Elevate Your Script With Theme (Part 2)

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Theme

TV Themes

No, not the great music that introduces the shows, but the actual thematic overlays that follow entire runs of seasons.

Billions speaks of greed and power. Axe has some memorable lines that illuminate this, “You Were Wrong. I’m not human. I am a machine. I’m a f****** terminator.

Axe to Chuck: “What have I done wrong? Really? Except make money and succeed.

Axe always justifies/ rationalizes his bad behavior as does Chuck and his blind ambition to be in charge and take down who he perceives are bad guys.

Chuck: “There are no innocent men. Not on Wall Street.” And – “Wouldn’t we be better off if we didn’t let shame win?

Star Trek, TOS (The Original Series), tackled themes weekly. Gene Roddenberry once said he created the show as Wagon Train in outer space. Fine, it was. But the deeper, underlying reason he expressed, was that he wanted to get around the network censors and put social themes on the small screen by placing the situations in another era and on other planets. It’s a testament to his genius vision that decades later the series stills resonates and is still exploring strange, new worlds, but with familiar themes.

Few know that Star Trek: TOS has the first interracial kiss on broadcast television between Kirk and Uhura. It seems ridiculous now, but there was a time when that sort of interaction was taboo. One episode, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield had aliens who were colored black and white. To show the silliness of racism, one has a right side black and left white, and the other the opposite. And they were bitter enemies. Ridiculous and telling of our world at that time.

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Nyota Uhura & Dr. Spock in Star Trek

Beauty is only skin deep was explored in Mudd’s Women who were gorgeous beyond measure because they took a pill to make them that way. In the end, the pills ran out and all could see their true beauty without the enhancement.

Even before Star Trek, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone had an amazing set of episodes with strong themes. One stands out about a beautiful woman who runs screaming from her doctors and nurses who are horrible monsters only to find out that her beauty is actually horrifying. In this world she’s the “monster.”

The Munsters had Marilyn who wasn’t a monster and everyone in the family felt sorry for her because she wasn’t a vampire, Frankenstein, werewolf, or other frightener, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

One Outer Limits episode (The Chameleon) showed a young Robert Duvall being enhanced to look like an alien so he could infiltrate an alien camp. As he interacted with the “invaders” he came to understand and like them. In the end, he couldn’t harm them putting the thematic idea of prejudicial fear coming from the unknown on stark display.

Black Mirror today regularly applies solid themes to the episodes to create deeper feelings in the viewer.

Oscar Bait

A sampling of Best Picture Oscars shows the power of theme. Rocky, Moonlight, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Unforgiven, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and My Fair Lady all were critical and commercial successes because, they not only told a great story very well, but had strong themes underpinning those stories.

CODA is a film about a deaf family – except it’s not as much that, thematically, as a young woman trying to find herself and break away from societal expectations. Yes, it has some of the most powerful moments (and sometimes funny) points to make about being deaf in a hearing world, but Ruby’s struggle to stop being her family’s hearing interface to the world is universal in that we all go through this to some degree or another.

This is an old-fashioned theme in many ways – immigrant families expecting their children to follow into the family business. But how old-fashioned? Is not Kinky Boots or Uncorked about familial expectations and trying to get beyond them?

The universality of theme shows itself again and again.

How To Use Theme

Want a script that punches people in the feels? Use a strong theme to carry the narrative. It helps in all aspects of your story.

Here’s how:

  • Make the theme universal.

Love, death, money, ego, fear of something, loss, evil, redemption – all these have universality in the world in any age, any era, any culture.

  • Explore theme throughout the story.

Characters reacting according to their natures, which is one of the ways theme is illuminated, lends overall strength to the story. The plot should touch on the why of the story. How did those criminals get caught by the protagonist? Why did the event in the character’s past end up creating that person’s flaws. How did the character’s lack of humility cause them to get a bad result?

  • Go into the subconscious, the hidden places.

Horror scares us because we have a strong self-preservation instinct that’s hard-wired to make us flee danger. Even if we know it’s a story, our brain triggers a response. Horror especially emotionally taps into that darkness we all fear. And that fear that we feel, digs into our sub-conscious mind and kicks at our most vulnerable spots. Solid theme gets you solid scares.

We laugh at comedy because it has a universal appeal. Since true laughter is spontaneous, unexpected, explore what has been proved funny forever because that’s getting into the deep recesses of our minds. A person getting hit with a pie is funny no matter when or where it takes place. Someone being caught in the middle of something embarrassing is fodder for the foolishness we all experience and understand. If the story is satirical, we can all relate if the situation lends itself to exaggeration of the theme of ego, greed, etc.

Love is always, always a solid overlay to any storyline. We all seek it, we all understand the good, the bad, and the ugly of it. It’s part of our deep brain.

Redemption is a strong, ever-present theme and probably a number one theme.

Nothing like the boxer who “goes the distance against all odds” (Rocky) or the shattered person who climbs back out of a pit of despair. The romantic lead who loses and then regains their love interest has launched a million storylines. The team who can’t play to save their lives, like The Bad News Bears, suddenly finding their “groove” and perhaps not winning the championship but gaining a measure of self-respect is always a strong entry.

  • Try to reflect the theme in other characters beside the main character.

Side characters who either reflect the main character or expose them is a nice thematic way to add texture to your story. If the main character is ego-poisoned, people around him can show that same issue or invalidate it. Suits has characters who illuminate the world of cutthroat lawyers who work hard to get a result but at least as interesting is the office politics that most seem to play. No one is pure but some are less vicious than others.

  • The Seven Deadly Sins are a great place to find theme.

Pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth cover the gamut with pride (ego) being the first deadly sin that really defines the others. Se7en famously had the serial killer exposing societal ills by killing according to the deadly sins.

The converse is the Seven Virtues: Chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. These can be easily used in any storyline. Someone who can’t control their bad habits (gluttony) may have to learn temperance (control.) Movies about addiction have strong themes of finding a way to handle lives turned upside down by an inability to maintain a normal existence.

  • Theme should not be just a concept but rather an emotional response.

Les Miserables is a powerful story about character Jean Valjean’s journey from poverty to success. Nothing in it is intellectual – it’s all raw emotion and pain ultimately ending with acceptance and joy.

Lord of the Rings is a difficult, dangerous journey undertaken because of a sense of responsibility by a stout group of reluctant but brave hobbits.

Dune is messianic in its approach in both story and theme as Paul Atreides fulfills a destiny not of his choosing but of his fate after the evil Harkonnens murder his family and try to take over the planet. But a deeper, darker theme expressed by author Frank Herbert is beware of heroes.

  • Theme should never be blatantly obvious.

The lessons of theme should float lightly on the surface of the story and be interwoven into the tale not expressed vocally by someone (unless it’s satiric.) We work in in a visual medium – show don’t tell – theme should be a part of that mandate. Audiences will ‘get it’ if you write your story with a relatable theme. No one doesn’t understand Seabiscuit’s journey. Or the despair of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. Or the stark lessons in Wind River. When the wildlife officer played by Jeremy Renner leaves the rapist on the top of the mountain giving him the same chance he gave his victim, the theme of natural justice thunders wordlessly.

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Cocaine Bear


Theme is the why. Why are we telling this story, why are people reading/watching it? More importantly,  why are they responding to it?

Even Cocaine Bear, that mad romp in a forest, had underlying themes (besides don’t give cocaine to a bear.)

Use the best part of any movie, theme, for your Meth Monkey flick.

Series Navigation<< Elevate Your Script With Theme (Part 1)

Mark Sevi

Contributing Writer

Mark Sevi is a professional screenwriter (34 scripts sold, 19 movies done as a writer, and 16 credits as a producer of other projects). He lectures and teaches scriptwriting in Southern California. He is also the founder of the OC Screenwriters Association. His book, "Quantum Scriptwriting: Informed Structure" is available on Amazon in ebook or print. His bi-monthly podcast on scriptwriters and scriptwriting (plotpointspodcast) is available on Apple Podcasts and others. He is repped by Wayne Alexander of Alexander, Lawrence, Frumes &amp; Labowitz, LLP in Beverly Hills.

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