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Screenplay Theme: 3 Superb Ways to Express Your Script's Message

How to Show Your Screenplay's Theme in 3 Different Areas and Let the Audience Know What It's REALLY About

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by Script Reader Pro in How to Write a Screenplay
October 19, 2010 10 comments
movie themes

Screenplay Theme: 3 Superb Ways to Express Your Script’s Message

Do you struggle with expressing the underlying core message of your script? Aspiring screenwriters are often aware it’s kinda important that their script has a theme, but are not quite sure how to make it come across.

In this post, we’re going to demystify the confusion about screenplay theme and show you exactly how you can express it in your script using three different methods. But first…

What Exactly Is a Screenplay Theme?

Put simply, the theme in a screenplay is the writer’s point of view that they wish to express about a specific aspect of a specific subject. Whether that’s love, money, human nature, or whatever.

For example, in When Harry Met Sally, the theme is not just ”love” but the dramatic question: Can men and women ever just be just friends?

The writer’s personal answer to this question forms the basis of the screenplay theme. In this case, that men and women can’t be friends—as shown by the climax when Harry and Sally finally become a couple.

You may have heard that a screenplay theme can be expressed in many different ways, such as through imagery, setting, etc. But these explanations are usually very vague.

So, here are the three most powerful ways to include a script theme in your screenplay.

Best Screenplays To Read

Screenplay Theme Method #1: Express it Through Your Characters’ Actions

When learning how to express a screenplay theme through characters, it’s important to first understand that the three most important ones are the protagonist, antagonist and stakes character.

Each character represents a side of the writer’s argument and, therefore, the screenplay theme.

♦  The protagonist represents the “unknown” side of the writer’s argument, the side that still has to make up their mind.

♦  The antagonist represents the “bad” side of the argument.

  The stakes character (often the love interest) represents the “good” side of the argument.

Throughout the film, it’s up to the protagonist to choose which side of the thematic argument he or she wishes to fall on.

Then, at the Climax, either the antagonist or the stakes character prevails, winning the thematic argument.

Screenplay Theme Example: Fargo

Fargo’s theme can be expressed in the argument: “Is money necessary to be happy?” If we apply the above formula using each character as an expression of the screenplay theme, it breaks down like this:

  Jerry is the protagonist.

  The kidnappers, Carl and Gaear are the antagonists.

  The policewoman, Marge, is the stakes character: the only character who already knows the answer to the thematic question.

With Marge’s simple outlook on life and uneventful but cozy marriage, Marge represents the argument, “No, money is not necessary to be happy.” And all the unnecessary carnage in the film backs up her point of view.

At the end, the Carl and Gaear are either captured or killed and the protagonist, Jerry, also loses when he is caught. Again, this backs up the stakes character’s side of the argument.

Overall, however, the protagonist is the most important character in the script. This is because they’re the one who usually changes the most, which they do by learning the lesson of the theme.

Screenplay Theme Method #2: Express It Through Dialogue

The second most powerful way to express a screenplay theme is through its dialogue. This is usually done by having one, or all, of the three main characters—the protagonist, antagonist and stakes character—express their opinion on the theme at some point in the story.

(However, it’s important not to go overboard and let your characters talk and talk about the theme, or their dialogue will feel unnatural.)

Let’s use Fargo again as an example. Right after the Climax, Marge, having just arrested Gaear, asks him if all the killing was worth it “just for a bit of money.” The theme that money is not necessary to be happy is stated like this at key moments throughout the movie.

3. Expressing Your Script Theme Through Objects

Here’s a slightly more advanced screenwriting tip on how to convey a screenplay theme: Give your protagonist an object that they carry around or identify with which symbolizes themselves and/or their struggle through the movie.

Think of this object as a visual motif. It can be anything you like, from a necklace to a burrito, and should be highlighted in selected scenes as a symbol of growth and therefore the theme.

For example, at the start of the Dramedy, Lonesome Jim, Jim (Casey Affleck) arrives at his parents’ house, depressed having run out of money. As they fuss around him, he tearfully asks for some water.

Then, throughout the film, there are several key references to Jim and water, as he rebuffs the local nurse Anika (Liv Tyler) while waiting to leave town.

Significantly, in the last scene, [spoiler alert!] having decided to stay and make a go of his relationship with Anika, her son gives him a bottle of water and we see him, for the first time, drinking heartily.

In other words, the thematic object for Jim in this film is water, which represents his “life force” or “spiritual energy.” In the beginning, his dehydration symbolizes his “emotional dehydration.” He’s worn out, physically, mentally and emotionally.

But when he drinks the water at the end, thematically this is saying he’s been “revitalized” by making the right choice in life.

Adding a symbolic object to your protagonist’s world, like Jim’s water, or Ryan Bingham’s suitcase in Up in the Air adds an extra thematic layer to your script.

Of course, these kinds of thematic details are usually added after quite a few drafts when your screenplay is beginning to really take shape.

Expressing a Screenplay Theme: Conclusion

Overall, when considering your script theme, it makes things much easier to think of the theme as a tug of war between three opposing points of view on the same subject. And at the Climax, the winner is the writer’s own personal point of view.

Setting it up this way should give your script a clearer direction theme-wise, and make it easier to drop in the extra nuggets of thematic dialogue and objects that will elevate it above the competition.

We recommend you start considering your screenplay theme soon after writing your concept and logline. It could save you a lot of work further on down the line, as you can only make your characters act a certain way once you know why they’re acting that way.

In other words, once you know what their opinion is on the script’s theme.

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What do you think of these three ways of expressing a screenplay theme? How do you get across what your script’s really about thematically? Let us know in the comments section below.

And don’t forget, we go into much more detail in de-mystifying screenwriting theme in our new online screenwriting course, ScriptHackr.

screenplay theme

10 Comments
  1. tlg says:

    thanks to script reader pro for a information

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome 🙂

  2. tlg says:

    thanks to scriptreaderpro for information

  3. Thomas says:

    This really helps with theme thanks a lot! 🙂

  4. Milan 1899 says:

    You have some nice thoughts in here on theeme. Any way keeep up wrinting.

  5. Jared Hall says:

    This makes sense. I will apply this to my next draft that I’m starting on next month.

  6. Mo says:

    I’m loving this site so much. My #1 screenwriting resource from now on for sure.

  7. mark says:

    This is great! Really enjoying the Script Hackr course by the way- I’ve been writing for a few years, but am learning nuggets that are plugging holes in my technique I was not even aware I had. Thank you!!!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s great to hear, Mark! Let us know if you have any questions about the course.

  8. Thomas Mazzola says:

    I’m pretty clear on my theme – finding closure with an ambiguous loss. My protagonist refuses to give up in his pursuit for answers in the disappearance of his younger brother due to a catastrophic natural calamity, while those around him, his love ones, want only to move on with the healing process without knowing the facts involved with the disappearance, thinking they are undiscoverable. This manifests also as an inner conflict for the protagonist, as possible explanations for the disappearance become deep seated fears which are supported by antagonistic characters. The stakes builder is Mother Nature herself who as the cause of the disappearance, threatens and create obstacles the protagonist must overcome in his quest for answers.
    Does this sound like a clear script theme as explained in the post?

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