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.

15 thoughts on “BUT I HAVE A THEME!?”

  1. Here’s a question that may go to disrupt the proceedings herein: What’s the difference, if any, between the theme of a given work and a theme that runs throughout a writer’s work? For example, Stephen King’s theme throughout his work is horror in every day life. But the theme throughout his work are the themes of Life and Death.

  2. James –

    You are correct that the overall theme of a writer’s body of work usually relates to the individual themes he writes about in specific stories. However, themes for individual stories tend to be more specific than the broad themes that define a career. Specific story themes tend to explore one particular aspect of the broader themes that define a career.

    In the case of Stephen King, he doesn’t particularly concern himself with theme. (See his book “On Writing” where he essentially dismisses theme.) Because he does not focus on theme, his story specific themes are usually no more specific than his overall theme – “horror in everyday life.” Because the stories are not focused on a theme, his stories tend to wander, at least the novel length ones, and they tend to be difficult to adapt into movies. The most successful adaptation, “The Shining”, took substantial criticism from his fans because it omitted so much of his original story in order to focus itself more tightly around a theme.

    A good theme for an individual story is more specific than “horror in everyday life.” A good theme should imply a moral dilemma. For example, “How can a person behave civilly with so much horror in everyday life?” That suggests a story with development and a resolution.

  3. I know this is a blog about writing for the big screen, not the small one in the corner of the living-room, but theme is important in writing for television too — maybe more so, in fact.

    A film, and the screenplay that precedes it, usually has one single protagonist, and tells one story (so the theme should be pretty clear). An episode of tv series — ER, CSI, whatever — may tell two or three stories, and have several protagonists, regulars and guests. In these circumstances theme really *is* important, because it can bind these disparate stories together, give them a unity that makes the episode more coherent, and therefore more satisfying.

    The theme may not be obvious. It may only be known by the writer of the episode. It may even get lost along the way, shoved aside by the demands made by the stories themselves, and the vagaries of writing for series television (editors and producers generally don’t give a toss about theme). But at some point in the process — somewhere between treatment stage and third draft script — asking a few questions about theme (what is my theme here? do I have one? how does it run through and illuminate the various stories? how can I use it ?) can be envigorating and liberating.

  4. True. TV, film, it all requires consideration of theme. A few shows are even built on the anticipation of the cleverness with which they handle their themes – e.g. “West Wing” (especially in the Aaron Sorkin era) which follows many characters and storylines throughout the hour, all exploring different aspects of the week’s theme. Even sit-coms often use theme as a basis to organize each episode, although usually in a fairly superficial way. We know the half-hour is over when the character has a self-revelation that resolves the thematic issue, allowing the character to take whatever action he or she needs to in order to restore the order of his or her world.

  5. I have been reading the interesting mails and/or comments on your site about theme(s).
    I arrived here trying to follow options from a search engine trying to locate info on themes in horror film and/or literature. Many sites or articles mention “repetetive themes” in horror films/literature, but they don’t list them or tell you what those themes are. Do you know where I can find a list or at least some common themes in horror movies and/or literature and maybe examples of works those specific themes are found in?
    Thanks– Art

  6. Art –

    I do not know of such a list. However, one screenwriting teacher, John Truby, suggests that horror films are built on the following themes:

    – the inhuman trying to be human (which I would call, what it means to be human). (E.g. “King Kong”)
    – fear of losing control (E.G. “Dr. Jeckyl & Mr. Hyde”)
    – fear of losing identity, individuality (e.g. “Invasion of The Body Snatchers”)
    – what is human and what is monster (E.g. “Frankenstein” where the people act more like monsters than the monster)

    I would add another common theme:

    – punishment of sin (E.G. “Friday The 13th”)

    Hope this helps.

  7. PS

    Any idea of what a theme would be in a film like Anaconda or Jaws— the monster animal which is not trying to be human– in fact it–they want to destory humans. Anything to do with man and nature?

    Thanks Again– Art

  8. This is just an initial thought, but it sounds like those first themes come from the perspective of the antagonist. With something like “Anaconda” or “Jaws,” it seems the theme could be more in line with something you’d see in straight drama and from the POV of the protagonists/victims. With “Jaws,” there’s an awful lot about community and/or family: Brody and his family, the effect of the shark on the town, how it takes three people working together to get the job done.

    I haven’t seen “Anaconda,” so the only educated guess I could make would be “Don’t anger the giant snakes.”

  9. There are lots of ways to analyze theme in existing pictures depending on your purpose and both Jim and Art are correct about some of the ways to look at some of them.

    As a writer, your purpose is to consider theme from the perspective of how you can use it to focus your script and drive a powerful story forward. That usually means coming up with a strong central theme that you can use to build scene ideas, characters and plot points. The idea is to focus. For most writers, thinking about too many themes at once during the writing process usually defeats this purpose. Picking a strong central theme that means something to you is the most likely way to focus your story.

  10. So where’s the most primal fear: Fear of the unknown? In the case of Jaws it plays on our fear that we don’t know what is out there in real life – there could be sharks; it could happen because the sea is a great unknown. Same with space-based terrors.

  11. What comes first? Theme or story idea? I read that Charlie Kaufman got the idea for writing “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” from a friend who asked him what if one day you recieved a letter saying that you have been erased from someone’s mind? I have some great ideas for scripts but I always get stumped when it comes to theme. I want to go beyond “good always wins out over evil.”

  12. Howdy just wanted to give you a quick heads up.
    The words in your post seem to be running off the screen in Chrome.
    I’m not sure if this is a format issue or something to do with browser compatibility but I thought I’d post to
    let you know. The layout look great though! Hope you get the problem resolved soon.
    Many thanks

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