Sorry about the lack of posts. I was at LAX all night yesterday trying to get back to the Midwest. I didn’t make it but it looks like a Christmas miracle might get me out tonight. Before we move on to today’s article, I want to beg every traveler out there to please never fly American Airlines for the rest of your lives. Not only is it a terrible airline as far as comfort and customer service, but they have to be the most clueless airline company on the planet.

After being bumped 3 times last night to later and later flights, my last flight changed gates ELEVEN TIMES. That is not a printing error nor is it an exaggeration. In addition to this, I saw three women break down, fall to the floor, and start crying, due to how much they’d been dicked around all night, and one man lead a 30 person revolt against the gate attendant. It was insane.

After we’d changed gates for the 10th time, American Airlines kept saying we couldn’t board because the plane outside was broken, and they needed to tow it out before they could bring in “our plane.” We waited an hour for this towing to happen. Finally, when they moved us to our 11th and final gate, which did not have a plane in it, many astute passengers pointed out that since they no longer needed to tow a plane away, they could bring “our plane” up and start boarding. American Airlines, clearly caught in a lie, quickly moved to a new excuse about air traffic being broken or something.

I know the holidays are crazy for air travel but I’m not basing my critique here on just this experience. Every time I have flown American Airlines, it has been terrible. I only flew them this time because I had to. But I will never fly them again after this. It was the last straw.

Now, on to funner topics!

Because I don’t have time to write an in-depth article or review, I thought I’d share with you some brief thoughts on a screenwriting concept that’s always frustrated me: THEME

Theme has always been a tricky concept. To this day, I’m yet to meet someone who’s given me a definition for theme that doesn’t sound bullshitty (this is why theme posts get debated so vigorously – since there is no definition, everyone’s interpretation is different). But the other day I stumbled upon a Youtube video covering academia and had a mini-revelation. As I retroactively tested that revelation, I realized how much sense it made.

The idea is this. “Theme” comes in two flavors – simple and complex. BOTH can work effectively. You can use the simple version of theme and still write a good movie. In fact, I’d argue that the simple version gives you a better chance at writing a good movie. However, the complex version gives you a chance at writing a GREAT movie.

But before we get into that, let’s remind ourselves why we’d want a theme in the first place. A theme is there to keep your story focused. Whenever you lose your way, like a lighthouse, the theme is there to steer you back on course. Without a theme, your script seems scattered, confused, and unsure of what it’s trying to say.

If you were to grade this article on theme, for example, it would fail. I started out talking about how shitty American Airlines was before moving onto a screenwriting article. That’s thematically inconsistent, which is why this article feels messy. You could argue that because I just referenced my opening to prove a point about theme, that the theme for this article is intact, but that’s a debate for another time.

On to “simple theme.” The simple version of theme is the act of wrapping everything around a single idea. That idea can be anything! Take the Star Wars movies. A common theme I’ve heard thrown around for them is “Good vs. Evil.” As long as you play out the struggle of good vs. evil, the movie’s going to feel consistent and whole. However, if a storyline popped up in Star Wars about a character who was obsessed with money and needed to have all the money in the universe, you’d be like, “Uh, what the hell does this have to do with Star Wars?”

Or take Zootopia. The theme there is that we can be anything we want if we put our minds to it. It’s a simple easy to follow formula that gives your movie a point. And since Star Wars and Zootopia are both awesome movies, we know this type of theme works.

Now let’s move to the complex version of theme. To achieve this, we’ll be transforming the word itself. “Theme” will now become “Thesis.” The idea with a thesis is to create a question or theory that has to be proven or debated over the course of the story. Whereas bigger budget Hollywood fare will lean on theme to power its core, character pieces rely more on a thesis. And the best way to understand the power of a thesis is to compare two similar character pieces, one that used a theme, the other that used a thesis.

The first is Sully. Sully was boring as shit. Why was it boring as shit? Because the theme was boring as shit. What was that theme: Heroism. That’s it! A man being a hero. Now yes, that kept the story consistent throughout its running time. We were never confused about what Sully was about. But because this was a character piece, it needed a thesis, something that forced us to think a little more.

Bring in Flight. Flight based its screenplay on a thesis, that thesis being: “Can a bad person still be a hero?” Denzel Washington’s captain character put 250 peoples’ lives at risk by drinking all night and snorting up coke before he piloted that flight. But he still ended up pulling off a radical maneuver that saved most of the passengers’ lives. Notice how, by using a thesis, the story becomes a lot more complex. We’re not sure what we think of Whip. Yeah, he saved all those people, but he shouldn’t have gotten on that plane fucked up in the first place.

In both cases, we have something to center the story on. But in one, that something merely represents what’s going on, whereas in the other, it forces us to continually ask a question. Can bad people be heroes?

Hey wait a minute. My last two examples were about airplanes. Maybe this article is more theme-centric than I gave it credit for.

I’ll finish by saying this. If you’re just starting out in screenwriting, whether you’re writing a Hollywood movie or a character piece, go with a theme. Even if you’re experienced and you’re writing a Hollywood movie, go with a theme. The only people for whom I’d encourage using a thesis are seasoned screenwriters who are writing character pieces. I say this because I’ve seen beginner screenwriters try and use theses and they always make it too complicated on themselves. By trying to make their stories so intelligent and thematically resonant, they forget to actually make them entertaining. Don’t be one of those guys.


  • Wes Mantooth

    First. Happy holidays.

  • Lucid Walk

    I just had a revelation about Star Wars.

    Vader kills Obi-Wan; Luke screams No!
    Maul kills Qui-Gon; Obi-Wan screams No!
    Kylo Ren kills Han; Rey screams No!

    And each of these scenes occur in the first movie of their respective trilogies.

    Mind, officially, blown.

  • moog

    Great article and good luck getting home Carson!

    Lajos Egri’s Art of Dramatic Writing is a great text on theme, he calls it premise, but it seems like the he’s talking about theme. I feel there’s a danger lurking within theme / thesis. It’s there in Egri’s book, as well as in what you’ve mentioned above when you say, ‘The idea with a thesis is to create a question or theory that has to be proven over the course of the story.’ Egri, gives us a number of examples where ‘X leads to Y’ – ‘frugality leads to waste,’ ‘great love defies even death,’ and so on.

    While I think it’s fine to ‘discover’ or declare that as a theme after perhaps writing a treatment or a draft, I think it’s deadly to set out to prove something in this way.

    Perhaps a more expansive or nuanced way to consider it is, ‘create a question or theory that has to be explored over the course of the story.’ I realise that it may seem that I have just split a hair, but we are writers and words are magic.

    The difference between proving and exploring…

    Myself, I loved the simplicity of what Egri and say Blake Snyder offered in terms of thematic clarity. It rapidly became a prison from which my story and characters couldn’t escape. I was so set on proving the theme or thesis, that I didn’t give the characters a chance to be anything other than 2D thesis-proving cut-outs. The story itself became a preachy didactic bore-fest. The reason? I think, it’s because I already had the answers to all the questions before and set out to prove only those views / theme. No-one else’s view got a chance and a real danger, that I fell into, was that the story becomes one-sided.

    That script almost got binned until I realised what I was doing in the name of theme. After a big old chat with myself and a tearful goodbye to the comfort of Egri’s (still very useful and highly recommended) words, I began again. re-writing the whole thing, but this time placing a genuine sense of exploration at the heart of what I was writing about.

    So, to help me, I came upon the idea that the theme, at least in those early drafts, could be declared as a single word, if at all. Crime, Jealousy, Anger, Guilt, Society, Health etc. It’s broad enough to set the characters and story free while specific enough to keep things on course. More recently, I’ve begun to trust that the story beats will be consistent enough that, in the process of writing up the treatment (which is how I begin) it will be thematically on point, give or take.

    Later on, the statement about theme emerges and in a very apparent way and I discover how I really feel about the subject.

    And it’s surprising.

  • Midnight Luck

    I do believe it was The Screenwriting GodFather William Goldman who calls it the SPINE.
    Everything has to be connected to this Theme, this central conceit, this central thing. Everything stretches from it, everything is connected to it, it guides all movement, it cannot be without the spine at the center.

    So, for me, that is what THEME is. I agree with his creation. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about a character, their dialogue, a singular scene, or anything else in your script. No matter what, it has to be connected to this Spine of the story. It must organically grow from it, it must stretch out to it, or grow from it, so everything feels connected and part of the same being.

    • Malibo Jackk

      While movies need a spine.
      And the story should follow the spine.
      I guess I’m just not a believer in the “everything must”.

      The idea that you must believe in “everything” seems
      to be something borrowed from religion not screenwriting.

      (From a practical standpoint you would be hard pressed to defend
      everything you see in most movies as only there because of the theme.)

      • Scott Crawford

        Like religion, it’s more of a feeling… it just FEELS wrong, or feels right.

        When Goldman was writing those scripts, particularly the adaptations, he could FEEL that something didn’t belong and eventually that led to the spine. In the case of original works, whether based on true stories or his own ideas, it’s usually what first attracted him to the material.

        Once he knew the spine, he knew what scenes should be there and which shouldn’t. Made writing a lot quicker.

    • Scott Crawford

      Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid = Two outlaws flee to Bolivia and become legends for a second time.

      Lots of stuff about Butch’s childhood couldn’t be used because it wasn’t about them going to Bolivia, that was the story that Goldman was most attracted to.

      All the President’s Men = Two hungry reporters uncover the Watergate conspiracy.

      That’s the first half of the book; the second half is about the downfall of Nixon. The script ends halfway through the book.

      Marathon Man = A college student discovers his brother is a killer spy when a Nazi war criminal comes to New York.

      That’s was the genesis of the book – a Nazi war criminal coming to New York (to get his diamonds from a bank) and a young man finding that he has the genes of a killer. After four drafts (and a rewrite by Robert Towne), the killer bit was a little lost in the movie where he shoots one man in self-defense. At the end of the book, Babe kills EVERYONE.

      A Bridge Too Far = A cavalry charge that falls too short.

      Goldman and director Richard Attenborough wanted to tell the stories of all the soldiers who won Victoria Crosses (five of them) at Arnhem but such a story would have no SPINE. As a consequence, Bridge is a rare (anti-)war movie told from the point of view of the OFFICERS.

      The Right Stuff (Goldman draft) = The story of how the Americans caught up with the Russians in the space race.

      The book covers everything from Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier through ALL the Mercury flights. It had no spine. originally, Tom Wolfe wanted to tell the whole story of space flight from Chuck Yeager thru Mercury, Gemini and then the Apollo moon landings, but stopped halfway through. The producers proposed to Goldman that he skip Yeager and instead concentrate on Mercury training and selection, Alan Shepherd, Gus Grissom (the low point of act two) and ENDING with John Glenn.

      To this, Goldman added a theme, a rare example of a blatant theme, that America, though knocked, is still a great country. Then Phil Kaufman came on board, put Chuck Yeager back in, and all the rest of the astronauts, chucked out all the theme and did a literal, spineless adaptation of the book. Cost a fortune and led to the collapse of The Ladd Company.

  • DaChoppa

    The theme of Star Wars is mysticism v technology. Notice how it plays out in the Death Star trench run when Luke finally embraces the force.

    The theme should be apparent in the first few scenes/pages. The Godfather is a great example of calling to theme in the first scene. It’s about “the failure of the American dream”. The undertaker tells you that. What else alludes to this theme? Michael is an American soldier, drug business v Olive Oil, the FBI intrusion. Michael breaks off his American dream, including his girlfriend, and goes back to his family, then to Sicily, then back to America as a new but conflicted man – Sicilian v American way of life.

    Clockwork Orange? “If man can’t make a choice, is he still a man?”