Theme: What’s Your Story Actually About?

storytelling, surface plot, thematic, theme -

Theme: What’s Your Story Actually About?

Theme is an undervalued component in a lot of the scripts we see come through the doors here at ScriptArsenal. The danger of a script that’s lacking in theme is that it’s just about the surface plot.

When we think about the greatest movies of all time, they aren’t “about” their surface plots, they just use them to discuss thematic concerns, and often universally relatable ones. Adding this weight to your script is an essential tool that can help people (like producers and actors) deeply connect to the material.

THE GODFATHER is about family, and more specifically, about familial obligation. STAR WARS is about faith. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION is about the value of hope. Interestingly, Frank Darabont would go on to make THE MIST, which is about the danger of giving up hope. This applies to recent classics as well. WALL-E is about loneliness. THE SOCIAL NETWORK is about friendship, and ambition, and the cost of losing one to further the other.

Let’s take a standard plot, absent any true theme. A cop must stop a serial killer. You can dress up the serial killer with any sort of elaborate methodology or ritual, and give the cop all sorts of gritty edge. None of that means anything other than window dressing unless it’s in the service of a substantive thematic thrust.

Plot doesn’t stand the test of time in the same way theme does. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION’s enduring legacy isn’t because it has a great second act, or a neat inciting incident, or a big end of Act Two beat.

People remember THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION for its moments that encapsulate the theme. Andy never gives up hope. And he eventually escapes. Brooks gets released, but he gives up hope, and kills himself.

In THE GODFATHER, when Michael commits murder, it’s meaningful not just as a piece of plotting, but because it symbolizes his commitment to his familial responsibility, at a high cost. Not everyone in the world has been in prison, or been a gangster. But we’ve all felt hopeless, or hopeful, or felt burdened by familial responsibility.

Grounding your stories in these powerful, universal themes can make a piece of storytelling unforgettable.

Do you come into your screenplays with a pre-determined theme, or do you find it as you write?

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