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Screenplay Theme De-mystified

The 3 Ways To Show The Theme In Your Script

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

How do you best express a script theme? This is often one of the most difficult aspects for a writer to master. It’s also an essential aspect as it gives a script added depth and broader appeal.

In this post we’re going to demystify some of the confusion surrounding a screenplay theme and discuss the best way to approach it in your script.

Firstly, what exactly is a script theme?

In simple terms the theme is the writer’s point of view that they wish to express about a specific aspect of a specific subject, whether it’s love, money, greed, etc.

For example, in When Harry Met Sally, the theme is not just ”love,” but the question of whether men and women can ever just be just friends. The writer’s personal interpretation then forms the basis of the theme: that they cannot (at least if they’re physically attracted to each other like Harry and Sally).

A script theme can be expressed many different ways—through imagery, setting, etc. but here are three powerful ways to include it: character actions, dialogue and objects.

1. How To Show A Script Theme Through Your Characters’ Actions

The protagonist is the most important character in your script, and they represent the character who needs to change the most by learning the lesson of the 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 he or she wishes to fall on.

At the climax, either the antagonist or the stakes character prevails, winning the thematic argument.

Best Screenplays To Read

Characters’ expression of theme in Fargo

Fargo’s theme can be expressed in the argument: “Is money necessary to be happy?

  • Jerry is the protagonist.
  • The kidnappers, Carl and Gaear are the antagonists.
  • The police woman, 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 backing up the stakes character’s side of the argument.

2. Showing Screenplay Theme Through Dialogue

Of course, it’s important to also express the theme through other means, like dialogue.

Right after the climax, in Fargo, Marge, having just arrested the psychopathic 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 in the script.

3. Expressing Your Script Theme Through Objects

screenplay theme

Here’s a slightly more advanced screenwriting tip on how to convey your script’s theme:

Give your hero an object that they carry around or identify with which symbolizes themselves and/or their struggle through the movie.

This object — a visual motif — whether it’s an iPhone or a flower — can be highlighted in certain scenes as a symbol of their growth and therefore the theme.

At the start of the film Lonesome Jim, Jim arrives at his parent’s house depressed having run out of money and nowhere else to go. As they fuss around him, he tearfully asks for some water.

Throughout the film there are a few key references to Jim and water as he rebuffs local nurse Anika 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.”

At the beginning of the film, his dehydration symbolizes his “emotional de-hydration.” He’s worn out, physically, mentally and emotionally. 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 kind of thematic details are usually added after a few drafts when your screenplay is beginning to really take shape.

Try it out. Give your protagonist a visual motif which can represent their emotional state throughout the course of the film and watch your script pull away from the pack.

Weaving a Script Theme Into Your Story: Conclusion

Overall, though, when considering your script theme, it makes things much easier to think of the theme as a tug of war between two opposing points of view on the same subject between the antagonist and the stakes character. And the winner, at the climax, 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 required nuggets of thematic dialogue and images.

After writing your concept and logline, really have a think the script theme. It will save you so much work further on down the line.

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We go into much more detail in de-mystifiying 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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