Recently I was thinking about some of my favorite films and trying to figure out what it is about them that I connect with, as many of the films that have influenced me are very different in terms of genre and style. What I realized was that the common denominator between any film that really spoke to me was the presence of a clear and identifiable theme that was seamlessly woven in to the narrative. While theme is undeniably one of the most important facets of the filmmaking process (especially during the writing stage), it is also one of the most overlooked, especially with independent films. Throughout this article I’ll not only highlight why theme is critical to the success of your film, but will also get into some simple techniques for figuring out the true theme of your story.
What Is Theme?
On a basic level, I would describe the theme of a film (or any story for that matter) as the main subject or idea that is manifested by the story, plot and characters. So for instance in a survival story, one of the main themes might be man vs. nature. Theme is something that will exist in your writing whether you are trying to include it or not, as it is simply a part of human nature when story telling. Much like how you can identify three acts in just about any story (even those using an anti-plot structure), you can identify themes in any story – whether they were intended to be there or not. Themes play a large role in connecting your audience to your story, so if you aren’t consciously thinking about theme and trying to weave it into your film, you are missing an opportunity to strengthen and focus your film so that your audience can identify with it more effectively.
The Creative Process
In my opinion, you really only need to focus on one primary theme at any given part of the creative process. This theme will change as your story evolves, but regardless of how it changes, it’s important to remain focused on a singular primary theme (especially in the earlier stages), as it’s easy to get sidetracked with sub-themes that will start to appear to you throughout the writing process. If you have one really great theme that can penetrate every scene in your film, it’s always better than having five or six smaller themes that aren’t as clear to the audience and that can become muddled.
Before you write your script, or even your story outline for that matter, take some time to figure out what it is that’s motivating you to pursue the idea. Don’t rush this process as it’s one of the most important stages in the writing phase in my opinion, and it will be a continual source of motivation and inspiration as you navigate through your screenplay later on. When you’ve finally put your finger on exactly what it is you’re trying to say with your film, you’ll inevitably be touching on a major theme within your story. From there, you just need to put it down on paper and make sure it’s at the forefront of your mind during the next stage.
After identifying your primary theme on a basic level, I would recommend jumping into writing an outline as soon as possible. First drafts of outlines are most productive when they are treated like free association exercises, as they are going to change many times before they’re finished, so the purpose of the first draft is just to get something on paper that can later be reshaped. This same principle applies to identifying the theme within your story as well. For example you can start out with a fairly generic theme like ‘love conquers all’, which will give you a clear enough point of view to write the first draft of your outline with. And once you complete that first draft, it should be relatively easy to read it back in it’s entirety to see how your intended theme fits into the narrative. If it is clearly present throughout the outline, you’ve definitely hit on an identifiable theme that you are connecting with creatively, but on the other hand, if it doesn’t feel like it’s showing up on the page as much as it should, you might want to rethink your theme entirely. Look at your draft and take note of the ideas that are recurring (subtly or overtly) and chances are your true theme is just buried a bit beneath the surface.
When you’re confident enough with your outline and theme, you’ll want to jump into the screenplay itself. Just like the process I described above with regards to your outline, you’ll once again want to have your theme at the forefront of your process, and ideally you’ll move through first draft quickly. Everyone writes at a different pace, so do whats comfortable for you, but when it comes to theme, I find a general rule of thumb is not to overthink it at any stage and to just let it naturally come out in your writing. Most of the intellectual heavy lifting up until this point will have been done during the outline phase, so try to write fluidly without over analyzing your work as you go.
After your script starts to really take shape and you’re a few drafts in, once again you’ll want to reassess your theme before doing a final polish. After taking some time away from your screenplay, try to read it with fresh eyes and identify how prominent your theme is, and whether or not there are any conflicting themes that are now more relevant. If the latter is the case, during your polish draft it will be crucial that you refocus some of your scenes, dialogue, or imagery to correlate with the newly identified theme.
One of the screenplays that I wrote last year started out the the ‘love conquers all’ theme that I described above, but by the time I was a few drafts in, it didn’t work anymore. Plot points had changed, and the ending created a very different meaning for the story on a metaphorical level, which rendered the initial theme obsolete and also made some of the scenes leading up to the ending feel less connected to the later scenes in the film as they no longer shared any common ground. When I revised the script to it’s most recent draft, I switched the theme to ‘blood is thicker than water’, which helped drastically. None of the scenes in themselves did a 180, but there were a lot of subtle changes that collectively made the screenplay feel more consistent and focused. I was able to write nuances into the dialogue and scene descriptions that gave the script that extra bit of something that made it feel more unique and identifiable.
There’s no question that theme gets most of it’s attention during the writing stage, but if you are also planning to produce or direct your script, you need to make sure that your theme is always on your mind when shooting and editing as well. Giving direction to your actors, DP, composer, editor, and other collaborators, will be a lot easier when you have a strong theme as an anchor point that they can understand as well. In a previous article I wrote about finding your point of view as a director, and in many respects I think the concept of theme goes hand in hand with finding your POV, as the two are certainly not mutually exclusive.