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The most neglected area of the average screenplay is the theme. Young writers just never write scripts that are deep with meaning. They rarely ever have a theme.

It doesn’t have to be much, you can do it mostly with short beats here and there, but there should be something there. There should be a theme.

The theme is really what your movie’s all about. Not the plot. Just like how your main-character overcoming his character-flaw is what that character’s story is truly about. The screenplay’s story isn’t about your protagonist defeating the enemy - it’s about him changing and becoming a better person. The screenplay isn’t about the protagonist defeating the enemy - it’s about the protagonist overcoming his character-flaw, whatever that is. Defeating the enemy is secondary.  Well, it’s the same with the theme. Your movie isn’t about the plot - it’s really about the theme.

Take District 9, for example. It’s not about aliens crash-landing on Earth and trying to get home - it’s about segregation and apartheid. Of humans. In Africa. When the interviewees were speaking on-camera, they weren’t speaking about prawns, they were speaking about other ethnic groups in South Africa! Yes, a lot of that footage was real people speaking freely. I actually went to a movie and had dinner with the screen-writers of that movie while they were writing it. The movie’s not about aliens at all. It’s about racism and all the bad things that happened in South Africa over the last 50 years. The theme’s apartheid, not aliens.

Avatar is similar. It’s not about humans fighting a war on another planet - it’s really about environmentalism!

It’s about how we are destroying the Earth, not Pandora.

Notice how, throughout the film, James Cameron constantly shows us bad little things caused by our disregard for the environment? It’s rarely ever in-your-face, just little hints in the dialogue, settings and backgrounds that hint at it. They don’t need to be long, either, just a few seconds here and there reinforcing the idea.

“A film is, or should be, more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” - Stanley Kubrick

THE THEME

What the story is REALLY about.

Rarely stated explicitly.

It’s the undercurrent running beneath your story. Always there.

05

NEXT UP…  THE PROTAGONIST’S CHARACTER-ARC!

Also known as the protagonist’s internal-conflict.

Every great protagonist needs a flaw overcome. Something that’s been holding him back. Something that needs fixing.

BACK FORWARD Every Screenplay Needs a Theme

You can reinforce your theme using motifs.

In the Godfather, whenever you see an orange, death is usually around the corner. Right before Don Vito dies, he eats an orange, he buys two oranges before he’s shot, etc… There are more than a dozen scenes that have something to do with oranges in The Godfather. Coppola also uses doors and windows to separate the characters from their environment and give a sense of foreboding. Et cetera.

The Shawshank Redemption is an interesting one.

The theme is actually redemption. Just like it says in the title. The movie isn’t about the Shawshank Prison Escape, it’s about the Shawshank Redemption.

But, here’s the interesting part... It’s not the main-character’s redemption we are talking about - it’s Red’s redemption (Morgan Freeman’s character).

This is why the movie has that extremely long third act and you don’t really know what’s going on. The audience thinks the story is about Tim Robbins’ character - so they are confused when he escapes and the movie should end, but it doesn’t. It keeps going on. That’s because, again, the movie isn’t about a prison-escape - it’s about a redemption.

Tim Robbins, despite being the protagonist, isn’t really the one with the character-arc. Andy Dufresne doesn’t really change at all. He was a good person when he goes into prison, and he’s a good person when he gets out. Red, however, does change. By the end of the film, he finally has hope.

It’s a highly-atypical structure, but they pulled it off beautifully.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t about a mental hospital, it’s about oppression by people in power.

You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘love conquers all’ about a thousand times relating to different movies. Well, that’s their theme right there!

The theme of Groundhog Day isn’t a time-loop, it’s about love and being honest and open, not selfish and self-absorbed. Bill Murray’s character doesn’t get out of the time-loop until he finally tells the truth and is open and honest with his love-interest. It’s not until he tells her that he loves her and stops trying to manipulate the world around him that he can finally succeed in his quest (to return to the normal world).

Every time Bill Murray does something dishonest or tries to make the world fit to his whims - it goes badly for him. Being a bad person goes badly. It’s not until he changes that he can finally succeed. But, that’s more the character-arc than the theme.

The theme doesn’t necessarily have to be life-affirming. Fight Club, for instance, has a theme about alienation and anger in modern city-life.

The Truman Show’s theme is about the ubiquity of surveillance in our society.

Dances With Wolves is about racism and environmentalism.

Rocky isn’t about winning a fight - it’s about believing in yourself and giving it 100%. That’s the theme. Rocky loses the fight, but he still wins in the end. Because his mission isn’t to win, it’s to finally believe in himself and give it his all.

The Seven Samurai (the Magnificent Seven) is about standing up for the oppressed. It’s not a kung-fu movie.

Rudy’s theme would be about never giving up.

12 Angry Men’s or To Kill A Mockingbird’s themes are both about racism and doing the right thing.

The theme of any ‘message movie’ is whatever that message is.

The theme of Fox News is that liberals are all evil and need to be stopped no matter what (themes don’t have to be true either).

Your plot gets all the attention. That’s where all the bells and whistles are. The car-crashes and explosions, the gun-fights, the tender embraces, the spaceships, the naked ladies. But your theme is what your screenplay is really about. The theme is where the heart is. The theme is the undercurrent that runs beneath everything else. That’s your true story. It’s where your movie gets its depth and staying-power. Don’t neglect your theme.


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