DUCK SOUP GIFJim from Dallas, TX asks:

You’ve done a good deal of discussing theme and its importance, nay, necessity, in any script. What about the theme of a comedy? Are there thematic considerations to be made when writing a comedy or does theme remain the same and its execution change? Is there such a thing as a comedic theme?

The fact that I write mostly drama does not stop me from having an opinion about comedy. However, take this opinion for what it’s worth. In my opinion, there is no difference with respect to the need for and the formulation of theme in any genre. There may be certain themes common to specific genre, but mostly by practice rather than necessity.

Here are a few classic comedies and my interpretation of their themes. You can see the variety of themes the genre can accommodate:

“Duck Soup” (Marx Bros.) – make peace, not war.
“Airplane” (Zucker Bros.) – face your fears.
“Big Lebowsky” (Cohen Bros.) – It’s better to be honest even if you’re a schlemiel.
“There’s Something About Mary” (Farelly Bros) – Letting go is part of true love.
“Manhattan” (Wood Allen & Marshall Brickman – they’re as close as brothers, really) – You have to have faith in people.

A classic difference between comedy and other genre has been that comedies often involve characters that fail to learn anything about the theme and fail to grow in any way. However, these days, comedies are often essentially indistinguishable from dramas in terms of character development, structure and theme. The only real difference is that comedies are funny.

For more on theme in comedy, look at Artful Writer’s many entries on theme. Craig Mazin, who writes most of the entries over there, is an A-level comedy writer.


As most of you know, at The Thinking Writer, I think a lot about theme. In a review of Alex Epstein’s excellent book, “Crafty Screenwriting”, The Artful Writer has dredged up a debate over that all important element: theme. It is worth paying attention to. A-level writer Craig Mazin shares his insight.

Here’s a sampling of past entries from The Thinking Writer on theme:

Why Bother With Theme?
April 4, 2005

But I Have A Theme?
April 7, 2005

February 25, 2005


I had a long discussion with a fellow recently, a refugee from screenwriting. According to him, he graduated from college, worked hard for a number of years writing scripts, and networked his way deeply into the heart of Hollywood. Nevertheless, despite years of hard work, he couldn’t get arrested. Never sold anything; never got taken seriously as a writer. At the age of 37, he abandoned the effort, went to law school and became a lawyer, which is what he still does twenty years later. Now embittered, he expressed the opinion that Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Dante have already written better work than any screenwriter will ever do, so there’s no point in writing anything. He also said there are only five working screenwriters today who actually make a living. He couldn’t name any of them. It was a dark conversation with a man who is, in my opinion, a victim of his own mind. I left our meeting with a screaming headache. Unfortunately, the conversation stuck, not based on its merits, but in the same way that the image of Anthony Hopkins sticks – the one where he is eating Ray Liotta’s brain. It is unnecessarily disturbing without providing any possibility for constructive insight.

Ever since that unfortunate conversation, I’ve been feeling the need to reiterate why we write. I’m no Frank Capra, but I still have something to say.

In the thirties and forties under the studio system, writers fell into camps – socialists on one side and conservatives on the other. Despite studio wishes to the contrary, each camp worked hard to imbue their scripts with their core values. Because the resulting pictures set the archetypes, we often don’t realize what they stood for when they first came out. In its day, “Stagecoach” was highly subversive. “Sahara” was a very sneaky antiwar picture. “Casablanca” was an incredibly effective propaganda piece. Writing was an important extension of the social and political process.

Today, writers still fall into camps. Many of us just don’t realize it. Underneath each of our works lie arguments for core values. Competing values from competing writers. We don’t all agree – but we all agree that storytelling is our best means of argument. We want to make a difference.

And that, in a nutshell, is why we write.

Contrary views welcomed….


Give it a rest? I don’t think so. Here’s Wordplayer on theme.

P.S. If you don’t know the Wordplayer columns yet, you’re just not trying.

UPDATE: If you are having trouble accessing, please see the comment below from Wordplayer’s webmaster. There is an email address for you to contact wordplayer directly. Do not use the IP address that has been given out (unfortunately by me). Thanks.


This is part two of the last post on theme.

Okay, so now I’ve convinced you that you need to consider theme. I’ve told you that a story without theme is shallow, less likely to sell, less likely to be made into a movie and much less likely to get you noticed as a writer. So you go out and pick a theme. “Make peace not war.” That sounds good, universal, who could disagree with that?

Okay, now you’re ready to write, right?

Not so fast. Theme is not something you pluck out of the air then hang a story onto. Rather, theme is the result of a search, part of which often takes place during the work of creating your story rather than all up front. In developing your theme, you should consider a number of issues: What questions interest you enough to spend nine months exploring them? What type of story are you interested in telling? What elements of the story have you already begun to be interested in? How does the theme support the kind of story you want to tell? How does the theme suggest a complete personal experience for your lead?

Sometimes you will try to answer these questions in advance of outlining. Sometimes you will just play with the story and see how the theme emerges – then solidify it in your mind and hone the story. There is no one way to arrive at theme.

To make matters more complex, theme is defined differently by – well, by everyone. If you pick up six books on writing, look at how theme is defined in each. They are all different. If they happen to analyze the same picture, they will each frame the theme very differently. Which way is right? The answer is the one that helps you the most to clarify and focus your story. The purpose of theme is to help you organize your story around a core question or set of questions about human values that is important to you and that will engage an audience, reader, studio exec or producer at a deeper level than just the immediate cleverness or artfulness of your story execution.

So, we know theme has something to do with core human values. So, what’s wrong with “make peace not war”? Maybe nothing. It certainly reflects a core human value. But, for me, I prefer to consider themes that ask questions instead of answering them. This allows me to explore and have the characters explore different aspects of the question in conflict. No easy answers and the characters can disagree. I prefer a theme like “How far should a person go to preserve peace?” over “make peace not war.” It suggests a much more complex set of emotions and one immediately envisions many possible stories or a number of characters within the same story that each have different answers, answers which might be in conflict with one another and which reflect deeply held values.

To develop your story’s theme, look inside yourself to see what is important to you and what you have to say about it. Be willing to show both sides of the value issues. Be bold. Expose yourself. Your writing will be better for it.


Why struggle with the substantial complexities of organizing your story tightly around theme? It’s so much easier to write without it. Just string together some interesting moments, create an inciting incident, make sure you have escalating action and obstacles, and resolve everything with a clever twist. What could be easier? All you have to do is be inventive with your scenes and, bingo-presto, a movie, right?


Stories without theme are not stories. They rarely keep audiences in their seats. They wander and get lost. They do not get good word-of-mouth (that all important factor which drives box-office and makes writers’ careers).

How many times have you heard – “It was good until the ending, but…”? That’s because the end was not thematically tied in. The film either failed to develop the theme strongly enough or lost the theme somewhere along the line. Theme is the glue that allows an audience to invest in the story, to feel that the story is in any way important, to respond emotionally to the story in any authentic, lasting way. Theme is the element that, if executed properly, makes audiences want to see the film again and want to have all their friends see the film to experience what they experienced. No other element, no matter how sound, can do that. The biggest spectacles fail to drive that kind of emotional response and expanding interest without strong theme.

Here – it’s easy to see by example:

“Titanic” – strong theme: How do you face inevitable death? It was compelling enough to hold a three hour movie together, to serve as a glue for many moments that would have otherwise been extremely episodic, and to get audiences in to see the film two or three times. Sure, Leonardo intrigued the high school girls, but they did not go to see him repeatedly in his next picture. There was something about “Titanic” that audiences found compelling. The compelling element was a well-developed theme. It made up for numerous other writing and filmmaking sins.

“The Terminal” – weak theme: something about persevering over bureaucrats and being true to yourself and getting into America (for an hour and then leaving), I think???? Despite excellent performances from Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta Jones and the skilled directing of Stephen Spielberg, the picture was not very popular. Why? Absence of strong theme. The picture had great characters, escalating complications and clever resolutions. It still wandered and lost its audience. The various subplots had little to unify them and provided no real emotional impact to the audience. (Why was the putative love story even in there?) The picture had no real word-of-mouth because it had no strong, well-developed theme.

“The Sixth Sense” – strong theme: you must learn to listen openly to reach others. The theme is handled with more subtlety than most pictures. Yet, it is present in every moment; it is the strong glue that holds the story together, and it is very effective. Malcolm failed to listen openly to his first patient, the one who shoots him. Cole does not listen openly to the ghosts. Malcolm does not listen openly to Cole. Cole is afraid his mother will not listen openly to him – so he does not tell her his secret. Malcolm does not listen openly to his wife (he believes she has lost faith in him, but when he finally listens, he realizes she is grieving his death.) When each character learns to listen openly, each character resolves his problem. Yes, the story had a great twist at the end, but what made the twist great is the strong, unified story that led up to it and the fact that the twist was a natural extension of the theme: Malcolm was not listening even to himself or his environment – he did not know he was dead. Once he learned to listen openly, he discovered the truth.

Get it? Good. Go write.


If staring at my pages were an Olympic event, I’d win. Right now, I’m thinking about my characters – their very conception. True, for me, the focal point of the script is the story as a whole and how it explores the related questions that interest me (a/k/a the theme). Like Aaron Sorkin, Gary Ross and many others, I organize my scripts around ideas that I hope are important, a set of ideas to bind all the scenes together.

That doesn’t mean I can ignore the characters. A common note every writer receives at some point is, “Your characters need more development,” or “They don’t seem real.” The development exec doesn’t really mean what she says. It’s not her fault; she isn’t a writer. What she means is, your characters must involve the audience. If the audience (which may be the reader in the case of a spec script) is not involved in the characters – the story is not working, pure and simple.

So, aside from organizing the story to explore a set of ideas that matter (and that is no small aside), how do I get the audience involved in my characters. That’s where the text and subtext ideas come in. “Text” is the literal meaning of the words on the page. “Subtext” is what the words really mean. If they are one and the same, the audience is bored.

The central concept I use to draw life into the words – to add subtext to the text (e.g. to make the words mean something other than what they literally say) is this: Continue reading “TEXT VS. SUBTEXT, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH…”


It’s late. I’m at the keyboard re-reading the damn pages, again, and thinking about theme, again. The questions I always face from beginning to end are “Why write this script?”, “Is it exploring questions worth exploring?” and most importantly, “Does each and every scene really further the exploration of the theme?” As if that’s not enough, I also worry about whether the story is entertaining while making this serious exploration, whether the characters are interesting enough, and whether anyone else will be interested in the questions the story asks.

After years of working on creatiing interesting characters, I’ve finally decided I don’t give a damn. When a development exec says, “You need character development,” he or she really means, “The story is just not that interesting.”

Somewhere on the old website, I posted some pretty good articles on the psychology of character. I put a lot of serious thought into how to conceive characters that are built on internal conflict from the ground up. I’ll post these articles again one day, but what I’ve come to realize is that the psychology of a character doesn’t matter at all if what the character is up to doesn’t matter. Is my character facing a struggle that asks a question that I think is important? If not, I’m wasting my time.

So how the hell do I know whether my theme is good enough? The only answer I’ve ever come up with is that if it reaches me, if I look at what really matters to me, if I get it on the page through dramatic action without ever preaching it, then it’s worth writing. Not only can’t I tell what will be important to a particular exec, I can’t write it if it means nothing to me. It’s too hard. I don’t want to be vacuous. Contrary to popular belief, execs are not stupid. They know when you don’t care; it shows up on the page.

There’s a lot to say about theme and I’ll get around to saying it. Just not tonight. I need to read the damn pages again.