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.

31 thoughts on “WHY BOTHER WITH THEME?”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. However, this is what makes this animal called screenwriting (or fiction writing in general) such a fleeting, mysterious, untamable beast. If you are too blatent on theme during your early drafts you’ll have a preachy trifle that no one wants to see. If you, as you indicated, forego thematic unity in favor of flash and “big opening weekend” theatrics, you have a pile of nothing on your hands at the end of the day. Go look at the current marquee of your local multiplex. Mostly a pile of nothing. On the bright side, when you find that holy balance and it works (mostly in spite of itself), that’s when that when “personal satisfaction” kicks in, making it all worthwhile.

    And, of course, since we’re such a self-critical bunch, this occurs with the same frequency of a solar eclipse or a winning season for the Milwaukee Brewers.

  2. I politely disagree with your thesis. Theme is important to good storytelling, but it isn’t everything. As to why “The Sixth Sense” and “The Terminal” didn’t get the traction and subsequent footing they should have had owes much to the PR and Marketing involved. Said departments didn’t know how to properly market them because they didn’t understand the story involved, respectively. In the case of “The Terminal” I’d say the story was about the triumph of the human spirit, which did not appear in the marketing. In the case of “The Sixth Sense” the story was about perception and how it changes throughout Life. Again, the PR and Marketing didn’t get this and didn’t market accordingly.

  3. James:

    You bring up a couple good points. Marketing does impact a film and, yes, I agree that marketing was weak on both “The Terminal” and “The Sixth Sense”. However, one of the pictures did incredibly well (“The Sixth Sense” with almost $300 million in domestic theatrical) and one of them did not (“The Terminal” with only $77 million domestic theatrical). Both films had similar budgets and great performances from A-level stars. In addition, the terminal had an A-level director. While marketing may account for some difference, I think story is the real difference.

    The filmmakers of “The Terminal” probably did think “triumph of the human spirit” was their theme and a lot of the picture focused on it – the better parts of the picture. But the difference is, much of it did not. As applied, the theme was so broad and vague it did not serve as the glue to hold it together. (My next post is going to be about that.) I’m not saying “The Terminal” did not have fans. It still churned $77 million. I am saying it would have reached more people and done better if the produced version of the script had been more tightly focused around its theme. I’m also saying that as screenwriters, especially screenwriters seeking to gain a foothold, theme is a critically important element.

  4. Superficially I’d say we’ve reached that point otherwise known as splitting hairs with a twenty-pound sledgehammer. As to “The Sixth Sense” I would argue it succeeded in spite of the marketing campaign. I often point to it as a prime example of success by way of word of mouth. As to “The Terminal” I will be among the first to admit I declined to see it initially when I found out it was yet another Steven Spielberg production, and given his politics of late I was turned off by the possible prospect of heavy-handed Political Correctness. When I did finally go to see it it was because it Part B of a Double-Bill at the discount second-run theater.

    Understand: I believe theme is important. But story should come first. And everything else should be structured around it.

  5. Theme in the abstract means nothing, obviously. But story that is not conceived around questions you (the writer) really care about, usually questions of universal human concern (i.e. theme) is empty, typically less engaging to an audience and less likely to make a lasting impression. It is also less likely to provide a first time writer with his or her break.

    For an emerging writer, focusing your story through theme is essential. It is obviously but one aspect of quality storytelling, but it is as important an element as character and structure. Ignore it at your peril….

    (By the way, James, I love a spirited debate. Thanks for speaking up.)

  6. No apologies. Spirited debate is a good thing. No one right way to tell a story. No one right set of ideas on how to tell stories. The key is to think about it (maybe spend your whole career thinking about it) and develop a clear personal story philosphy. Your comments only help us all see that.

  7. Hi everybody — Jon was kind enough to post a “shout-out” to my website and I’m really enjoying myself here, so I thought I’d post a bit. When I teach and I lecture about story, I always come home thinking “it’s all about story”, a week later, I may do the lecture on character and go to sleep thinking “I was wrong, it’s all character”…and then the same thing ALWAYS happens when I teach the “theme” class — and better men than I have said that character and story are inextricably linked — BUT —

    — aren’t all THREE, character, story AND theme bound together in one, one immense immutable thing we call…I don’t know…drama? Narrative? Movie? The Mimetic Experience? Try it this way:

    What is a “character” but what they do and what is what they do but the events of the “story”, and what guides what they do but their values, and what are their values but…the entree to “theme”?

    So, in a broad sense, every “theme” may be saying “it’s better to be this type of person…” — to be the type of person our character will be as s/he finishes the “character arc”, or better to overcome this “flaw”, or even that you MUST overcome the flaw or ultimately be destroyed by it…

    …so to say you might have a story w/out theme would be to say you’ll have one without characters…and then…how, and why have a story at all?

    So, story/character/theme…they’re inextricably bonded on a MOLECULAR level, the three protons at the nucleus of the narrative atom, without which…well, if you don’t have all three…it’s just something else entirely isn’t it?

    A few last thoughts on theme, gathered from much wiser than I:

    Even if you DON’T set out to write with a theme, you WILL have one…an audience searches rabidlly for meaning, and they WILL find it, even if you never meant it, so…you may as well make sure it’s one you feel comfortable supporting, so you should probably consider some work on theme, at least in the rewrite phase, where you can hone what you were instinctively groping for as you stumbled through your first draft.

    Sydney Pollack said in a lecture at USC: theme is like the wire under the clay in a beautiful sculpture, or the mold into which the bronze for a sculpture is poured… by the time the work is done, it may be invisible, even thrown away…BUT STILL, IT SHAPES EVERYTHING.

    Chris Soth

  8. I’m agree with you.

    I think “The Terminal” is an un-resolved movie because of the strange Third-Act-Syndrome of the Spielberg’s Dreamworks flicks.

    I think that in the recent years Spielberg – and Dreamworks productions in general – has done a strange use of the third act.

    Not only in movies like “A. I.” which presents a series of endings that make the real ending weak (also if the strong desire and the charachterization of the main character make the film very interesting and emotively well developed, IMHO) but also in movies like “Catch me if you can” and “The Terminal” itself, in which the third act seems to be un-related with the story narrated before… Tom Hanks finally catchs Leo Di Caprio and movie doesn’t end but continues to describe the changing of Leo Di Caprio’s way of thinking and universe of values. But is this part of the movie related with the movie theme?
    Let’s look at “The Terminal”: Tom Hank learns to accept and to love the value of waiting… waiting for something that seems to not have any particular importance… Because we can do memorable thing also in the “waiting part” of our lives… Ok, this is the theme.
    But in the final part of the movie, we see Tom Hanks out of the terminal (the climax is probably his exit from the airport) and the scope of his visit in America… He reaches his target, he manages to get the autograph of the jazz singer… This is in contradiction with the theme of the movie, imho.

    I think there is a confusion in theme, not properly a weak theme. And I believe that this is one of the cause of the weakness of the movie… (with also some parts very boring…)

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