The theme of a story, whether it be a novel, film, television show, or any kind of narrative, can be viewed in at least two ways. Most importantly, a theme is the idea that integrates everything in a story — the nature of its characters, their motivations, and arcs, as well as their conflicts and all the events of the plot, to name just a few key aspects. Novelist and screenwriter Ayn Rand noted that a “theme is the summation of a [story’s] abstract meaning” and “is the general abstraction in relation to which the events serve as the concretes.” We can see big themes in the events of such classic screen stories as The Fountainhead, High Noon, Adventure Story, In the Heat of the Night, and Saving Mr. Banks.
Other screenwriters and creatives view theme more narrowly, as the message or moral that a story expresses. That is, a theme is an idea or lesson that a story conveys about people and life, about how the world works. There is a vast range of message story types, from Aesop Fables to fairy tales, to the plays of Shakespeare and Ibsen, to the latest Spielberg or Coppola film drama.
The theme or message of a story can operate on many different levels, depending upon the form and genre of a particular story, and on the interests and imagination of the writer. One of the most common themes in literature and on the screen is good versus evil. Witness it, for example, in Star Wars or Marvel epics. And experience the very popular theme of justice in many westerns, detective stories or thrillers such as The Searchers, The Maltese Falcon and Die Hard. Also, observe themes about romantic love in romantic or romantic comedy films such as Casablanca and Pretty Woman or Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Dramas often have more psychological themes, such as those dramatized in The Browning Version, The Natural, and Chariots of Fire.
Whichever way you view theme it is important to tell a story. Following are some key ways a screenwriter can use theme to write a dramatic story:
A story is not only integrated by its central conflict, but also by its theme. As Rand indicates in her quotes above, the conflicts and events in a story express a thematic idea. Understanding this, a screenwriter, for instance, has an aid to help them concretize their theme in their character motivations and conflicts. A writer knowing their theme also helps them create story events. For example, when developing your story ask yourself, “What conflicts or events would best express this theme?”
Consciously working out a theme for a story also allows the writer to create a story where every part of it fits together to make a unified and satisfying dramatic whole. One key way for a screenwriter to integrate his story is to orchestrate his characters so that they all express different aspects of the story’s theme. In the Heat of the Night, for instance, the two lead characters represent two different and clashing ideas and belief systems about race.
Brilliant northern black detective (Virgil Tibbs played by Sidney Poitier) believes that his individual skill and character and not his race are what is essential about him as a person and as a detective. Whereas racist southern sheriff (Chief Gillespie played by Rod Steiger) believes that individual skill and character are secondary to race or even a reflection of race. The plot in In the Heat of the Night is essentially Gillespie learning that he is wrong and so changes his ideas and actions. The other characters in this ideological drama represent different variants of attitudes that are racist or that allow racism to flourish. The theme or central idea or message about race in In the Heat of the Night ties together everything in the film. (One part of the greatness of In the Heat of the Night is that it depicts the solution to racism, especially in the meaning of Chief Gillespie’s character arc and his choices and actions in the climax.)
Director Francis Ford Coppola discussed the importance of theme, especially its significance as an integrator, when he stated: “A director is asked a thousand questions a day, so if you have a single theme unifying your movie you can deal with all the details”. Coppola continued more specifically about some of his films: “In The Conversation, the theme was privacy. In The Godfather movies, it was succession. And in Apocalypse Now, it was morality”.
Great stories have universal themes that dramatize value-laden principles of life applicable to everyone, regardless of their race, culture, class or gender. In Adventure Story, for example, playwright and screenwriter Terence Rattigan’s classic story about Alexander the Great, the central concern is self-understanding, a vitally important universal human necessity. Every person faces the struggle to understand his or her emotions, reactions, and hidden premises, that is, his or her subconscious. And like Alexander in Adventure Story every person can potentially have a conflict between their conscious mind and their emotions. An original theme like the struggle for self-understanding is immensely difficult to dramatize but deeply moving for audiences around the world when done well, as it is in Adventure Story.
The universality of a theme influences the resonance of a story. If you want your story to reach a broad audience, it can’t just be pitched to a segment of society, such as political junkies intrigued by the concrete politics of Washington D.C. or Canberra, or young teens fascinated by the evil nature of serial killers, or tragedians engrossed by the travails of a victimized unlikable priest.
Generally, stories attract a broader audience if they are pitched towards the deepest values that all humans share. Examples of such primary values include survival, reason, freedom, justice, friendship, romantic love, self-esteem, dreams, and happiness. Because these values are universal needs, longings and ideals they appeal to people on a visceral level and thus have been the thematic heart of many great stories.
One of the most dramatic ways a writer can apply a theme in a story is in the character arcs. In many stories, whether it be an adventure like Star Wars or a drama like Saving Mr. Banks, a lead character often changes during the story. How he or she begins the story is different from how he or she ends it. This change is most often psychological, especially involving a change in the values and premises of the character. In Star Wars, for instance, Luke Skywalker is introduced as a boy with ambitions for adventure but as having low skills and experience. During the story of Star Wars, because of events, the influence of mentors, and especially because of his own thinking and choices, Luke changes so that by the end of the film he is a man who can fight the Empire and destroy the Death Star. Luke has changed his ideas and self-attitude.
The lead character in Saving Mr. Banks is P. L. Travers, the creator of the Mary Poppins books that Walt Disney has promised his daughters he will produce as a movie. But Travers, except for monetary problems, does not want to sell her book rights, especially to an animator. Saving Mr. Banks has two (integrated) main plotlines: The first, set in the present, is Disney struggling to persuade Travers to sell him the rights.
This storyline is intercut with a second plot of Travers’ childhood that dramatizes the mystery of why she is emotionally unable to sell her creation. Both plots express the perceptively real and deeply personal theme, that Travers cannot live fully as an adult because she has not dealt with the issues of her childhood relationship with her dreamer and alcoholic father. Until Travers changes her premise about her father, she will never sell her story rights. Spoiler: By the end of the film, Disney finally understands Travers’ motivation and in a last effort to persuade her to sell him the rights he tells Travers about his own childhood relationship with his (at times) brutal father and so teaches Travers to finally confront her past and thus make her big choice to change her premises. Travers’ psychological problem and her substantial personal growth dramatize a universal theme that makes this drama one of the most poignant of recent years.
Theme and Emotion
As indicated in our discussion of Mr. Banks, it is very often the ideas dramatized in a story (especially in its character arcs) that cause the greatest emotional reaction in an audience. This emotional response results when an audience understands and cares about the personal psychological adventure of a character changing his mind about something of vital importance to his life. Or, put more specifically: When a character struggles with a big choice between two big ideas or values. Such a character most commonly makes his final intensely difficult choice (often based on a great insight) in the climax and so forever changes his life, often for the better. Because the audience empathizes with the conflict of values that the character is struggling with, when it witnesses the climax/resolution of this conflict it has a cathartic response, often in the form of a cheer or tears. For example, we experience very strong emotions in Casablanca when Rick learns to trust and love again, in Pretty Woman, when Edward Lewis chooses love. And we cheer in the climax of Saving Mr. Banks when Travers finds resolution with her tragic past and makes her climactic decision to accept Disney’s offer.
A screenwriter can also induce the emotion of suspense in an audience through developing a theme. This feeling of wonder or worry doesn’t only result from viewers empathizing with a character placed in great physical peril but can also result after we ally our selves with a character struggling with a hard choice. When an audience becomes engrossed by a character’s struggle between two big values it enters a state of anxious anticipation about what the character will choose and what will be the consequences of that choice. This feeling of anticipation draws an audience deeply into a story.
The Theme Shot
The first shot (image) in a film is sometimes called a theme shot when the writer or director has created a shot that is emblematic of the theme or meaning of the film. For example, in Pretty Woman, the opening shots are of protagonist Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) driving lost in the Hollywood Hills, taking wrong turns and hitting a dead end. These shots are emblematic of the mind and life of Lewis, who is about to meet Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts), who will forever change his thinking about his values and life direction.
Or consider the film genre Westerns. Have you noticed that almost every classic western (1939-1969) opens the same way? A lone rider on a horse heading towards civilization. The world this loner is entering is often morally out of kilter and this individual can set it right. What is the meaning of this first shot in what was once the most popular film and television genre of them all? It is individualism, the view that each person is an independent being who owns his own life can think for himself should take responsibility for his own actions, and must be free to keep any product of his thinking and actions. That is, each person is an end in himself with an inviolable right to his life, liberty, property, and pursuit of his own happiness. This American idea is a central theme in all classic Westerns, their characters and their stories, and it was this theme that helped make Westerns so widely popular around the world.
Dark vs. Benevolent Themes
The above discussion does not mean that all themes must be positive and inspirational. Great art and storytelling can come from dark arenas and have important and dramatic themes to show or teach us. As just one example, consider The Godfather. Although the film in ways glorifies and wants us to sympathize with mafia gangsters, the heart and meaning of the story is a beautifully produced cautionary tale about Michael Corleone allowing himself to be seduced from being a good man and lover to a murderous mafia don and deceitful husband.
When writing a story, theme should not be overlooked. Theme is fundamental to good storytelling. Theme is especially essential to give your characters and events meaning, a meaning that often leads to great spiritual or emotional involvement and release by an audience. Great themes create great drama. To ignore the important meaning of theme is to greatly lessen the chances of your story being the best that it can be and of it finding a good producer or large audience.