at the moment.
Another way to build up theme is to look at your act turning points and find ways to check in with your main character emotionally as your characters face the turning points in the plot – this results in a story that has many layers and fires on all cylinders.
A word of caution; everything in moderation, don’t overload your film with riddles of metaphor. I worked with a director/writer once who thought everything in his film had to be a metaphor – it was a running joke on set, (and not always in a jovial sense) but sadly it made the film a mess.
The movie’s theme should be slid into every aspect of the film as subtly possible. But it needs to be evident enough that it ties everything together and gives the audience the ‘why’ of the story – but not so much that it becomes a sermon or sledge hammer to the head. One of the easiest ways to introduce theme is through dialogue. Some of the most memorable lines of dialogue also cement that film’s theme. But again, use dialogue as theme in moderation. Here’s a handful of examples that work: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” This line is used often throughout the franchise – but it was never a joke, it always had the effect of a zinger. The line refers to Vito’s launch into mob-hood and the underlying theme of do as I say, or pay with your life – in the end (and little Vito’s beginning) all of the Corleones paid with the lives of the ones they love.
“May the Force be with you.” Han Solo said this in the original STAR WARS, but ‘using the force’ or tapping into our own personal power is a theme that runs through the entire franchise.
“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” My Sydney Lumet addiction started long before I knew I was related to him (briefly, through marriage) but he had this way of making actors embody their lines. When this line became the NETWORK character Howard Beale’s statement, it summed up not only the movie but also society as a whole.
“There’s no place like home.” This one probably comes close to being a sermon, but there’s no denying that Dorothy needed to learn that everything she needed in life was right under her nose at the farm she called home.
“Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Does this one really need explaining?
“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” Again, my Captain’s words need no explanation.
“Just keep swimming.” This Dory line is one of the underlying themes of FINDING NEMO; persistence can achieve the impossible. Had Marlin not kept swimming, he never would have found Nemo, had Nemo not kept swimming he too would have never found Marlin, but this theme can also be found in every character and subplot in this film, from the fish in the tank, to making it through the jellies, to the shark’ s trying to cure their addiction, to traversing the EOC, to Dory, to Nemo in the net. FINDING NEMO actually had a few themes (as a lot of these noted examples did), with Marlin needing to let his son go in order to have him return, but ‘just keep swimming’ is the theme that we cannot escape.
Nine times out of ten, theme won’t be the first thing you think of when you get an idea for a story, but it should be the third…
- BIG IDEA should lead you to wonder
- What kind of character would best portray this idea, and
- What flaw would that character have to overcome in order to be changed by the journey of this story idea?
The answer to number three reveals your theme, which can then inform your plot and everything else.
In Stephen King’s, Danse Macabre, he recalls how he instinctively felt his way through story theme like a blind man, until he was asked to teach the subject. He then realized that one never truly understands what their given thoughts are on any subject until they’ve written them down. I consider myself fortunate that in my consulting on others’ material, and helping them find the focus of the story they want to tell, it has made the question of “what’s it all about” become the focus of every story I look at, including my own.
Laurie has worked for Walt Disney Studios, Amazon Studios, and many small independent producers as a story consultant, writer, and producer. With over 20 years in the industry, Laurie reads hundreds of scripts a year in many different capacities. With over 30 credits, she is also an optioned screenwriter and currently has many original feature films in production including: a genre film on the fast track with Eli Roth and Roger Birnbaum producing at Orion, a biopic at Bohemia Group Originals, and an independent animated film in pre-production.