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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 Concept, Story and Theme
October 19, 2010 68 comments
screenplay theme

Aspiring screenwriters are usually aware they need a screenplay theme but don’t know how to express it…

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

What is a script theme?

Put simply, the theme in a screenplay is a dramatic question. It’s the writer’s point of view that they wish to express about 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 screenplay theme. In this case, that men and women can’t be friends, which is shown at 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. Maybe through imagery, dialogue, setting, etc. But these explanations are usually pretty  vague.

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

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 and 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.

The theme to Fargo 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

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 making each of the three main characters—the protagonist, antagonist and stakes character—express their opinion on the theme.

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 asks Gaear 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. Screenplay theme method #3: Express it 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 and/or identify with. This should symbolize themselves and/or their struggle through the movie.

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

[Spoiler alert!In the last scene, having decided to stay and make a go of his relationship with Anika, her son gives him a bottle of water. We then see him drink heartily for the very first time.

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 movie, his dehydration symbolizes his “emotional dehydration.” He’s worn out, physically, mentally and emotionally.

But when he drinks the water at the end, this is an expression of the screenplay theme saying he’s been “revitalized” by finally 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 layer to your script theme.

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

Expressing a script theme: conclusion.

When considering your screenplay 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 screenplay theme a clearer direction. It should make it easier to drop in the extra nuggets of thematic dialogue and objects that elevate the script 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. This is because 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.

screenplay theme

Enjoyed this post? Read more about theme and how to write a script…

Character Arc: The Secret Sauce to Demonstrating Your Hero’s Growth

How to Write a Screenplay: The Secret to Elevating It Above the Ordinary

16 Essential Screenwriting Tips to Make Your Script Stand Above the Rest

[© Photo credits: Unsplash]

68 Comments
  1. Nicholas Franghias says:

    Great information..thank you for sharing this approach. I do not disagree.. I stand somewhere in the middle – I hope this doesn’t make me sound “lukewarm.” I do not feel a film should be approached as an “essay.” A story is a STORY and there are many themes there, especially in film biographies. What is the the theme in The Sound of Music?

  2. Hura says:

    Good article, my theme is not stated by any character, but as the story evolves it becomes obvious that ‘you can’t trust big brother’.

  3. Joy says:

    Should I follow this example for a TV Pilot?
    Thank you!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, you can use the broad strokes of it but it depends what kind of show you’re writing. We always recommend studying the kinds of shows you want to write with the protagonist/antagonist/stakes at the forefront of your mind.

  4. William Whiteford says:

    Scientifically, a theme is a thesis to be proved by a screenwriter by using her/his characters, images, and dialogs.
    THANKS.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Well put, thanks William!

  5. Jacinta says:

    YOU GUYS ARE THE BEST! You are helping a lot of writers become better at writing. Thank you so much for your generosity. When I see movies now I am watching and spotting all this little nuggets that I didn’t realize before. God bless you!
    MOVIE: SOMETHING NEW.
    Theme: Love has no color.
    Protagonist: Kenya – Single Black Women wants a good Black Man
    “I want a brother with a good job and all his teeth.”
    But she has no color in her life, red roses are too loud and her apartment is all beige.
    Antagonist: Joyce (Kenya’s mom) who forced her belief on Kenya that bright colors are for whores wants Kenya to find a good, successful Black Man.
    Stakes Character: Brian – Single White Male meets Kenya during a blind date, likes her, but she rejects him.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Jacinta! Your triangle of conflict is looking good 🙂

  6. oscar julian lopez rincon says:

    good-job, guys!!!

  7. Robb Edward Morris says:

    Well stated.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Robb!

  8. Boris says:

    Great article! But what if there isnt a good or bad side to the themes argument?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Good question 🙂 Most movies, however, come down on one side or the other of the fence. That’s the purpose behind their “thematic argument.”

  9. Alan says:

    Thanks for posting this, given me a lot to think about my script’s theme

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Good stuff 🙂

  10. Kitty says:

    Grateful for this. Already knew about expressing themes through characters and dialogue, however I never considered expressing it through objects – a new one for me to try. Thank you!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Kitty – look out for how an object expresses the theme in films as you watch them.

  11. Thembalethu says:

    Thank you SRP, with your help I can see myself becoming a great writer someday.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for reaching out, Thembalethu, best of luck!

  12. Annette says:

    Very clear and nice way of explaining this. My theme is slowly coming together in mind now so thank you.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s great, thanks Annette!

  13. Ultra V. says:

    Thanks for the tip about the symbolic object. I have been wondering how to include it in my story. I think the key word for me is ‘layers’. Writing a screen play is like recording music. Each element or instrument it layered into the track separately . This is what gives it complexity and allows for the attention to detail that makes a truly great composition.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks – that’s a great analogy.

  14. Eric Shanklin says:

    I would draw the line on saying every script needs a theme. You analysis works but is not universal. other situations may arise where the hero has no change and learns nothing from the story.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re right, no all protagonists learn anything or change. Utilizing a theme is a general best practice when writing though.

  15. JC Corrola says:

    I have always struggled with theme the most ,it is the hardest part of writing for me for sure.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad it helped, thanks for commenting.

  16. Jessica says:

    I really like this breakdown and Fargo is one of my favourite movies so this really resonated with me.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Jessica! Glad you enjoyed it.

  17. barb walker says:

    Can you guys give me an example of theme from a fantasy and sci fi movie which is none potter or tolkien ? i am workign ona fantasy script and am not sure how toe xpress the theme in afantasy setting

  18. Jim Kelly says:

    Been looking for an article on theme like this FOREVER. Thanks!!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Jim!

  19. Patricia Faithfull says:

    Awesome description and actionable advice! Thank you

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Patricia!

  20. Nina Maher says:

    How do I add theme, before I start writing or after?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      We say it’s best to start thinking about your theme before you start the script, but many pro writers let it evolve over several drafts. It’s really all about finding what works best for you.

  21. gautam ved says:

    Whenever I write with my director, we end up putting the theme so – in your face, that it’s shameful. Thanks to this article, i know how to put across our theme, without being preachy. To be honest, we have applied all the three techniques you suggested, but we have gone overboard with it in order to explain our theme. Thanks for this article. Would love to read more around themes. How different writers have written and how directors have conveyed it in the final film. It would be great if you guys can share something giving more examples of various films of different genres. Thanks a lot for this article and i am happy to have subscribed scriptreaderpero

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s great to hear, Gautam, and thanks for reaching out! We’ll be posting more articles about theme for sure.

  22. Val Kilmer says:

    What;’s the theme in Batman Begins?

  23. Josh Thomas says:

    Does anyone know where I can find the themes to movies? Like written out in a list of each movie?

  24. Carl Miller says:

    Just what I needed. My script’s theme is the hardest part always but this really helps. Kudos guys!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad it helped, Carl!

  25. William says:

    “Little Fockers”, a sequel to Meet the Parents”, (Director Paul Weitz, starring Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, and the Others, 2010), applies all the three discussed methods to express the movie’s theme: shaping the family relations towards more democratic relations. For that reason, this comedy is so homogenous and impressive at the same time.
    ANDREW’S solution (as above): “leave a conclusion to the reader/viewer” was discovered by the expressionism in the 1920s.
    With my MANY THANKS to SCRIPT READER PRO for THEIR FANTASTIC JOB.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      What a great comment! Thanks William you’re spot on.

  26. Alice Cak says:

    How do I ad a theme?

  27. Chamak says:

    signs you have a great theme: it resonates with the audience and leaves them with something to think about after seeing the movie.

  28. Reginald Hoss says:

    I have an amazing movie. Contact me, and see what we can do together Script Writer Pro!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      We’re not a production company.

  29. Jason says:

    I am sure this has been asked before but what’s the theme to The Big Lebowski?

  30. 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?

  31. Julius Goodson says:

    I really like what you have done here to make theme easier to add to a screenplay. Keep it up!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Julius!

  32. Ardell Thomas says:

    This is excellent. I wanted to know about theme so bad and didn’t know who to ask.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad you found it helpful!

  33. Leroy Dotson says:

    Is there any way I can call you to talk about my screenplay theme?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      We have a Skype Call service if you’d like to chat with one of our readers. Thanks.

  34. Andrew says:

    Hi, I have already done the examples given. My issue isn’t the start or the middle it’s the end. The way my story is moving I get the feeling it shouldn’t have an end. The conclusion should be left for the reader to decide. It’s finding the right direction and point to end the story with out really giving the reader the satisfaction of judging the end rather force the reader to come to their own ending. Bring the reader into the story as if the reader is on the jury deciding on which chapter is being honest and or trustworthy and the villain the opportunity to find themselves or forever be lost.
    That is where I am and why I need time to decide how to word it so everyone (reader) is pulled into the story.

  35. 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.

  36. Mo says:

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

  37. Jared Hall says:

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

  38. Milan 1899 says:

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

  39. Thomas says:

    This really helps with theme thanks a lot! 🙂

  40. tlg says:

    thanks to scriptreaderpro for information

    1. LEE BRUCE says:

      I am an advocate and disciple of Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” book. He places great emphasis on the logline, and the theme, amongst many other items in his BS-2 explanations. As a result of his emphasis on the logline, I have re-written it three times now and it is getting closer to exposing the theme for me. This article is a great multiplier in learning this screenwriting business of which, by the way, I am enjoying immensely . Please continue with the Script Reader Pro series. They are very beneficial to me and I am sure others agree.
      Cheers,
      Lee

      1. Script Reader Pro says:

        Yes, the Save the Cat series are great on theme. Thanks for the shoutout!

  41. tlg says:

    thanks to script reader pro for a information

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome 🙂

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