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.