A script without a theme is like a photograph without a subject. The picture can be well-composed, colorful, sharp, and yet the experience of looking at the photo feels empty. You get no sense of what the photographer was trying to say with the image.
“Trying to say,” is a nice way to define theme. When you write a story, you should be trying to say something. You don’t have to. But it helps fill in the emptiness. It helps give your story meaning.
Today, I want to talk about how to find your theme. And not just for your own projects. When you break into the big leagues, being able to discuss theme in a pitch room will be one of the determining factors for you getting the job. When you’re angling for that million dollar Emoji Movie assignment, you better have an idea of what your theme is going to be going into the pitch or I promise you, you won’t get it.
Despite the term being one of the most abstract in the craft, theme isn’t as difficult to identify as you might think. In fact, most of the time, it’s right under your nose.
A few weeks ago, Steph Jones sent me her logline for a consultation (the script was also a part of last week’s Amateur Offerings). Her script was about two fame-seeking millennials who start a fake travel adventure blog. Going off that one-sentence breakdown, let’s see how we figure out the theme.
The driving force behind Steph’s story is clearly fame. That’s what these characters are looking for. Therefore, our theme should revolve around celebrity. So maybe the theme is about our culture’s obsession with celebrity without actually having to earn it, and the ramifications of that.
Keep in mind that simple/universal themes resonate best. And that a good theme teaches the characters a lesson after it’s all over.
Continuing on, let’s look at yesterday’s script, Murder on the Orient Express. Here’s the logline: “When a murder occurs in the first class cabin of the Orient Express, a world renown detective must figure out which of the travelers committed the crime.”
This one is tougher as the logline is too broad to imply any obvious themes. However, if you were writing this script yourself (spoilers!), you would know that the murdered man is an escaped killer, and that the travelers have decided to kill him for it. This opens up a more obvious theme, which is that of vigilante justice. If a man has done something inarguably horrible, is it okay to take justice into your own hands, or do you gamble on the risky nature of official justice, where the man might go free? This is one of the most common themes in film. You see it in Westerns, in superhero movies, and in revenge thrillers (John Wick).
Okay, let’s up the difficulty level. Dunkirk: “An army of 300,000 men, trapped on the beach, desperately await rescue while a surrounding German army decides whether to attack or not.”
War allows for the exploration of many themes. So it’s not like you can wrong here. But with the key plotline focusing on one soldier’s willingness to do anything to escape the beach, you could argue that the theme of Dunkirk is, simply, selfishness. At what point does sacrifice give way to looking out for number one? Indeed, this theme is present throughout many war movies.
Since this is Scriptshadow, we can’t go through an entire Thursday post without a Star Wars example. But let’s make it tough on ourselves. We’re going to find a theme for Rogue One: “A group of misfit criminals must join together to steal the plans of the most dangerous weapon in the universe.”
Hopefully you guys are getting a feel for this now, so before I offer my theme, go ahead and try to figure this out on your own. I’ll wait… Okay, so we have a group of people attempting to steal something. Normally, these people operate on their own. So this one is actually pretty easy. The theme is the power of the group over the individual. In life, one person can only achieve so much. But together, the possibilities are infinite.
Remember, themes should have consequences for the characters who deviate from them. Or, at the very least, the threat of consequence. So if one of the characters in Rogue One chooses an action that pits himself above the group, he should pay for it.
Okay, let’s end on the toughest one yet. It’s so tough, I’m not even sure what the theme is yet. Gone Girl. Here’s the IMDB logline: “With his wife’s disappearance having become the focus of an intense media circus, a man tries to prove that his wife is inexplicably responsible for what has happened.”
Usually, when the theme for a movie isn’t obvious after you’ve watched it, that’s a bad thing. It means the message didn’t come through clearly enough. And it may be why, while Gone Girl is considered a good film, it’s not one that’s remained in the public conscious. That’s why theme is so important. A well-executed theme helps a movie stay with someone for many years to come.
But I’ll give it my best shot. I’d say that the theme of Gone Girl is our society’s need to try people in the court of public opinion. You’re guilty until proven innocent. What I find interesting about this and similar themes is that while they shine a light on society, they don’t hit the audience on an emotional level. That’s something to keep in mind when you choose your theme. Do you want to make a statement about society or do you want to make a statement about the individual? The former gets critics frothing but the latter stays with audiences longer.
Now bust out your latest script and figure out the theme, dammit!
Carson does feature screenplay consultations, TV Pilot Consultations, and logline consultations, which go for $25 a piece or 5 for $75. You get a 1-10 rating, a 200-word evaluation, and a rewrite of the logline. And as of today, all logline consultations come with an 8 hour turnaround time. If you’re interested in any sort of consultation package, e-mail Carsonreeves1@gmail.com with the subject line: CONSULTATION. Don’t start writing a script or sending a script out blind. Let Scriptshadow help you get it in shape first!